Strategy And Tactics

Decline In Labour Organising

Ismail Chaudhury

Labour organising in India was not easy even at the initial stage of unionisation, albeit labour aristocracy coupled with multiplicity of unions was not a dominant factor in those days. It was as difficult as it is today. And for communists and socialists who have a special mission to politicise labour movement with a goal to reach, the situation has never been a copy-book scenario as scripted into marxist discourses across the world. Despite working in modern manufacturing activities, Indian workers continue to live at many levels and maintain a number of conflicting identities. Trade Union movement never grew as a strong collective bargaining counter as it was the case in the West though the early phase of unionisation was modelled after British Trade Union Congress. In truth state intervention served as a catalyst for horizontal and vertical growth of trade union movement. Political parties that were involved in trade union movement, just took advantage of labour and industry related laws to spread their influence while continuing to depend heavily on state intervention to resolve industrial disputes. In other words they always tried to avert conflict situations even at the cost of labour’s stipulated rights. It is one reason why political consciousness of workers never grew beyond a certain point.

Not that communists didn’t try to politicise trade union under their sway at the initial stage of industrialisation. They did but failed to motivate workers for more than one reason. And later they decided not to stick to the idea of politicisation for a greater cause and radicalisation of the society. Most of Indian workers didn’t lose their traditional roots in villages during their life time. Basically they were related to peasant economy while working in factories in cities. Also, the very migrant nature of workforce, mainly in metropolitan industrial centres, where manufacturing industries came up, stood in the way of politicisation. Migrant labour created a kind of money order economy in their places of origin. Today its size has also increased with the increase in workforce.

In Calcutta industrialists were outsiders, they had no moral or legal compulsion to develop the region and abstain from unfair labour practice. The situation was somewhat different in other regions. And these factors were not insignificant in influencing labour organising. Also, most workers who hailed from the adjoining states, had strong rural bonds with primary interests in villages. In a way both bourgeoise and proletarians had no organic links with the region where they were doing business or toiling for wages. Workers in advanced and organised sectors were mostly from upper and middle peasant caste which created an additional problem to fight against pre-capitalist prejudices. In cities they were workers demanding better wages and bonus while in villages the same workers were opposing higher social mobility of ‘low caste’ people and minimum wages for argicultural labourers. Their dual nature stood in the way of politicisation of labour force in no minor way. True, things were somewhat different in other metros, but it was more or less a general scenario. All these impediments worked as a brake on trade union militancy and propagation of progressive outlook even in areas of Dickensonian working conditions. Port & Dock, Railways, Jute, Cotton, Engineering, Mining, Plantation—all these sectors created a substantial workforce working with advanced machinery and yet unionisation never crossed the border of charter of demands-centric agitation, let alone politicisation. Broader issues didn’t attract them for the simple reason that they didn’t think about long-term interests.

Communist Parties of all shades, not excluding the ultra groups, have all along been championing the idea of worker-peasant alliance as the bed-nock for revolutionary change they talk about. And yet they never tried to translate it into programme of action. The agony of jute cultivators dates back to pre-partition of Bengal. Farmers don’t get remunerative prices in any season, good or bad, and are being forced to resort to distress sales year after year. The same is true of cotton growers. Ironically jute workers in Bengal never went on strike in support of jute cultivators for an  hour or a day during their long journey even when communists were at the helms. Mere slogans cannot help worker-peasant alliance grow. Jute barons are themselves big jute traders as well and they have all the privileges under their command to manipulate market through the innumerable agents and sub-agents—right from the stage of sowing. In a number of industries the scope of solidarity movement has been ignored. Politicisaiton of labour movement, rather trade union movement cannot develop in vacuum. Nor does it make sense to periodically quote Lenin and Mao on this dificult terrain in well-attended seminars.

Multiplicity of unions as it is today was not that rampant at the initial stage, say 60 years ago. Nor was control of the trade union movement by political parties that all pervasive. And yet communist leadership of the day failed to articulate programmatic-action beyond bargaining counter.

Not that labour migration is a recent phenomenon. It is a global phenomenon today and it’s taking place on large scale. In India previously inter-state migration of labour was limited to certain specific regions. These days migration is taking place on a bigger and wider scale. It has been always difficult to motivate migrant workers who have their peasant or middle class roots elsewhere on polticial issues that don’t directly affect their lives.

With liberalisation going on in full swing, labour migration on global scale is on the rise everywhere. And with it labour-organising too faces new problems. In some third world countries, not to speak of advanced industrialised countries, ‘‘illegal’’ migrant labour accounts for more than 10 percent of workforce even in core sectors as it is the case in Thailand. For inter-country migration labour always faces the threat of deportation. Very recently, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has expressed deep ‘‘concerns’’ over Thailand’s decision to deport millions of ‘‘illegal’’ migrants. As many as 2m of Thailand’s estimated 3m to 4m migrant workers—most of them from Mayanmar—face deportation. The Thai government is determined to go ahead with their plan of deporting unregistered migrant workers despite opposition by employer groups, labour representatives and ILO. It has always been difficult to organise such migrant workers even for statutory bargaining, let alone political cause. Nearer home how migrant labourers from Bihar experience the ordeals of xenophobia in Mumbai, doesn’t need much to elaborate. In short, more the component of migrant labour of a workforce anywhere in the country, more difficult it is to get them organised even for minimum trade union rights. ILO is in favour of a coherent and long-term policy on labour migration based on labour market needs, international labour standards and migration management concerns. But no government obeys ILO norms anywhere in the world.

Labour organising in India till date, even by radicals, is based on ad hoc-ism and short-term programme, bereft of any long term strategy. The scenario cannot be improved for the better without a radical shift in strategic and tactical outlook.

Frontier, Autumn Number
Vol. 46, No. 13-16, Oct 6 - Nov 2, 2013

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