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Mainstream, VOL LV No 49 New Delhi November 25, 2017

Many Obstacles before the Indian Trade Union Movement

Sunday 26 November 2017


by N. Sundaramurthy

Trade unions are perceived as cradles of socialism. By ideology, trade unions fight for the establishment of an egalitarian society. I believe that trade unions have a role in social transformation. A trade union movement is undoubtedly a mass movement. And the rule generally followed is “maximum good for the maximum number”! The corollary is, if the trade movement has to succeed, its agenda should be seen and accepted as the agenda of the people—the common masses. In other words, the trade union movement cannot advance in isolation.

The world trade union movement has a hoary history of more than 130 years. It has donned a variety of roles, according to specific contexts obtaining in the country or in the work place at different intervals of time. Immediately after the Industrial Revolution in England the demand was for eight-hour work. With the invention of electric bulbs, the working hours were extending upto 14-16 hours in sub-human conditions. Before the invention of electric bulbs, the working hours existed between sun-rise and sun-set. In India, the trade union movement participated actively in the freedom struggle. The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, himself was a trade unionist, being the founder of Majoor Mahajan. He held certain radical views about the functioning of the trade unions. His ‘Trusteeship Theory’ is widely known. He also had reservations about workers using strike as a weapon. It should be remembered that the demand for ‘Poorna Swaraj’ or complete independence emerged from the working class. The Lion of Punjab, Lala Lajpat Rai, was the President of the AITUC. During the RIN Mutiny, the textile workers of Bombay went on a militant strike to express total solidarity with the Naval ratings. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and many prominent National leaders were associated with the AITUC.

After independence, the voice of the Indian Left was effectively heard in Parliament. The Indian working class campaigned for nationalisation of the key sectors. The first Prime Minister of the country, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted India to emerge as a strong industrial nation on the basis of a strong public sector. Nehru preferred to call them the temples of modern India. Nehru was a liberal secular democrat with an accent on a socialistic pattern of society. This complemented the advance of the trade union movement in India.

But the trade union movement along with the Red Flag movement received a severe setback with the fall of socialism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Free Market Economy under the label New Economic Policies (NEP) was ushered in aggressively, with the visible of no- holds-barred posture! It will be interesting to note that the term New Economic Policies (NEP) was first used by the Soviet Union during its reconstruction after the October Socialist Revolution. Under the present NEP, it is unbridled liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG). The pace of economic reforms is quite brisk. The trade unions have been resisting and fighting against the implementation of LPG policies and their negative impact. Their struggle is relentlessly continuing for more than a quarter of a century. But the fight against them inside Parliament was just a tame affair. Virtually there was little opposition. That is precisely because the economic policies of the Congress and BJP, the two major political parties, and the permu-tations and combinations, the UPA and NDA are identical. There is absolutely no difference. The thumping majority won by the BJP and the emergence of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister have worsened matters. There is just a namesake Opposition in Parliament. The space for dissent has shrunk. Under Narendra Modi, the secular and liberal ethos and federal structure are under serious threat. Global capitalism never had it so good. ‘Make in India’ is a red-carpet welcome to global capitalism.

The present scenario is really depressing. The emergence of a real political alternative in the near future looks remote. The communist movement is fragmented. Communist unifi-cation can unleash tremendous energies and act as a catalyst for the emergence of a real political alternative to the Right-wing rule, tackle the increasing fascist tendencies, majoritarian nationalism and intolerance. That can see the radical realignment of political forces. But such communist unification looks distant and remote. The question is: who can act as an Opposition to the government, mould public opinion and channelise the people’s disenchantment? Some political observers opine that the trade unions can enact that role effectively, in the absence of a real Opposition in Parliament. It need not be an utopian idea or a fanciful thought. It is in the realm of possibility. There can be an interesting debate if the idea has to develop further. For that, an honest introspection becomes imperative. We need to know the ground realities.

There are numerous obstacles and mountains of difficulties, for the democratic trade union movement to don the role of an effective Opposition in India. Major national political parties and even regional political parties have their trade union wings. But the fact of the matter is: except the Left trade unions, others do not have an ideology that can demarcate them from the programme of the political party. Often, the line of separation between the party and its trade union appendage is invisible. What sustains such unions is aspiration for sharing political power. When the Left trade unions and workers all over the world observe May Day, the day of international working class solidarity, the BMS, the trade union wing of the BJP, gives a call for observing ‘Viswakarma Day’! Now that the BJP is ruling the country, the BMS is not a participant in the Joint Front of National Central Trade Unions and Indepen-dent Federations to fight against the anti-people policies of the government.

Political ambitions among the trade union leaders and their proximity to the corridors of power obviously bring in corruption, both moral and financial. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the Indian context, power and corruption are synonymous. And corruption breeds black money. Demonetisation by Narendra Modi was a huge disaster that legitimised black money. Trade unions can strive to emerge as real power-centres.

The size of India and the mind-boggling diversities can be a real deterrant. The trade union movement is fragmented and God knows how many trade unions are there based on region, language, religion, caste, sector, political affiliation etc.! The sad reality is: only the factory workers and office-goers are organised. A large population of workers in agriculture and the informal sector are unorganised. Only the organised trade union movement makes its presence felt and articulates its positions on socio-political and economic issues. The middle class is eternally in vacillation.

In small countries, with so much of religious and ethnic diversities, trade unions have indeed succeeded in enacting the role of an effective opposition and in building a broad social movement and eventually sharing power in government. We can quote the example of Poland. But whether such an experiment can be replicated in India can be matter of animated debate.

A trade union is a mass organisation. The workers choose a trade union and remain loyal to it in order to improve their service conditions and standard of living. A considerable chunk of the members may not exactly share the political views of their organisation. Workers go on militant strikes to oppose and resist privatisation of the state-owned enterprises. But the same people vote to power the BJP or Congress during elections, the parties which are totally committed to economic reforms. Again, workers belonging to different unions come together, keep aside their affiliations and celebrate Rama Navami or Sumangali Puja (Haldi Kumkum) or Shivaji Maharaj Jayanthi or Ayudha Pooja in the offices or work places. The union leaders are many a time willy-nilly drawn into such activities for fear of losing their flock. The worker exercises his option to differentiate. Thus, the mass character of the trade union dilutes its purported political task. This is true specially in the Indian context.

We cannot be oblivious of the fascinating and fast-paced advancements in science and technology. The Scientific and Technological Revolution (STR) has just begun and already we see the transformation. The great discovery is Artificial Intelligence (AI). mechanisation, Robotisation are displacing mass jobs. Huge factories and offices have become a thing of the past. The STR has undoubtedly changed the production relations. Even the means of production. Capital can continue as a major ingredient. Whereas labour as a constituent is getting steeply down-sized and what may turn out by the year 2050 can be anybody’s guess. It can be that capital can entirely gobble up the surplus or the wealth generated. The scenario that is set to unfold will be most complex, defying our imagination.

A huge, all-inclusive, all-pervasive people’s movement on a global scale can be in store in the perceptible future. Trade unions have to come to grips with the realities, rework their political and also ideological strategies and play a dominant and vanguard role in the people’s movement. Only trade unions can perform that role. Simply because they constitute the rallying and unifying forces. The Indian Left has an enviable agenda.

The author, a trade union leader for the last 48 years, is a senior leader of the CPI and AITUC.

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