The Trade Union Movement Can and Must Play a More Assertive Social and Political Role
- Dipankar Bhattacharya
The trade union movement in the country is faced with a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, employment in the organised sector is rapidly declining. Every major organised industrial or service sector has shed hundreds of thousands of jobs over the last one decade or so. Jobs that earlier belonged to permanent workers are being ‘outsourced’ in a big way to contract and casual workers. Consequently, most of the old established big trade unions and federations have suffered a steady erosion in terms of both membership strength as well as their strike power or bargaining capacity. The judiciary too has come down heavily on trade union rights, including the right to strike, that were once considered quite safe and secure. By all accounts, these are tough times for the trade union movement.
Let us now look at the other side of the picture. Popular anger against the economic policies and their consequences is now more palpable than ever. The impact of the neo-liberal policies is today felt not only in workers’ colonies in outskirts of big cities and towns, but more acutely in the rural interiors of the country where farmers’ suicides and starvation deaths of the landless rural poor have become the order of the day. The countryside is naturally seething with anger and the intensity of this anger can be seen clearly in recent election results. The fall of the NDA in the last Lok Sabha elections, and the reverses suffered by Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP in Andhra, Omprakash Chautala’s INLD in Haryana or Jayalalitha’s AIADMK in Tamil Nadu all bore testimony to this mounting popular anger.
Obviously, the most important question facing the trade union movement today is whether or not it can draw on this growing popular anger to rejuvenate and revitalise itself. The answer is a resounding yes and one can already see signs of a forward movement in this direction.
Let us just look at two recent examples that have gone mostly unnoticed in the national media. The state government employees of Bihar recently waged a 43-day-long strike and won a significant victory. The united and determined strike action itself marked a strong rebuff to the verdict delivered the other day by the Supreme Court justifying the wholesale dismissal of striking state government employees in Tamil Nadu and questioning the very right of government employees to go on strike. Coming on the eve of the Februaray Assembly elections, the strike was extremely well-timed. The Election Commission’s threats to conduct elections by bringing in employees from other states and from central government departments and institutions failed to intimidate the striking employees. After 43 days of sustained battle, the strike ended on a resounding note of victory.
The unity and determination of the employees of course played a crucial role without which such a prolonged strike could not have been possible. But the poll-eve political situation in Bihar with the overwhelming majority of the people seething in anger and awaiting their turn to throw the incumbent government out provided a most conducive environment. The employees made it a point to reach out to larger sections of the working people in Bihar and the CPI(ML), the party of the revolutionary proletariat, made serious efforts to mobilise active support of the rural poor and the student-youth community in favour of the striking employees. The successful strike has bolstered the morale of the government employees in the state and paved the way for closer cooperation between government employees and other sections and organisations of the working people. The united May Day demonstration in Patna this year marked yet another encouraging step in this direction.
Another recent example of broader support for the trade union movement was provided by Assam when responding to a call by all the Left parties in the state, the people observed a day’s bandh in support of the oil unions’ opposition to the move to hand over an ONGC oilfield to a foreign company. The bandh was also backed by trade unions in the power sector that are opposing the government’s bid to ‘unbundle’ the State Electricity Board and thus gradually hand over the reins of power generation and distribution to private hands. Assam is a state with a deeply ingrained sense of deprivation by the Centre. The new economic policies have only reinforced the economic backwardness of the state by leaving the economy almost completely at the mercy of Indian and foreign private capital. It was after a prolonged and fierce mass movement that the state had got its oil refineries and it is not difficult to understand the indignation of the people over issues of privatisation of key resources like oil and power.
Apart from growing anger against the consequences of the new policies of market fundamentalism, we can also see a favourable change in the ideological climate. The new policies were introduced in an ideological environment dominated worldwide by a strong rightwing offensive in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the entire Eastern Europe. Things have changed a lot since then. The unchecked rise of the US as the world’s only superpower – so much so that the US is often described as the world’s newest Empire – has plunged the world into a global war with disastrous implications for the economic and political interests of the weaker and less developed countries. The world has once again woken up to the hard reality of imperialism and, its inevitable corollary and companion, war.
More and more people in our own country have also started seeing through the false claims and promises made by the protagonists of neo-liberal policies. They are now more aware than ever of the real motives behind privatisation and implications of the state beating a retreat and leaving the fate of public utilities and key service sectors like health and education at the mercy of profit-hungry commercial enterprises.
If the trade union movement is to build on this changing ideological environement and growing public resentment against the new policies and their diastrous consequences, it will of course have to bring about certain changes within itself. The trade union movement in India suffers from a serious lack of inter-sector coordination and solidarity. Powerful and prolonged movements of workers in one industry or sector are seldom backed by solidarity strikes or mobilisations in other industries or sectors.
The central trade unions have a major role to play in this regard, but because most of these central trade unions are led by political parties supporting the pro-market reforms, and in some cases top trade union leaders themselves are part of the political-economic establishment pushing these reforms, little has been achieved in terms of cross-sector solidarity without which it is difficult to give an effective political thrust to struggles in isolated industries and sectors. Instead of waiting for things to change at the top, revolutionary trade union activists must take all possible initiative at their own levels to generate a new sense, culture and pressure of solidarity from below.
The changing nature of jobs, employment patterns and working conditions has also posed a serious challenge to the trade union movement. If contract and part-time workers are being used to weaken the strike power or bargaining capacity of trade unions, the answer cannot lie in preventing these workers from coming in. That tactic is likely to succeed only in exceptional cases and that too only for a period. The basic answer lies in organising these new workers around their own demands and thus hit at the root of capital’s strategy of increasing its profit by keeping labour cheap and unorganised.
Central trade unions cannot work merely as coordinating centres for the already organised and existing unions, they must look at the task of organising the trade union movement from the point of view of the entire working class and its overall interests. All kinds of reformist organisations and fashionable NGOs are penetrating diverse segments and layers of the working people. It is not sufficient to merely expose their motives and limitations in theory, it is important to do it in practice by overtaking them in terms of organisation, propaganda and agitation.
Last but not the least, it is of utmost importance today to forge closer links with the countryside and the fighting rural poor and the crisis-ridden peasantry. Vast areas of rural India are being haunted by the spectre of starvation, food insecurity and acute unemployment. The situation seems ripe for a powerful movement for food, employment and guaranteed minimum wages.
The last time the country experienced such a major economic crisis was in the 1960s. The difference between the 1960s and now is that social and economic disparities have grown much more. The ruling elite and the upwardly mobile sections of the middle class simply want to refute the crisis by the blinding dazzle of their affluence and ostentation. But history tells us that such crude disparities also invariably generate powerful counter-currents. India today is poised for a new national awakening of the working people and the progressive democratic intelligentsia against the oppressive nexus of imperialism and all its domestic collaborators.
To this end, the working class movement today will once again have to wage a resolute struggle against the narrow confines of economism and equip trade union organisers and activists in every possible way for a more vibrant social and political role. May the Guwahati conference of AICCTU generate the much needed confidence, urge and momentum for a resolute advance in this direction.
[This article was first published in the AICCTU Souvenir brought out on the occasion of its Sixth All-India Conference at Guwahati]