Looking Back to Look Ahead: Reflections from the All India General Strike of Sept 2015 in Tamil Nadu

It has been barely two months since the general strike by Central Trade Unions on September 2nd. The state and the media have already restarted the rhetoric on labour reforms. An innocuous article by Live Mint headlines it, ‘Latest labour law changes stress on womens safety‘. Yet another article in the same paper proclaims ‘No Make in India without labour reforms‘. According to Economic Times, the winter session will see these reforms bills passed!. As the working class prepares to face this next wave of pro corporate agenda, we present a review of the strike in Tamil Nadu. We build this perspective on the strike based on our own engagement in the strike and conversations with workers and district and state union representatives during and after the strike.

Looking back

Chengalpattu-1Workers, unions and political organizations including left and dalit organizations came together to protest on September 2nd in all corners of Tamil Nadu. Responding to the national strike by Central Trade Unions, protests took place in various parts of Tamil Nadu including Chennai, Kanchipuram, Villupuram, Thiruvallur, Coimbatore, Salem, Erode, Trichi, Kanyakumari, Nagai districts. Bank and telecom sector were non functional or nominally functional. Workers from unorganized and organized sectors participated in the protests. Protests took various forms including rail roko, road roko etc. As per Hindu, over 25000 were arrested all over the state. It found its echo in State Legislative Assembly which was in session during the strike.

While the strike has not been as visible as it has been in Haryana, Tripura, West Bengal, Kerala, union representatives feel energized with the outcome of the strike in Tamil Nadu . With the decline in collective struggles over workers’ issues in recent years, they feel that this strike provided a platform to rebuild the movement. Among workers, the response has been mixed. As one worker put it, “while it is a joyous moment to see the workers rising in Manesar, it is disheartening that strikes did not happen in Sriperumbudur”. For other younger workers engaging in concrete action, even a protest where workers across factories and sectors came together, was momentous.

The media’s response to the strike reflected its pro corporate attitude. Dinamalar, one of the Tamil vernacular newspaper titled its article ‘strike failed’ even as national papers called the strike as successful. According to Dinamalar, the plying of public buses in Chennai – even as the article acknowledged that the buses were operated with contract and temporary workers – was sufficient to qualify the strike as unsuccessful. According to transport sector unions, the strike participation rate among public transport workers was at 40%. To counteract the impact of the strike, the union representatives say that the State Government used three strategies: use of 4000 inexperienced trainees, intimidation of workers and double shift. The use of inexperienced workers in the public transport was evident when two public buses we had taken took wrong turns, showing lack of familiarity in bus routes. The representatives opine that if this was a continuous mass strike , these strategies could not have worked in favor of the state. The media failed to note that these tactics pose safety risks for commuters let alone the exploitation of workers. The strike participation among autos and share autos was much higher as was visible in the streets of Chennai.

In Sriperumbudur, ineffective strike participation is put down to lack of unionization in the area. According to union representatives, out of 600+ factories in the region, unionization has been achieved only in 24 factories and the strike was effective in 3 factories. Some factory workers, say union representatives, chose not to participate in the strike because of ongoing wage negotiation between factories and workers(in spite of advice from unions). Even where unionized workers and non unionized workers went on leave in support of the strike, the lack of mobilization among contract and trainee workers led to some level of production in factories.

Prior to the strike, mobilization happened in several ways. In the month preceding the strike, unions distributed pamphlets among workers in several regions. A state level meeting by all central trade unions was organized in Teynampet. Multi union public meetings were organized in Ambattur and Maraimalai nagar in August. On the lack of setting up regional multi-union strike committees, union representatives feel that while left trade unions at the national level are able to forge united action with pro corporate unions, this is not possible at local level. They say that workers feel betrayed if left unions work with unions which they have experienced to be pro-corporate.

The lack of unionization among unorganized sector workers and migrant workers is another inhibiting factor, say union representatives In spite of this, there was presence of both these groups, even if limited, in the strike protests and the local level protests articulated the issues of unorganized sector workers and migrant workers.

To the Future

National strikes are and should be intended to consolidate factory and local level organizations into state and national wide mobilizations and to scale up from economic demands to political demands in favor of workers. This consolidation then feeds into a platform for building further worker mobilizations at factory level. Only a careful analysis on the strengths and weaknesses of our strike mobilization and participation can get us there.

The Central Trade Unions, at the national level have come together under a Joint Action Committee, that has strategized and coordinated National Strikes in the past few years. This is a significant measure towards organizing the workers against the anti- labour neo liberal agenda. However, it can vastly be improved if this structure is replicated regionally and further to industrial conclaves. The constitution of strike committees among unions at local levels can be the minimum requirement from which activities can be coordinated and directed for staging successful strikes.

 

The constitution of the central trade unions that include pro management unions – BMS, INTUC, LPF – present a challenge towards such local level cooperation. These unions operate within the neo liberal agenda, are willing to play a mediator role between capital and labour instead of being representatives of labour and therefore create impediments at creation of strike committees at regional and local level for left unions. However, without regional cooperation strategies, the effectiveness of strike is limited and more often than not, confined to workers who have been unionized. The lack of coordination at local level needs to be critically analyzed for its impact on the constitution of central trade unions joint action committee.

The withdrawal of BMS nationally at last minute is a significant factor in this analysis. BMS, the RSS affiliated union, withdrew from the strike participation at last minute, citing last minute meetings between the Government officials and the central trade unions. These discussions were rejected by the Joint Action Committee as they did not provide any substantive benefits for the workers. The willingness of BMS to withdraw with such insignificant gesture by Government and the success of the strike despite the withdrawal of BMS strengthen this narrative.

The limited participation of unorganized sector workers reflects on the limitation in the constitution of central trade unions whose strengths are public sector and factory workers. Unless local level strike committees are constituted and strengthened, local and independent unions and movements which are active among unorganized and organized sectors do not have opportunities or are not given space to participate in national strikes.

Without coordinated initiatives, the strike mobilization can only reach to those already organized. In the day to day struggle against factories and unsympathetic labour departments, the local leadership hardly has the time to initiate wider outreach that is necessary for the strike. With a strike committee, wider cultural and outreach initiatives become possible and can be focused on drawing the unorganized workers into the fold of working class struggle.

The conditions of working class in neoliberal state has been declining. Managements have deployed a variety of techniques to divide workers into various categories as permanent, temporary, trainees, contract or even outsourced certain jobs like security or logistics. These techniques, while helping their profits increase, has also allowed to sow discord and discrimination between workers stifling a united struggle. Governments have exploited the vulnerabilities of workers, arising out of the large pool of unemployed talent, precarious nature of jobs to break up struggles. This is well illustrated in the case of public transport services in Chennai during the strike. The judicial system is often abused by the state in curbing workers rights to unionise and protest, and the lengthy judicial process effectively denies workers justice. These measures also portray workers as either satisfied with the neoliberal agenda or as militant criminals driven by violence and instigated by vested interests.

But national general strikes can be key moments when the large section of the working people who are either unemployed or unorganized and thus cannot come together in local or factory level strikes, can be drawn into the struggle to express their anger about the direction of labour reforms, to protect their economic and political rights and improve their socio-economic conditions. This requires creative effort by the trade unions to reach out to workers outside their regions of membership thorough public meetings, study groups, cultural activities etc. The success of such strategies in Manesar shows that these are imaginations that working class is willing to engage with.

The next wave of onslaught of the neoliberal reform is already in front of the working class. The recent directives on foreign direct investments and ease of norms in 15 major sectors have been unleashed in tandem with the cries for labour reforms. From the Global Investors Meet conducted in Chennai with in a week of September 2nd strike to the Make in India Week planned in 2016, there is a need to build and show workers’ resistance against this onslaught. A cooperative concerted effort among left unions and movements is the need of the hour.

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