Changing Gear?

If workers are of the same mind their sharpness can cut through metal. No, it is not happening in India. The persons in authority do hardly bother about ‘labour unrest’ despite sporadic and isolated trade union militancy, mainly under local initiative, here and there. Labour organising never gets priority even in radical discourse these days, mocking at the age-old leftist utopia of worker-peasant alliance in the coming revolutionary change. Ever since the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s, the representatives of labour, both in the public sector and private sector as well, have reconciled themselves with the market reality, as if they have nothing to do. They can wait and wait eternally for good days to come. The market economy is a demand-oriented one and how it behaves irrationally upsetting all calculations is evident in the unending free fall of rupee. It’s a source of panic for all and yet all their measures to arrest the fall have so far proved futile.

True, organised sector workers form a tiny minority, having little power to substantially influence decision-making at the government level. Yet, they continue to matter in a number of core areas on which depend the ‘growth magic’ relentlessly hawked by the advocates of ‘reforms’, at any cost. It may be a welcome relief for toilers and employees who don’t know how to fight oppressive conditions that all trade unions in Coal India, the giant that frequently hits the headlines for wrong reasons—scam, mafia and missing files—have decided to go on a three-day strike from 23 September to oppose the Centre’s privatisation drive in piece meal or what they call partial disinvestment. That they are talking about something other than wage-rise and dearness alliance is itself radical enough to inspire a large number of wage earners in many vital areas facing a similar predicament—disinvestment. An earlier notice for a three-day strike beginning 19 September, sponsored by CITU-led All India Coal Workers’ Federation, now stands cancelled. They have now served a joint notice to withdraw labour for three days. A strike in coal industry is always significant for more than one reason. How British Coal Miners fought the Thatcherite reaction in the 1980s is now history.

A 10 percent disinvestment in Coal India and its proposed restructuring are among the major issues against which all trade unions in Coal India, are threatening to go on strike. Whether this unity in action, with diverse political outlooks and interests, can last long is open to question. No doubt all employers, both public and private, understand only one language—loss of production. Sensing the mood in the industry, the government has already halved the proposed disinvestment in Coal India to five percent, with a view to pacify the anger of aggrieved stake-holders. But it is more like a trap to buy time.

Though Coal Scam—or ‘Coalgate’—frequently gets media attention because the main Opposition Party in parliament wants to derive political mileage from it, disinvestment doesn’t. It is because major parties, both ruling and opposition, are not against privatisation or for that matter disinvestment, in principle. They differ on scale and timing. Only the left occasionally makes some noises against privatisation and sell-out. But they protest for the sake of protest to keep it on record that they were against privatisation.

Corruption is nowhere so rampant as in the coal industry—it begins at the pit and ends in the cabinet. In truth siphoning of funds and assets by owners and managers through fraudulent methods and accounting tricks made the industry sick in the first place in the 1960s. Nationalisation saved it from total collapse. No doubt social security of workers and employees was ensured after nationalisation. And unions stopped thinking beyond immediate social welfare net which is in jeopardy now if the Centre’s disinvestment plan gets translated into reality, hopefully in a year or two. But nationalisation opened the doors for loot by bureaucrats and unscrupulous market operators and unions didn’t react. The situation is now back to square one. They are ready to handover the entire industry to private players, including foreign mining conglomerates who have already shown their utmost notoriety in destroying virgin soil in Orissa and central India.

Coal mines under private management became virtual death pits because owners, big and small alike, invariably flouted mining rules from the day one, to maximise profits. Accident in coal mines in those days was a regular feature. They destroyed the ‘good earth’ by systematically plundering every bit of black diamond while neglecting safety measures otherwise mandatory in every mining operation.

The pattern of restructuring the Union Government is proposing is not yet clear but stakeholders from the labour’s side are sure to lose. So panic seems to have united them on this crucial issue that is no different from disinvestment plan in other areas, particularly, in insurance and banking.

Left unions have so far failed to thwart the government move to allow foreign investors to dominate Indian economy’s core sectors. Their bargaining power despite more than seven decades of organised trade union movement is so limited that they finally fall in line, after making some useless protest marches at the initial stage.

Why unionisation of labour force in India, notwithstanding several labour laws, has been in such a hopeless situation for long deserves serious attention. Unions irrespective of their colour always placed too much emphasis on the organised sector while periodically agitating against the growing income gap even in the same industry for the same work. Demand for fair income distribution is more conducive to increasing production and supplies and maintaining social stability. But unions never made it a matter of principle. As a result they have failed to organise the toilers in their millions to talk from a position of strength and they look quite helpless in the face of neo-liberal onslaught. They cannot stop disinvestment by their half-hearted approach without raising a common slogan for ‘common prosperity’—an aspiration deeply rooted in the people’s psyche—which is again key to the sustainable economic and social development.

Vol. 46, No. 8, Sep 1 7, 2013

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