When mass strikes become predictable : Critical Look at National Strike 2016

On September 2nd, 2016, the central trade unions of India conducted their 17th national strike since India’s foray into liberalization in 1991.  The date of the strike was chosen to coincide with the September 2nd strike of 2015, as unions sought to repeat the prior success and rekindle the spirit of the working class under the backdrop of continued liberalization of labour laws by the Indian Government. Barring BMS, ten central trade unions called for the strike to take place. According to the central trade unions, and even portions of the mainstream media, the events of September 2nd constitute the largest strike in recent times. A reported 120 to 180 million workers struck work: more than one tenth the population of India!. Assocham has reported a total economic loss of Rs 16,000 – 18,000 crore.

The intention to strike was announced by the Joint Action Committee of Central Trade Unions in March 2016. As response to the strike call, the state level leadership of Central Trade Unions met on July 12th and announced a series of public meetings to prepare the Tamil Nadu working class for the upcoming strike. The Trade Unions pamphleted the public on the importance of the strike, mobilized some independent unions to participate in the strike. Conventions for public sector workers, transport workers and union leaders were held in the City.

The protests on the day of strike were announced and held in multiple locations in Chennai and Kanchipuram districts. Most of these protests drew between 500 and 2000 workers and union representatives. The strike strategy involved gherao-ing public sector offices (such as BSNL and post offices), road rokos, and train rokos. The workers were predominantly from the public sector, including conservancy workers, transport workers and factory workers. From the informal sector, auto workers were present in large numbers and there were some reports of construction workers who participated. Women workers were insignificantly represented. The protesters courted arrest and were kept in confinement for the day, eventually being released by the day’s end. Strikes were enforced in some factories. Major companies that enforced the strike included Ashok Leyland, Ennore Foundries and TI DC India. Partial strikes were enforced in some companies. Three companies in the garment sector announced leave beforehand to pre-empt the strike, according to the garment workers’ union. (For more in-depth reporting, refer to http://tnlabour.in/?tag=september-2nd-general-strike-2016)

Thozhilalar Koodam has been covering the preparations for the strike as well as the strike itself in Chennai and surrounding areas. Thozhilalar Koodam also conducted an anecdotal survey in the middle of strike preparation to gauge the awareness and the support of the working class for the strike. We present here an analysis of the effectiveness of the strike and key challenges for trade union movements going forward. After the  2015 strike, Thozhilalar Koodam had posted an analysis on the impact of previous strike in Tamil Nadu and on the national strikes in general . The current analysis draws upon both these prior ones as well to identify improvements and continuing challenges in Tamil Nadu.

Demands

The Central Trade Unions have placed 12 demands broadly focusing on minimum wages and price rises, improving social security for all workers, employment generation, stopping labour reforms, implementation of labour laws, and stopping privatization of public sector units. The State Trade Unions and independent unions have amended these broad based demands to call for sectoral and state specific measures. The State Leadership of Central Trade Unions have added demands for labour welfare board implementation for unorganized sector workers, for the removal of anti-worker provisions in motor vehicles maintenance bills and road transport safety bills, and against the contractualization of public sector workers in the name of ‘scheme workers’.

The demands placed by the State Unions have high resonance among the working class. In a survey by Thozhilalar Koodam conducted before the strike in areas spanning unorganized sector, international capital industrial belts, and small sector units, there was unanimous support for the demands among the workers. The workers were not only able to relate to these demands, they also clarified their relevance with their grounded experience and this was evident especially among the workers who were unionized. In particular, the unionized workforce described issues of unequal wage for the contractualized work force, low wages arising out of informalized small scale sectors, issues faced by road transport workers, and the ineffectual implementation of existing labour laws.

The minimum wage of at least Rs 18,000 has become a core demand for the working class, heavily affected by the continuing price rise. Workers who were participating in the strike across multiple sectors and unions spoke about the issues of low wages and the need for a livable wage. There was also a convergence with the demands from independent unions who focused on the issues of minimum wage during the strike.

The Central Government also seemed keenly aware that minimum wage was a demand that would provide the impetus for worker resistance: just before the strike, it sought to contain the impact by announcing a wage increase for unskilled non-agricultural workforce. However, the Government’s announcement was way below what the unions have been demanding and what had been fixed by Pay Commission as the minimum wage for unskilled Government workers. And this was after all the same Government which withdrew its proposal to increase minimum wage for contract workers to Rs 10,000, barely 3 months after the announcement, because of pressure from industry. It must be noted that the minimum wage issue is not just an issue of announcement but also one of implementation as industries continue to violate even today’s minimum wage notifications.

The other issues that featured among the striking workers were contractualization of public sector employment, lack of employment, and anti-worker amendments to road transport and motor vehicles act.

Mobilization and workers participation in the strike

While there was an overwhelming support for the demands of the strike both among unionized and non unionized workers, there was considerable lack of participation even among unionized workers, who were well aware of the strike’s demands and its necessity. This failure points to inherent issues in the way that trade unions function at a fundamental level, and begs the question of how workers see the trade union space and engage with the union leadership.

For example, one of the worker who spoke to us said: ‘We had participated in the last strike but we don’t know about this one. Only office bearers would have gone to the meeting that you say (August 9th) as we don’t go for all meetings. Usually it’s only the leader who attends these meetings. We go only when they call us for larger demonstrations and protests. They haven’t told us, may be they will tell us soon. We will participate in the strike for sure as we will know about it in coming days.’ This response suggests that the workers, while articulating support for the strike, do not feel vested in the process of organizing the national strike. The responsibility of carrying out the strike is delegated to union leaders even within the local unit where they participate.

The workers seem to consider the relationship between themselves and the union as a beneficial arrangement for which certain obligations have to be met. This is similar, if not the same, as the relation that workers see between themselves and their employer. Also, several workers told us they did not believe in the impact of one-day strikes at all. When there are no spaces to articulate such concerns and develop an understanding of the strike, the workers may participate in the strike only under obligation, or may skip the strike altogether. And during the strike, to our dismay, some workers were unwilling to speak to us and referred us to their union leaders. This lack of confidence among workers on articulation of their own issues only points to workers’ lack of understanding of unionism. That unionized workers do not see the need for national strikes after 17 strikes shows a lack of communication between workers and the unions. The need for the local unit to be a democratic space where workers can engage, debate and come to understand the reasons for such strikes cannot be overstated.

The awareness among the unorganized sector workers and informalized workers on the strike and its demands continues to be very low. Central Trade Unions have pro-actively engaged with some independent unions in factories for supporting the strike. This met with some success as some factories in which independent unions have been active struck work. Similarly, the central trade union leadership needs to engage with other independent unions especially among women workers and unorganized sector workers to increase the participation of these workers.

During Thozhilalar Koodam’s pre-strike informal survey of the working-class settlement of Kannagi Nagar, we did not find any mobilization activity such as leafletting, postering, or public meetings. Since most unorganized sector workers and informalized workers live in working class neighborhoods such as Kannagi Nagar, Kalkuttai and Chemmenchery, as well as in Chennai slums, it would be important to strongly target these locations in preparation for the general strike. As we stated in our last analysis, the national strike could serve as a platform for the precarious workers(contractualized work force in formal sector and unorganized sector workers) to engage in confronting Capital and the State. Workers’ support for the demands of the strike reflects this potential.

Strike execution

On the day of the strike, the State Government had anticipated certain disruption of public transport. In a preparatory meeting on Aug 23rd/24th, the transport sector workers had organized a huge meeting at Pallavan House. On August 29th, the retired transport workers had blocked the traffic in front of Pallavan house on their demands. These preparation must have provided enough angst for State Government to post police in major public bus depots. Yet, the public transport was least disrupted on the day of the strike, barring minor disruption during protests at certain points. Last year, the transport union leaders had stated that the State Government had used contract workers(and indications are that they used the same) to keep the transport working. However, there are no indications that the unions are strategizing to counter these initiatives by the State and mobilize the contract workers, especially in a year where the collective wage bargaining is coming up and long standing grievances of transport workers are still yet to be resolved.

At several protest sites, the police had anticipated the execution plans of the strike and had setup necessary precautions to counter them. Even when workers were assembling in Purasaiwakkam, Munroe Statue, Chengelpet and Thiruvottiyur, police had brought police vans and necessary barricades setting the stage for arresting the protesters. When workers and unions attempted to do road rokos and gherao the public sector offices (which had already been barricaded and police personnel deployed), the workers and union leaders were allowed to protest for few minutes and were promptly escorted to the police van by the police.

Only in two places that we covered were there departures from this standard process. In Ripon Building, when sanitation workers mobilized in front of the gates, the Corporation officials responded by closing the gates and shutting out the workers.  But the workers refused to be arrested by the police, who were ready and waiting, instead demanding that the gates be re-opened and they be allowed to protest.  The police had to intervene on behalf of the workers, seemingly preferring to negotiate with the management than escalate the confrontation with the workers and reopened the gates allowing workers to continue the protest. In Guindy, the independent union GAWFU chose to protest in front of the special economic zone MEPZ, catching the state unaware. However, the police responded within 20 minutes, disbanding and arresting the workers who were occupying the factory gates.

While none of these protests can be said to have fulfilled the intention of the strike, nevertheless the process of planning and participating in the strike can provide a valuable educational experience for workers. The strike organization process needs to be thought through carefully, lest it become entirely symbolic.In this context, we draw attention to the process of engagement in Rajasthan where workers from Neemrana Mazdoor Manch deliberated and participated in the strike. These show that under the right leadership and conditions, workers can organize themselves to take on management.

Conclusion

The assault of capital and the State on the workforce is only increasing the possibilities for workers to position their resistance. The mass strike is becoming one of the important tools for the working class in this regard. The overwhelming support for the demands of the strike shows that where the issues of workers are concerned, the unions have placed the correct demands.  But unions are unable to realize this potential, as even unionized workers do not see the trade union as their space for fighting the assault and more importantly, articulating a different vision for the working class. Without forging these spaces and giving agency to workers themselves, the effectiveness of the strike can be only limited. The exclusion of contract workers, migrant workers and women workers in these spaces should be considered carefully and countered, even if these are manifestations of objective realities.

General strikes cannot stand alone in the arsenal of strategies toward securing the central demands. Rather, there must be sustained campaigns that take these demands to the ground, where they can be discussed and debated by workers, and transformed into real and attainable goals that workers are invested in, come time to strike. As mass strikes are becoming more frequent, working to improve their effectiveness is the need of the hour.

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