“However, strikes, which arise out of the very nature of capitalist society, signify the beginning of the working-class struggle against that system of society. ”
In this article, we analyse the nature of the national strikes in India that have taken place since the liberalisation era began in 1991. In this period, 16 major national strikes have been carried out by the working class. Their intensity in terms of sheer numbers and organisational strength has been increasing; and yet the working class finds itself pushed further to the wall, unable to repel the increasingly exploitative practices of the capitalist class. As successive governments race to the moral bottom, pandering to corporate forces that demand the deregulation of the labour market, a natural question arises: What handicaps the working class from countering this onslaught on their rights more effectively?
In order to attempt an answer to this question, we take a look at the most direct tool working class has at it’s disposal: general strikes. Of the 16 national strikes that have taken place since 1991, we will look at the three most recent ones (2012, 2013 and 2015) and try to analyse them simultaneously with a belief that comparisons between different strikes can help us better understand the evolution of labour-capital relations.
Analysing the dynamics of these strikes, we see that a contradiction arises at the level of practice, where preserving the unity of the working class in the face of an increasingly fragmented trade union movement often means that strikes lack intensity as well as mobilisation and involvement of the ground level cadres. It is these contradictions that we hope to elucidate in this article.
Keeping with the spirit of such contradictions our analysis is in turn based on two contrasting points of view. On the one hand, we rely upon the traditional left perspective; that is, a belief in the strength of the working class in a capitalist society to fight for it’s own rights. From this perspective, we draw certain conclusions on the impact of national strikes–conclusions which are not very favourable. This interpretation is strictly from the point of view of keeping this left perspective in the forefront. The second view is more pragmatic, and is based on our conversations with a seasoned trade unionist, Vasudevan, who has been at the forefront of the Bombay trade union movement since the 1960’s. As we will see, in light of the difficulties faced by the trade unions and the fragmentation and split the union movement has gone through, this perspective suggests that the national strikes could be considered a success.
Demands of the working class
We briefly recall that there were 12 one day national strikes between 1991 and 2008, which were organised by sponsoring committee of trade unions or National platform for Mass organisation. Usually one or more of the central trade unions (for example the one who was affiliated to the ruling party at the time) stayed away from the strike, denting the impact of such a strike. In order to have a better co-ordination and unity among trade unions, in 2009 a national convention of trade unions was held in New Delhi , and was considered by many to be a remarkable event in the history of Indian trade union movement. It brought the entire trade union movement in the country on a common platform for organising a nationwide movement on the major five-point charter of demands. These 5 points demands were,
1) Halt to the rise in prices of all essential commodities. This is a basic demand of the working class through which it can counter inflation, when the wage rise is not adequate.
2) Halt to the growing unemployment and launch of a nationwide programme of job creation. Increasing number of capital intensive industries mean that areas like manufacturing sector have hardly seen any increase (not exceeding 3 percent) in employment in last 30 odd years. (The same period in which decline in agriculture employment has been close to 15 percent).
3) Ensuring full implementation of all the labour laws. Once again, even though a variety of acts exist which to a certain extent protect a worker from rampant exploitation (the enactment of such laws is itself a success of trade union struggles since 1930s! ) , such laws are often not implemented in factories. Hence this demand is once again one of the minimum demands of the working class in India and has been so since the laws came into existence.
4) Creation of a special fund by taxing the corporate sector and the rural landed gentry, for providing social security benefits to the unorganised workers. As over 90 percent of workers in India are in the unorganised sector, this demand shows that the central trade unions are well aware of their plight and through this demand , to a certain extent the struggles of unorganised working class are intertwined with that of the organised workers.
5) Stop to disinvestment of profit making public sector undertakings.
As we will see, all the four subsequent national strikes (2010,2012,2013 and the most recent one in September) have been organised on the basis of this convention and the (10 point) charter of demands presented in each strike has been an expansion of the 5 points listed above.
It must be noted that some of these demands (for example demand 2) are so general that in our opinion they border on tokenism. For example, demanding job creation without opposing privatisation of education (skilled jobs after-all require that higher education, like diploma training is available to all) does not make much sense. Although union leadership agrees that there must be a national level minimum wage, why has such a demand not been articulated more concretely? More in detail, Most unions are demanding 15,000 as a minimum wage ; however a simple calculation for cost of living for a family of 3 reveals that in Urban areas the minimum wage requires is much higher. Why such disjuncture between require real wages and minimum wage are not being articulated in these demands?
It should also be noted that if the government is to be forced to take such demands seriously, a sustained campaign beyond one or two days national strike should be carried out by the unions. We have not found any evidence of such a sustained effort by the unions where in the period separating two national strikes. We also feel that such remarkable demands require more militant and intense strikes which the state cannot sleep over.
Although the methods of production (management and labour processes) has changed from Taylorism and Fordism to Toyotism in India, the basic demands have remained static.
We should also note that the list of demands is always growing (it has grown to 12 point charter now), but the basic demands remain the same and not a single one has so far been satisfied by any of the central governments. In light of this, we must ask what is the true impact of national strikes?
2012 National strike
On February 28th, India’s major trade union federations declared a general strike, with estimates of a hundred million workers participating in the one-day industrial action, making it the largest strike in India since the nation?s independence in 1947. This was the first time that the trade union federations had come together to protest against ‘neoliberal economic and labor policies’ pursued by the then in-power UPA government. Some of the key reasons for the strike was a 14 percent hike in Diesel prices and the government allowing FDI in retail sector (something BJP and it’s affiliated BMS vehemently opposed at that time!). The action to strike was also supported by more than 5000 independent unions. The charter of demands listed a total of 10 basic demands, which in addition to the generic 5 demands as well as opposing FDI in retail sector also included “No contractualisation of work of permanent / perennial nature and till then payment of wages and benefits to the contract workers at the same rate as available to the regular workers of the industry / establishment”. It also had various other demands like amending the minimum wage act to ensure a national floor minimum wage of 10,000 and assured pension for all. The strike was massive in terms of the sheer scale of the number of workers who participated and many sectors like banking and insurance sectors were badly hit. The strike clearly displayed the massive discontent that had developed among the working class of the country. However being a one day strike, it of course did not force the government to take heed of any of the demand and of course this was was expected by the union leaders. It was carried out to show scale of frustration and potential latent in the working class.
The strike also displayed the political gamesmanship that various parties played through their affiliated trade unions. So for example, inspite of this being a national strike called by all the central trade unions, INTUC (the union affiliated to the ruling congress party) pulled out of the strike at the last minute, calling it politically motivated! The places where the strikes were most intense (like Bengal and Kerala) was where the left parties were in opposition and hence carrying out a massive strike by their unions was consistent with the party politics. These are the factors which cannot be ignored when analysing these national strikes. The 2012 strike also brought together unions affiliated to the right wing parties like BJP and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra (where they were in opposition). The left unions had kept the slogans vague enough and focussed on economic issues (in most places where slogans were against the UPA government) such that unions under Saffron flag could also participate in the strike. These kind of uneasy and opportunistic regional level alliances are certain to compromise the outcome of the strike and how it can be carried forward. This is because reactionary unions will participate in the strike based on what their affiliated parties’s interests are. The problem with these alliances are clearly seen in the 2015 strike where the reactionary union BMS chose not to participate, although the current NDA government seems to treat FDI as a primary catalyst for development , not only in retail sector but pretty much all sectors including education !
The historic 2 day strike in 2013
After the 2012 strike, there was absolutely no response from the government towards demands the unions had put forward, such as price hikes, social security rights for workers in unorganised sectors, proper minimum wages, massive worker contractualisation etc. In light of this, a decision to launch an even more intense strike was reached unanimously during the national convention of trade unions on 4 September 2012, held at Talkatora Stadium in New Delhi. This was the reason why this strike was 48 hours long held on February 20-21, 2013. The charter of demand was the same as the one in the 2012 strike.
February 20-21 national strike is widely considered to be a landmark movement for Indian working class, when it brought the entire country to a virtual stand-still. This was the first time since independence that a consecutive 2 day nation-wide strike took place in India. A mammoth 100 million workers participated in the 48 hour strike and unlike the previous strike even INTUC affiliated to the ruling UPA government actively participated in the strike. Millions of factory and bank employees stayed away from work and public transport was shut down in most big cities. The anger and militant potential of the workers was evident in many places. In Noida, Workers armed with iron rods smashed factory windows and set a fire truck and several cars on fire. In Haryana, a labour leader was fatally crushed when he tried to stop buses from leaving a terminal.
An estimate by FICCI (who is only too eager to give large figures which are in turn immediately parroted by the corporate media) says that the total financial loss resulting from this strike was 25,000 Crores. It is never clear how these figures are reached, but one thing is clear ; such strikes send shivers down the spines of the corporates.
In light of this strike, Manmohan Singh inaugurating 45th Indian Labour Conference had to concede that the charter of demands presented by the workers were unexceptionable demands and should be met. Of course no demands were met and what followed is the opening a massive possibility of further exploitation of the working class via the labour law reforms, and Foreign direct investment. Incidentally these two issues also formed the basis for the September 2nd,2015 National strike.
What this strike after the 2012 strike showed clearly showed that the anger , discontent, frustration and belief in direct action was increasing among the working class. Due to it’s longer duration, bigger participation and more militancy in certain parts 2013 strike could be thought of as starting of something cohesive and long term. However what is remarkable is, that once these strikes end, no matter how successful they are, unions are happy to call them a success and sit on “the victory”. No sustained follow up action ever takes place , which could ensure that the charter of demands are actually met.
The 2015 National strike
After a series of meetings and discussions with the ruling NDA government pertaining to the ten point charter of demands presented by the national convention of trade unions, it was clear to the majority of the unions that government was not only, not interested in meeting any of the demands but were in fact hell bent on furthering the neo-liberal agenda by making sweeping changes to labour laws which would make situation far more precarious for the workers. In fact two of the proposed reforms precisely take away the rights of worker to organise and protest by (1) requiring that number of applicants required to register a union should be ten percent or a hundred (whichever is lower) in contrast to seven applicants which are required currently and (2) no right to strike till a conciliation process mediated by labour commissioner is going on which could take indefinite time.
Due to these protracted negotiations not going anywhere, Eleven central trade unions called for a nation-wide strike. This strike, exactly like 2012 strike saw the retarding influence political affiliation has on trade union movements. BMS, affiliated to BJP pulled out of the strike at the last minute, exactly like INTUC had done in 2012. It is perhaps important to note that BMS did not oppose the strike but only withdrew at the national level. In fact according to Vasudevan of Blue-star union in Bombay, many BMS workers in Bombay did participate in the strike. Looking at the sheer numbers, this strike was a phenomenal success. Before the strike union leaders and representatives anticipated that around a hundred million workers would participate in the strike, however several news articles report a far higher participation of 150 Million workers. In this sense the strike was incredibly successful (like the earlier strikes which by sheer numbers show the scale of frustration and latent militancy which is contained in the working class all over the country). Essential services like banking and public transport got hit in many places. The strike also witnessed state repression and brutalities in many places like Kolkata, where women activists from the Left were seen being dragged by the police. Banks, shops, and many schools are closed and all public transport is off roads. The bandh (closure) has also impacted southern states. Around 3,500 government-run buses did not run in Hyderabad (Deccan report) and public transport was also hit in Kerala. In Chennai strike was on one hand successful in the sense of participation of workers but did not quite match the intensity that it witnessed in Industrial belts like Guragaon-Manesar or states like Calcutta.
It is also curious to note that, after a successful two day strike in 2013, why when the exploitation of the working class was on the rise, the 2015 strike was only a day long. Without any information on the negotiations that must have gone on between trade unions and their parent political parties; we can merely speculate as to how this shows the weakness involved in having multiple central unions, most affiliated to political parties who try to negotiate various conditions of strike from various angles, not all of them connected to the interest of the working-class they claim to represent. If one compares the 2015 strike with 2013 strike, and if one takes into account the fact that exploitation and repression of the working class has only increased under the present government we have to wonder if 2015 strike can really be considered a real success. Due to lack of media coverage on ongoing negotiations, it is also not clear to us if the dynamics of negotiations between the national platform and the government has been effected by the strike.
We have emphasised in an earlier article, trade unions associated to ruling political class like Congress and BJP are at best mediators between the capitalists and workers. By their affinity to the ruling class, they do not oppose Neo-liberal agenda but helps keep workers discontent in check by asking the government for some reformist measures. By working with such trade unions, even the ideology of left trade unions stand to get compromised.
A close look at all three strikes above also revealed the following puzzle. Often the Strikes at factory level (carried out by independent factory based unions with direct involvement of factory workers in strategising and formulating demands) are more militant . However the national strikes in most areas do not have such intensity. Is it because organisation and mobilisation of workers is a problem?
The Insiders view : Through the eyes of a trade unionist
According to Vasudevan of the Blue-star union, analysing the strike from the perspective of a trade unionist requires us to analyse strikes and activities of trade unions in general by understanding the immediate demands of the working class . Demands which are purely economic and in many ways increasingly basic. This means that the current focus of trade union movement is to fight for Minimum wage, fight against increasing contractualisation and fight for basic rights like social security, pension etc.
As these issues are primarily economic, according to Vasudevan they can and should be fought by bringing all trade unions together, as this is the only way all workers can be brought together. If we say that reactionary unions like BMS or INTUC be kept away from struggles centered on such economic demands, we are alienating workers belonging to these unions. If we don`t engage with these unions, how can we ever engage with the workers who are with them?
He also thinks it is a mistake to think that left trade union cadreship is politically left. At this point in time, political consciousness of organised working class is lacking. You will find many workers in unions like BMS who are more to the left then workers in left unions.He said that Workers never join a union because of politics, they join a union because thats the only organisation he/she can belong to which will fight for their rights.
One must also take into account , in addition to the hold political parties have on unions their inter union rivalry while analysing national strikes. For example according to Vasudevan its a fallacy to conclude that if a party is in power it’s affiliated trade union wont protest. Situation is more complex then that. It is true that in 2012, INTUC dropped out of the strike as Congress was in power, however what about the 2009 strike? In this strike INTUC did participate. How does one understand it if not for the fact that INTUC risked losing its members had it not participated in the strike. Of course having said this one must also analyse, why INTUC in 2012 and BMS in 2015 withdrew from the strike. Did they not risk losing their members?
According to Vasudevan, it is also not true that union leadership is completely detached from political ideology. For example, there has been a joint action committee of trade unions in Maharashtra which have existed since 80s. This committee did not include reactionary unions like BMS, Shivsena and INTUC. However few years back, while trying to organise a joint protest in Maharashtra, BMS, Sena union as well as INTUC showed willingness to participate if and only if they were included in Joint action committee. Their presence to fight for issues like minimum wage was important for JAC and hence they have been included in the committee. In fact on 21st of this month, JAC is organising a protest and their slogan is “where is unorganised worker in seventh pay commission?”
Vasudevan also thinks that the most consistent opposition to neo-liberal reforms in last 25 years have come from trade unions via their charters as well as close to twenty national strikes. He does concede that failure of negotiations and the increasing precariousness of a worker in India means that trade unions have not quite succeeded in mobilising the working class, but according to him the primary reason for this is split in the working class movement due to a large number of central trade unions. This is why for him an initiative like NTUI is what India currently needs where all the unions can be brought together on a common platform irrespective of their political ideology.
Vasudevan also said that for him 2015 strike must be considered successful as it made the corporates and the government stand up and take notice as to how the workers are not going to take the current wave of anti-labour measures lightly. In his opinion the fact that FICCI released figures of 25,000 crores loss as incurred by the state due to this strike showed that at the very least strike has convinced the government that working class mobilisation cannot be taken lightly.
He did not agree with the fact that one or two day strike can be something the state can sleep over. For him these strikes, even if they happened at regular intervals (say every year) and for a fixed interval of time (say one day) are an important ritual. They are a spark which have a potential to turn into something bigger and as such must be kept alive.
We thus see that his perspective on strikes and on union movement in general is vastly different and often contradictory to the one we articulated in previous sections based on our reading of the strikes. We feel that both these perspectives should be looked at in detail and only a detailed dialogue between them would lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the trade union movement in India.
There is a paradigm shift in the composition of labour itself. Increasing contractualisation, as well as increasing automation and fragmentation of the production process, have intensified the exploitation of labour. National strikes must provide an impetus to fight such shifts by bringing the working class, which is increasingly, heterogeneous (with varying degrees of skills, varying degrees of employment security and varying social and cultural backgrounds) together under a common banner. Naive analysis would lead us to expect the relevance of strikes to increase as conditions of the working class become increasingly precarious. However, that has not happened.
Why has this expectation failed to be realized? With the advent of the national convention of trade unions, a potentially new phase has begun in terms of unifying the splintered trade union movement. However, this unity has yet to materialize at the national level. The recent national strikes have at best served as warning signs to the central government, and at worst been mere pretenses, which fool the working class into believing central trade unions are fighting for their rights, while really playing into the hands of opposition parties trying to make life difficult for the party that happens to be in power. In contrast, when Maruti workers in Manesar plant did a 14 day strike in 2011, the management agreed to take back 64 permanent workers who had been suspended and 1200 contract workers who had been released.
Why is such a level of militancy and motivation not seen in national strikes, which have a potential to cause structural changes in capital-labour relations, if they are carried on for a sustained period? This lack of will and organisation to make the national strikes truly striking is in our opinion a startling lack of will of the trade union leadership to put their working class alliance ahead of political affiliations. However, a contrary view was put forward by Vasudevan according to which precisely the factors like political consciousness of the working class, fragmented trade union movements, and their affiliations to political parties must be taken into consideration while judging the success or failure of strikes. And considering the retarding effect of all these factors, the fact that at regular intervals such nationwide agitations are being held must be considered a positive sign and show that working class retains an ability to oppose exploitation.
In conclusion, we would like to emphasize that the strikes in and of themselves are just impulses, even when they are successful. It is what the unions do between two nation-wide strikes, regarding negotiation with central and state governments, constantly being vigilant of new schemes of exploitations that capitalist class comes up with and resist them by constitutional methods is what finally counts for improving conditions of the working class. Without such a constant struggle, strikes come and go, charter of demands keeps getting larger as previous demands are never satisfied and strikes end up being an end in themselves.
As we have argued in our previous article, the inability to involve the contract workers in these strikes (and in unions in general) presents a massive challenge for the working class movement in India. One must also take note of the fact that in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Bawal industrial belt, where contract workers participated in the national strike, the intensity of the strike was far more than the strikes witnessed in states like Tamil Nadu.
Unions must also play a role in countering the corporate media, which is increasingly against the interests of the working class. As a result all struggles carried out by the workers, including national strikes, are reported negatively in the media. Trade unions must try to counter such negative propaganda by using progressive websites, blogs, and social media to engage more with the masses and especially with students. It is not clear to us if central trade unions take much initiative in this regard.
The national strikes will go on. They are most certainly a sign of the growing discontent among the working class, but whether they turn into a platform for a substantial movement or reduce to mere tokenism remains to be seen.