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Editorial

Reaching Beyond Tokenism?

It would be a general strike without a vision of alternative ways of living. It would be a strike against the Modi Government’s systematic
attempt to give employers and investors greater leeway to reduce wages, make retrenchment, lay-offs and frequent suspension of work easier and give firms and government establishments unlimited powers to hire and fire and demolish whatever remains of labour resistance, particularly in the organised sector. At the time of writing preparations were in full swing to make the All India General Strike on September 2, 2016, a grand success. They did it last year and if nothing goes wrong they will do it next year. Whether this much tokenism can deliver is altogether a different matter. But they cannot think of anything radical and innovative beyond tokenism. On 30 March 2016, the National Conference of Trade Unions resolved to organise the September 2 strike to protest against the anti-worker, anti-farmer, anti-national and anti-people policies of the Union Government. All Central Trade Unions, barring the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party controlled BMS gave the strike call. Central Trade Unions controlled by political parties, not excluding left parties, are increasingly losing ground in the drastically changed industrial relations and sweeping neo-liberal atmosphere.

For all practical purposes, these Central Trade Unions represent a tiny segment of workforce in the organised sector. And they are too partisan to address non-partisan issues. They don’t call for a political revolution. Nor do they call for a social revolution. They don’t bring out hundreds of thousands, demanding free and meaningful education, universal health care for all and redistribution of wealth that has been concentrated in the top 10 percent of the population. The militancy of the rank and file has been sold out in the past by labour aristocrats of party-controlled Central Trade Unions, oriented basically toward state power. All these state powers want to maintain the status quo. Unorganised sector workers have legitimate grievances against their employers, against the government and against Central Trade Unions as well because of their sectarian and racial stance. The establishment conducts unending attacks against their lives and livelihoods, against their social identity and dignity. Only a broader solidarity can make a difference and force the authorities to think twice before indulging in ravages.

Not that price rise is a temporary phenomenon. Nor is inflation, more precisely food inflation, seasonal. They are endemic, eating the vitals of wage earners and eroding real wages all the time. But Central Trade Unions and the parties they are affiliated to, will not duel on it after September 2. They will allow the market forces to go on the rampage while government will happily mint more notes to balance their accounts books. And more notes in circulation means more inflation and price rise will continue unabated.

Ever since the advent of neo-liberalism in the 1990s, the old style functioning of labour unions has become irrelevant—in most cases it is the question of survival rather than aggression. The relentless propaganda by the government of creating of ‘millions of jobs’ now stands exposed—it is a propaganda for propaganda’s sake. It’s a hollow claim—no new jobs. But old jobs are vanishing.

The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ as they would euphemistically like to call it with a sense of pride and relief is all about further automation, rather ‘robotisation’. But political leaders engaged in labour movement have so far failed to grasp its slow and disastrous impact on workplaces.

In the West they are now hawking ‘workless society’—perhaps the highest stage of automation. For quite some time they have been promoting a plan called ‘‘Universal Basic Income’’ (UBI) intended, to address the massive onslaught of robots affecting jobs in factories, banks and offices, by offering each person a basic income from the government coffer. In other words the government will provide doles to the jobless. It is difficult to conceive of a genuine solution to increased robotisation. Modernisation is one thing but job-killing robotisation is quite another. Labour movement in this part of the globe continues to move in a circle. Gone are the days of unit-level or industrywise settlement mechanism. In truth even before the advent of neo-liberal onslaught tripartite agreements in some labour intensive industries, particularly in jute, tea, engineering, cotton textile etc. became ineffective.

Political parties control trade unions with apolitical outlook. They never go on strike on any broader issue, not to speak of international solidarity question, affecting society and people in general. They struggle in isolation and they lose in isolation.

Not that drastic changes in labour laws go unchallenged across the world. Socialists in Europe are socialist in name only as communists in India are communist in name only. Socialist President Francois Hollande’s plan to ram through labour law changes, has been met by strikes and social mobilisation. Industrial Strike is backed by social mobilisation. And that is the point at issue. Here only strike and that too token strike, no social mobilisation. As a result it is somewhat easier to crush labour initiatives even before they gather full steam.

16-08-2016

Frontier
Vol. 49, No.7, Aug 21 - 27, 2016