May 1 Comes, May 1 Goes

Amidst the anti-labour hysteria across the world May Day provides an opportunity to toilers to heave a sigh of relief at least for a day. Talking solidarity is one thing. But to develop solidarity movement to thwart the ever-growing aggression of multi-nationals is quite another. With the collapse of actually existing socialism in Soviet Russia and end of cold war labour in the organised sector has lost much of its bargaining power even in the West, not to speak of moderately industrialised countries like India where collective bargaining is still in half-baked stage. As the possibility of workers and their legal representatives—trade unions—overwhelmingly switching over their allegiance to communism has receded after capitalist restoration in Soviet Russia and China global corporations now find it easy to force labour to accept humiliating terms and conditions in workplaces. No doubt a series of mutually reinforcing economic, political and innovative technological factors have brought about a sea change in the character of work. Also, the development of information technologies has made it possible to simplify and standardise many labour processes, including in-service industries, undermining further the bargaining power of many traditionally organised unions. The massive entry of digital labour was not imagined by the traditionalists even two decades ago. Western scholars are currently debating over digital labour and virtually negating the concept of working class as defined in marxist literature. With digital labour comes the fantastic growth of service sector. True, 20 percent of the world's 100 largest transnational corporations are now service companies. But 80 percent are not.

Rapid automation, rather labour-cutting technological up-gradation has made workers and their unions helpless. The erosion of labour power is nowhere so bone-chilling as in some labour-intensive traditional industries in most third world countries. Technological innovation has opened employment opportunities to a section of skilled workers, particularly in service sector but it has compounded the problem of labour organising.

Not that trade unions are not waging struggles against systematic wage cuts and curb on hard earned rights. But it is too weak to resist 'minimum labour, maximum profit' policy of employers throughout the world. With unemployment levels higher than anytime since the Great Depression of the 1930s, even in industrially advanced countries workers have few options but to accept whatever is on offer to them in the labour market. In this situation labour organising is a tough job for labour activists of all shades. Trade Unions are losing membership even in the organised sector though most companies have order books full. As for the unorganised sector the less said the better because here labour has virtually no bargaining power despite some unionisation. Globalisation coupled with internatio-nalisation of manufacturing process has brought about a drastic reduction in the ability of any given national government to intervene in labour-capital conflict even in the West and America, let alone third world countries. In plain language governments are being forced by the corporates to act against their workers' interests while allowing big business to indulge in unfair labour practice.

The development of an ever more technological by complex manufacturing process is the root cause of re-skilling of labour force. What they call fourth industrial revolution is all about maximi-sation of automation. Maybe, automation has reached its limits after massive introduction of robots, negating physical presence of labour which was unthinkable at the beginning of the 20th century. Robots cannot be organised in unions. Trade Unions have no answer to automation beyond a certain point. They cannot oppose technological up-gradation. Nor can they resist the advent of labour-eating process even in areas where labour-organising could have made decisive impact on the broader aspect of bargaining.

The phenomenal growth of services sector has created a new generation of employees who are essentially footloose and May Day has very little meaning to them unless they are politically motivated. They are not interested in the past but what they fail to grasp is they cannot protect their future without knowing the past. Labour movement in the era of digital economy looks more fragmented and the 'cybertariat' is yet to stand on its own feet.

As things are, capital is global but labour remains national and localised. And here lies the crisis of labour solidarity. Labour's resistance is strictly localised, failing to cross the national boundary and make solidarity movement a reality even at regional level. Thus unions become powerless despite prolonged strike in some work facilities. Gone are the days of international federations and regional or industry-wise groupings. So May 1 is one more ritual, having no lasting impact on the wretched of the earth. Internationally both left-wing and right-wing labour consolidations hardly make any news these days; they are in limbo. Only revival of socialist outlook internationally can give boost to rebuilding international labour federations without which corporations cannot be confronted effectively. Let us hope not against hope that the spirit of May 1 will mend many loose ends that stand in the way of building powerful labour solidarity movement across the world.

Vol. 51, No. 43, Apr 28 - May 4, 2019