On January 8th and January 15th, around twenty five trade union activists and senior workers who have been active in working class struggles for decades came together to analyze the present status of trade union movement in Mumbai. Over the course of two days many workers and unionists put forward their points of view as regards to where does the TU movement stand today and, considering the beating it has taken over last 3 decades (owing to a variety of factors chief among them being liberalization policies of the Indian state ), how can it move forward ? The discussions centered around recounting the glorious history of Bombay’s militant working class struggles , as well as the need to strategize and execute new forms of the struggles. In our opinion ,this discussion which centers around self-criticism on the part of leaders and activists has a significant relevance for Trade Unions throughout the country. The meeting was an initiative of Trade Union Solidarity Committee (TUSC), Bombay. This article summarizes the key points and suggestions raised in the discussion.
From working class militancy in 1960s through 1980s with all the industries recognizing unions, there has been a decline in working class movement. Increased contractualisation and capital mobility have reduced the unions’ ability to carry out successful struggles. Unions have stayed away from organizing contract workers and focus only on the right of permanent workers who were already their members. There is a need to organizing contract and unorganized workers and this is tied to organizing women workers in a big way as 40% of workers in unorganized sectors are women.
Accessibility to workers has reduced as the workers are driven in and out of factories in bus, effectively no factory gates are left for organizing workers and hence new forms of organizing like organizing basti (neighborhood) based unions must be considered carefully. This organizing has to involve the whole basti, including women, children and youth as part of the working class. Issues of working class families need to be linked with workers’ issues at work place.
Workers are immersed in their own lives and maintain only digital contacts with others. This is reinforced by individualism and the consumer culture promoted by globalization. There is a need to revive collective life and collective action, the backbone of unionism.
A key task which was very much part of the working class movement in 60s and 70s, was to bring workers into the movement of social change and this has taken a back seat now and needs to be revived. It is only when this happens, that like in the 70s students and progressive sections of the society would come together with the working class to fight for social and political issues. Lots of middle class radicals became union organizers and there is a need to motivate the youth to lead union struggles.
Many activists have lost confidence in the working class as a revolutionary leading force because they have forgotten the character of this class and role it has played historically in bringing revolutionary change to society. Lack of confidence by unions in the militancy of workers led to decline of trade unionism. Trade union analysis based on observation and experience and no concrete theoretical analysis are being made.
Although many left unions introduce a broadness of vision among it’s members – that of collective action for shop floor issues , this vision does not extend to political issues. Management keeps unions busy with court cases, charge sheets , police harassment leaving no energy for political education of workers. Trade unions have become ‘honest wage negotiators’. The political perspective of workers finds reflection in the parties with which the align themselves.
Lack of democracy in the unions is a deep seated problem. Through the democratic participation of the class in all their struggles and activities and the active functioning of their committees and general bodies and other forums, unions can rectify. No education of the masses or development of the leadership qualities are possible without it. Struggles in which the workers have been decision makers are the greatest teachers. The trade unions are “schools for politics” for the workers or else they become just bourgeois institution.
Only by engaging workers in political issues will political consciousness of workers increase. There is a need for political classes at factory levels. Even starting solidarity campaigns in support of struggling workers elsewhere in the country could bring workers out into the streets and politicize them.
The struggle for working class must involve struggle on every aspect of working peoples’ life : Economic, Political, Social, , Ideological and Cultural only then can it become conscious class struggle, by presenting the working class alternative at every turn.