After the February Revolution toppled the Tsar’s dictatorship, workers wanted to use their new political freedoms to improve their lives.
Trade unions—previously just a few small and persecuted organisations—saw explosive growth, initially far more so than political parties.
By April the Petrograd metal workers’ union had gone from almost nothing to 50,000 members, and would almost triple that over the summer.
In June 1917 there were 1.4 million union members across Russia in nearly 1,000 unions.
By October there were about two million union members in 2,000 unions—10 percent of wage earners.
But unions weren’t the only organisations workers were developing. In February workers set up committees in their factories—answerable to the whole workforce through mass general meetings.
Some 2,151 such committees were counted in 1917. Delegates from them formed city-wide “soviets” or workers’ councils whose authority rivalled that of the state.
The most important economic gain for workers in Petrograd, the eight hour day, didn’t come from unions at all.
Factory committees imposed it through direct action, and the Soviet proclaimed it a binding norm.
Unions grew out of strikes for wages as spiralling inflation sapped living standards.
Low paid and unskilled workers flooded into the unions, and led strikes whose demands included equal pay for women.
The tradition of craft unionism—workers organising separately according to their profession, sector or grade—was far weaker in Russia than in early Western unions.
The influence of bureaucracy was weaker too.
So when workers took action it was without the moderating influence of a union apparatus of salaried, full time officials.
Events sharpened the question of who could run society, the government or the workers. This polarised unions
By summer 1917 the metal workers’ union had more than 100 full time employees.
Many came straight from the shop floor, and most were dedicated socialists. Yet they now had funds to look after—and an organisation defined by mediating between workers and bosses.
A major early victory was forcing bosses to accept some collective pay bargaining.
But this put the unions in the position of selling compromises to workers.
And it revived tensions between sectors, as some were expected to accept lower increases to keep the collective deal.
Many bosses used closures and mass sackings to cut their losses and to undermine the left wing government.
Only workers’ control could stop this economic sabotage. Yet the government sought to limit moves in this direction to uphold bosses’ “right to manage”.
Bosses repaid it with a coup attempt in August by right wing army chief Lavr Kornilov.
The Petrograd unions armed workers and helped organise the city’s defence. The Vikzhel railway union coordinated a shutdown that stopped troops reaching the city.
These events sharpened the question of who could run society, the government or the workers.
This polarised unions.
The Mensheviks wanted to support the government and the Bolsheviks wanted the soviets to overthrow it. They had often cooperated as union activists.
Now factory workplace committees increasingly rallied to the Bolsheviks and organised for Soviet power.
Union structures were slower to change, and Mensheviks remained the majority at the top.
Revolution built Russia’s unions. It also raised political challenges that trade unionism alone couldn’t answer.