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Mainstream, VOL L, No 19, April 28, 2012

Today’s Trade Unionism

Monday 30 April 2012


May 1 is the International Workers Day. It is popularly known as May Day or Labour Day. Incidentally, May Day is also associated with some other events which have nothing to do with the labourers and workers. It has been regularly observed as a yearly feature by the trade unions since 1904 in most of the countries of the world although it was recognised as such in 1891 by the different organisations of the industrial workers. It was started so as to commemorate the sacrifices of the workers who had been killed in the police firing in Chicago, USA on May 1, 1886, that is, 126 years ago. Workers had gathered there to protest against the unspecified working hours in a day. They demanded to put a limit of eight hours a day.

The world has undergone numerous changes since then. Expressing solidarity with those victims of brutal repression has become a sacred duty of the workers during all this period. Now, white-collar, blue-collar workers and others join with them to pay their tributes to those killed at that time.

It has to be understood that this entire course of reaction is the by-product of the prevailing conditions created by capitalism and imperialism. Unionisation has become the compulsion of the working men and women and the employees of the various public and private enterprises and establishments. Even the bureaucrats and managerial staff have formed their unions. They also resort to all those methods of protest and agitation adopted by the ordinary workers on the roads and streets.

What is common to all these is that the scope of unionism is getting narrowed down with every passing day. It is being confined to the short-term and immediate interests of the members of the respective unions alone. With the result there is quite often a clash of interests amongst themselves too. They fail to comprehend the larger interests of the entire working men and toilers. Not only that, all this endangers the general interests of the society as well as the country at large. The common people are completely forgotten and eclipsed in this atmosphere of blind self-interest. This is true of all the trade unions and employees organisations irrespective of their political affiliations.

The worst is that the members of the unions have been virtually reduced to the slaves of the so-called leadership. Formerly there used to be Labour Aristocrats among the trade union leaders. Now a new crop of Labour Autocrats and Labour Bureaucrats has come up. One comes across them in every trade union, big or small. With that, rampant corruption is also quite visible. In some, a nexus has also been built between the leaders, police and managers/authorities .Thus the credi-bility of the trade unions and their leaders has been seriously dented.
Collective bargaining and group action was the core of a trade union. Now underhand means and personal gains and fortunes have become the norm among the leaders. The allegations of black-mailing, often made against the leaders, are not always false or untrue. There are many instances of such betrayals by the leaders. As they say, there cannot be smoke without a fire.

In our country, we have a glorious history of trade unions fighting for the protection and promotion of the rights of the workers, as also for the upliftment and betterment of society. It is a historical fact that our workers made their tremendous contribution in the Indian national movement.

It was in 1854 that the first textile mill was set up in Bombay, now Mumbai. But it was in 1884 that the first trade union—The Bombay Mill Hands Association—was founded by a lesser known person, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, who remained its President till his death in 1897. Several factories were set up since 1854, but the first Factory Act was passed and implemented in 1881 only. It may sound ironical that this law was meant to protect the interests of the factory owners. It was only the Indian Trade Union Act of 1926 which regulated the formation and functioning of trade unions in the country. The Act continues to be in force even today.
The movement for the freedom of India was still in its infancy in the beginning of the twentieth century. There were many groups scattered all over the country and abroad fighting for the liberation of the motherland from British colonial yoke. It was in those days that Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a noted fire-brand Indian National Cong-ress leader from Maharashtra, gave the slogan: ”Swarajya is my birth right and I shall have it.”He was arrested by the colonial government in 1906 and charged with sedition. Subsequently he was convicted and sentenced to six years imprison-ment and deported to the Mandalay jail in Burma, now Myanmar. The Bombay mill workers had then gone on a week-long strike to protest against Tilak’s conviction.

This example continued to be followed by the workers unions throughout the period of the freedom struggle. Even the Mazoor-Mahajan Sabha, formed by Mahatma Gandhi in a mill at Ahmedabad (Gujarat), became a part of the national movement under his leadership. The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), a federation of different trade unions established in 1920, was an integral part of the Indian national movement. Punjab Kesri Lala Lajpat Rai, another fire-brand Congress leader, was its first President.

Similarly, the bomb thrown by Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt in the Central Assembly Hall on April 8, 1929 has to be viewed in the political context of their movement. The Trade Union Disputes Bill was to be passed on that day. The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, on whose behalf this task of bomb-throwing was carried out, espoused the cause of the workers and wanted them to be associated with their movement actively.

IN a nut-shell, the workers and their trade unions have the legacy of transcending narrow economic interests. They are capable of fighting for the larger issues and greater causes.

Somehow this edge and perspective have got lost somewhere. The workers today are stranded in a blind alley. This is in spite of the fact that there is a mushrooming growth of trade unions in the post-independence period. Before 1947, there were only four all-India trade union centres. Now there are as many twelve of them. They are: All India Trade union Congress (AITUC), Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat (HMKP), Trade Union Coordination Centre (TUCC), Indian Fede-ration of Free Trade Unions (IFFTU), National Front of Indian Trade Unions (NFITU), National Labor Organisation (NLO), United Trade Union Congress (UTUC) and United Trade Union Congress-Lenin Sarani (UTUC-Lenin Sarni)

Obviously, the organised workers who constitute only about 10 per cent 0f the total work-force in the country are themselves badly frag-mented. Still there are many other trade unions at State levels. Workers unions and their centres are busy in a cut-throat fight for supremacy. In this process their own interests get harmed.
Workers and their unions have the potential to rise above the narrow loyalties of caste, commu-nity, language, religion, region etc. They can be a strong bulwark against local, parochial, centri-fugal and divisive tendencies. Now they are them-selves mired in this mess although they do come together to observe a one day all-India strike on vital issues affecting their livelihood. But that has become an annual ritual. There is absolutely no possibility of a sustained movement on any issue of national interest. The TU leaders do cry hoarse on this day to throw away the exploitative system. Their claims are all rhetoric and seem to be absolutely hollow.

As a matter of fact an average worker or emp-loyee finds himself/herself utterly helpless in the current trends in trade unionism. It would be too much to expect from him/her to think of fighting for the transformation of the society which can lead to his/her own emancipation. There are, however, some voices which want the cleansing of the trade unions. They want to get rid of the corrupt and renegade leadership. For the present these voice are feeble and weak.

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