Autumn Number 2019

For A New Change Trajectory

Labour and Trade Union Movement in the Changed Context

Tapas Piplai

Trade union and Labour movements have a long and glorious history in the world. In India the legacy of these movements have its roots embedded with the growth of Jute, Cotton and Textile industries and have greatly been influenced thereafter by the European & Russian movements. Out of two i. e., trade union and labour movements, labour movement history is far older than trade union movement.

The labour movements have come into being with the uprising of agricultural workers & encroaching of tribal areas. Agricultural unrest is related to the enhanced tribute collection from land. Whenever the tribute (taxes and rents) collection is stepped up, despite the external failure like rain fall, fall in external fertiliser application or gradual decay of land productivity, the dissention among the agriculture workmen grows up. The unjustified rise in tax/rent from cultivation, without assigning any importance on up-gradation of technology, irrigation or on other means of productions, results to collective protests by the tillers. During colonial period the excess exploitation by the colonial lords reflect in the rise of farmer distress statistics.

The tribal movements similarly witness its dawn when the different tribal settlements, in the forest or hills, take up their traditional arms against forest/hill intrusions because of agricultural & urbanisation annexation to extract coal, iron, oil and wood. By and large farmers and tribal protests against the exploitation of land and people are the trigger points of such future labour movements. The exploitation of natural resources and its reflection on people give birth to labour/ farmer movement in the country.

The trade union movement surfaces much later. It emerges after the initial phase of Industrial revolution. It starts with the setting up of big mills to augment manufacturing base. It initially aims at to capture the small scale commodity markets of Europe and their colonies by offering cheaper price differential. The reason for cheaper price is mainly due to cheap labour hiring cost in the colonized country. The colonial administration slowly assumes control over raw material and its small-scale manufacturing processes. The stoppage of local weaving in Bengal bears the testimony of such aggression. This is also aimed to arrest the native artisans in various fields from converting the raw material directly into finished goods through patriarchal production system. Actually, it is a stage of deindustrialisation favouring England's entry in industrialisation era. All these discriminations and exploitations lead to worsening condition of labourers & labour unrest.

There is no denying the fact that during the initial days, trade union movement in India borrows a lot from the lessons of Paris Commune (1871), French Revolution (1789-93) and rise of Chartist movement (1836-1848) in Europe. The success of Boshevik Revolution (1917) and formation of Communist or Third International (1919-1943) extend a mental & moral support to Indian trade union movements.

In India during ninetieth century one sees the rise of various Industrial activities associated with colonial trade. The funding route is from the taxes & rents collected from the exploited people of India. Various manufacturing mills are set up in India and large numbers of workers are appointed in these mills.

The first Cotton mill is established in 1818 near Kolkata. British Tea Company started its operation in 1839. Large scale mining operation is established at Jharia in 1843. Railway and its ancillary industries specially for laying tracks are formed around 1850. In 1855 the first jute mill starts its operation at Rishra in undivided Bengal by bringing spinning machinery from Dundee, UK. The person who may be credited with the distinction of introducing Jute manufacturing in India is Mr George Auckland. Thereafter Steel & Iron co is founded in 1908. By another 60 years the cotton, jute spinning mills and Indigo production spread across the country in a mutiplied number and increases the miseries of migrated agricultural people. The occurrence of famine reaches its highest level during colonial period. The reason for famines are not for less agricultural output but for increasing demand to siphon off the tributes to England.

All these activities entail the rise of industrial proletariat & working classes in India. The feudal society and agricultural system run simultaneously. The industrial activity eradicates the caste and religious differentiation among the workers and proletariat. They are made to work in the same set of machines and under same shop floor under one identity banner that is worker. But caste class divide continues its domination in the social & personal life. This is another contradictory character of the working class in India.

Inhuman treatments meted out in most of these mills to the workers along with 13 to 15 hours of working time, unhygienic &horrible working condition of female labourers, employment of child labour, discriminating treatment—all germinated the need to form an association of workers to voice their discontents. The influence of Communist International through the public intellectuals facilitated the formation and thereafter unification of various splinter groups across the country for organising unit wise or industry wise protests.

The colonial power descends in India after battle of Plassey in 1757& the battle of Buxar (1764). The agricultural tax collection just doubled as the colonial power started funding the British GDP growth from the collection of surplus from India subcontinent. It is estimated that a major portion of the England GDP are used to be funded by India sub-continent through her extracted wealth from land & forest. The spread of railways aptly has supported the exploitation. It causes numbers of farmer death and suicide due to poverty, epidemic, famine and hunger.

The situation of workers too becomes further grave with the unprecedented price increase after World War-I. The necessity to increase salary of workers thus are imperative for the survival of workers. As these demands are not met so easily by the owners of the industries organising local movements to fight against these exploitation emerge as a natural conclusion.

Over and above to curb these discontents and protests by the workers an act is promulgated by the colonial power in 1860 empowering the mill owners enormously towards more independence and exploitation.
Finally amidst an all-round protest and blood bath a formal Indian Factory Act 1881 has come into effect to tone down these subjective powers of the owners.

In 1920 the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed in Mumbai under the leadership of Lala Lajpat Raito to lead such movements. It is supported by the formation of Workers & Peasant Party in 1925. During the same period separate independent worker cells are as well formed in Railways, Jute, Coal, Textile, Post & Telegraph, Docks sectors progressively to fight back these hardships of workers.

The first quarter of twentieth century witnesses strikes in plenty. In 1905 the printer’s association was formed in Calcutta and Calcutta and Dock Labour Union Association was flooted in Mumbai. Similarly, in 1907 the Postal Employees Union came into existence in Madras.

During this period of trade union movement, the success of Russian Revolution impacts the nature and progression of workers movement. Meerut Conspiracy case in 1929 and Bombay Textile Strike in 1929 cast its effect on the workers movement. Especially the Meerut Conspiracy case and in Railways, 33 leftists leaders were arrested and convicted under false allegation by the British Government. It is a major hallmark in the golden heritage of workers movement with left orientation. In India the workers movement took a turn towards left and socialist outlook. It established a close relationship with Communist International. The period from 1924 till 1935, the movements were termed as left-wing trade unionism.

In India P C Joshi, V V Giri, S V Deshpande, B T Randive, Jyoti Basu, Indrajit Gupta, George Fernandes etc. took the initial leadership in establishing the centralised trade union movements as per their own ideologies on Pan India basis. Gandhiji too was initially involved in the trade union movements. He appealed to the rich to abdicate their wealth and workers of their greed to wealth and violence. He preached for peaceful coexistence of both the classes based on honesty, non-violence and understanding. But his movement penetrates the movement canvas with questionable success.

Initially the trade union movements received lots of success like eight-hour job, separate Lunch hours, paid holidays, equality & respectability of treatment in the shop floor.

The other benefits like uniform, medical support, group transportation facility or cash support in lieu of that, bonus, job stability, old age pension, minimum age for employment have been introduced in line with international labour movement. Further feathers have been added in terms of fixing minimum wages, norms for handling pollutant & hazardous material, material movement etc. It emerges as the lawful rights of the workers. It slowly gets associated with environment protection in terms of control of noise level in the shop floor, air, water, soil cleanliness, greeneries protection etc. One can observe a total change or evolution of workers demand from earlier economic benefits! Moreover these demands are aligned with safe living condition of any human being.

The mode of getting these benefits is easier mainly through strikes, demands, and negotiations with stray incidents of violence and skirmishes. The central association of trade union organisations start taking these issues to the law makers after proper deliberation in public forums. They press the governments for enactment of suitable laws to safeguard the interests of the working class. Actually it was not the issue of violence or non-violence. It was more of social issues pertaining to health, safety, ecological balance. The legislation and the statutes have been passed to fall in line with global trend. Initially one finds that the movements are centered around Food, Shelter, Timing and Gender discrimination. Slowly the requirements change to better living for self and posterity, ecology maintenance etc. Therefore labour movement should also change to avoid its obsolescence. International Labour Organisation (ILO) extends its strength towards its implementation in the society. Control of Carbon Emission (CO2) & its equivalent has become a major part of human sustenance and environment protection. Triple audit of Profit, Planet & People (3Ps) are becoming mandatory slowly.
By and large, from the very beginning, the working class movement strategy is always centered around production cut. On the growth of industry, it hardly cast any positive impact. The other shortcomings are also glaring—no bargaining or negotiation norms emerge on pan India or industry basis. The contradiction between unit level fight and industry level fight become dominated. No clear cut process has been established to have a single majority union in one big establishment, almost all major parties have installed their own union in one unit!

Paradigm Shift After 1991
The overall scenario of social environment has been undergoing a dramatic change since 1991 in India. The earlier man-machine attachment is diminishing and the erstwhile working class realising that they are having multidimensional presence in the society. They are a rational and intelligent social beings and entitled to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment, within and outside factory. The bigger canvas of a continuous improvement in 3-Ps (Profit, People and Planet) positioning, appear to be more important in the daily workmen life as well. It can not be confined within production or factory gate economic agitation!

One can view the changes from the following two angles.

a)   Industry transformations : from within & from outside
The trade union movement demands have always been historically dynamic in nature and dialectical in growth. One can not avoid the fundamental teaching of Hegel, Marx or Lenin in today's perspective. The contradiction between earlier working forces vis a vis of new genre are too many. Therefore it's natural that new values will be generated from the negation of weaker forces. It cannot but to be recognised in the new working class movement manifesto.

In modern days the demand includes the human rights to have a cleaner working environment, higher health safety, accident free working atmosphere, pure water, pure air, less noise ambience, ergonomically conducive working atmosphere, machine safety, ambient working temperature, primary medical assistance etc. The changes should be supposedly be proactive rather than earlier reactive approach! The demonstration through digital media, has become the pivotal factor. These movements are mostly to be initiated by Public Intellectuals, either in courtroom, social media, digital media in villages, semi-urban or urban areas. The legalisations of these rights are getting ensured by lawmakers in parliament. In today's environment the trade union movements should mostly be aligned with social awakening movement. The earlier Man- Machine attachment issues in the organised sectors have been replaced by Information Technology, Robotics, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence. The very definition of workers have undergone a paradigm shift. The erstwhile picturisation of workers, as probably depicted by Maxim Gorky in his famous novel Mother, is perhaps partly true today. The definition of workers and petty bourgeoisie as defined by Marx & Engles in the later part of 1800 AD is perhaps no more a reality in today's changed social scenario.

People have graduated from initial industrial revolution (Industry 1'O of 1760) replacing human labour to mechanical machines, thereafter to mass manufacturing with rail, road, telegraph (industry 2'O of 1870), computer main frame integration (industry 3'O of 1945) to finally digital, smart transformation (Industry 4'O) of industry. Global industry is now perhaps marching beyond industry 4'O that is Industry 5.O in the near future by capturing the customer delight through neural approach! The present day industry transaction tools (be it service or manufacturing) are no more consisting of some big mechanical machines, controlled by human labour on the spot. Today Machine, Fixtures, Tools, Gauges, (M, F, T, G) are remotely inter connected through computer chips, signals, encoders, decoders and smart sensors. Earlier workers driven factories are being transformed into workerless smart factories! Today jobless growth is a reality. The unorganised sectors are today generating more jobs than organised sectors! Today the key elements of Industry are Cyber-Physical system, Data Analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud Computing, Cognitive Computing and Artificial Intelligence. Being the vanguard of social changes, it is essential that trade union leaders, members must be aware of these changes.

The onset of economic Liberalisation in the country (1991) followed by Globalisation (around 2003) and thereafter with further changes to Neo Liberal Economic era change the entire socio-economic canvas of the country and globe as a whole. The actual transactions are not happening inside the factory sheds. Even the geographical and social boundaries to demarcate the nation-states are fast receding to a virtual boundary. The global profit making has become paramount importance. Global profit making mechanism does not attach any importance to the earlier human values, human relationships and social values people have inherited from the erstwhile feudal society. In India it is perhaps still significant as people are living here in a mixed feudal, capitalist and new smart society.

These value changes have impacted the working class, as well. The definition of class & characters have undergone a radical shift. The transformation of Indian industry in global perspective needs to be viewed and so as the trade union movement.

In present scenario, ITeS and IT sectors accommodate around six million professionals and academically qualified technicals. Similar is the case in the areas of the banking, retailing, entertainment and hotel sectors. The work is more of cerebral nature in the aforesaid areas. If one looks at today's leading entrepreneurs like Sunil Mittal, K M Birla, Udai Kothak, R N Tata, Anand Mahindra, Ambanis—they are all the successful products of liberalisation. They effectively clinch the new business opportunities into day's globalised economy, specially the emergence of IT & ITeS services, globally. They have effectively captured the forthcoming business changes !The changes of traditional man--machine separation are slowly replaced by IT, Robot, Machine learning algorithm, Control Panels, and managed by white coloured executives.

Most of the entry level technical boys and girls are placed overnight, after 2004, in Rs 3 to 5 L salary (CTC) bracket with a ten to eleven direct working hours! But the surplus they are generating is of high quantum profit for the corporate owners. The salary of the so-called "workers" might have gone up from earlier times, but the surplus generation has climbed a higher zenith. The l exit policy for the professionals has become an easy affair. These are all the outcome of economic liberalisation. The capital has changed its characters and taken the full advantage of opening of Service sector. Alas, Indian trade unions are still lagging far behind to comprehend these changes in totality and charting newer ways to launch protest! It should start with the redefinition of worker base, their process of value addition in the industry and finally how to obtain better living standard WITHOUT disturbing the customer.

b)  Classes vs Identity
As a result, the earlier class characters are slowly replaced by identity resistance characteristics. These are different forms of class struggle. The identity crisis as mentioned by Prof Prabhat Patnaik now a days is of three types. The first type is related to resistance politics. It raises the issues of protecting of the age old traditions, ethics and protesting against oppression. The tribal movement against deforestation is one such movement. The second type of identity is for enhancing the group's own bargaining power to get more advantages from governments. The economically upper classes bargain for more reservation under the veil of backward tribe or caste are the example of such resistance. The third one is to toe the line of rising communal and ruling power which with the help from state and media are getting translated into a fascist identity. It deals with annihilation of other religions and communal sentiments, controlling of digital publicity. Now a days to create public sympathy and democratisation of such demands, most of the TV channels are highlighting these issues in the form of artificially triggered debates.

Incidentally most of these channels are privately owned by the Industrial capitalists who are aligned with ruling political parties. Needless to repeat that it befits the ruling politics as well as the new definition of democracy. Today democracy has to bow down to finance capital as the flight of capital has become a seamless effort for exit. The governments have to fulfil the demand of disruptive politics steered by finance capital. Therefore it is meaningless who will be on the ruling power today at the crown. They have to align with global finance capital. Needless to highlight that the popular democracy or the tradition of democratic movements is slowly transformed into a 'got up' game of the ruling party. The financial and its associated political might will rule the society and governments. The movements by the political parties and their demand representations are just to keep common people lured towards central democratic administration. The recent corporatisation of the government machinery is nothing but a task completion management. It is to hide the priorities of the common masses! Trade union movements must recognise these changes and come out boldly with the real issues.

The ever-growing unemployment, lumpenisation of the society, mass migration to city for jobs, rampant corruptions are making the trade union movements even more tough. It has become all the more difficult to turn a blind eye to these issues by the trade union movements or worker movements and just to remain focused on the local economic issues any more. In fact the parliamentary democracy is losing its earlier strength and shine.

Way Forward…
Indian working class is continuing its existence simultaneously with different industry stages (like 2'O & 3'O stages). It is slowly progressing into 4'O stage in India. Therefore the earlier trade unions' war cries are still significant in India, because of the dual presence of the industry stages, but with diminishing importance. India is at the threshold of Industry 3'O & 4'O. The earlier 2'O industries are slowly being replaced by and large. Time has come to redefine the Labour or Working classes, from this new environmental perspective. The new skills are to be re-instilled in the knowledge domain of working class. They should be made more aware of the tools of today's industry and smart instruments operation. These should have its proper reflection in the Party lines and trade union movements. The Customer Relation Management (CRM) data analysis are coming up with paramount importance for any industry's existence. The relationship with overseas industries with cost control are the keys to survive in today's hot bed of competition. The actual progress of civil society in tandem with workers movement must go hand in hand. Suspension of operation in any organisation in today's scenario is an insignificant and detrimental decision not only for the owners but for the employees as a whole. It hardly affects the capitalists. Remote operation and flight of capital are seamless today. The single GST can enable pan India operation from any remote corridor through data & signal management. Therefore earlier strikes & work suspension activities are to be dropped and to be navigated against new technology canvas.

Trade Union movement cannot be viewed in isolation from society& technology. It ought to undergo and rightfully has been undergoing the changes. Workers movement needs to be a part of the social movement involving a bigger population. Unit level strategy must be a subset of overall strategy objectives.

Today the issues like human rights, further enlightenment through reasoning and primacy of reasoned social justice are to be addressed in the movement charter. The derivatives of the wrong policies and the influence of finance capital are visible today in every aspect of social discontents like growing poverty, rising unemployment, inequality, failing standard of education, poor public health, rampant state and individual corruptions, non-secularisation of civil society, etc. The new working class definition is to be reconfigured suitably with the advent of IT, ITeS and other software based industries. Information technology is no doubt the most progressive trend today in the industry.

If the strategy is not innovative and does not change with the time and opportunity, it turns into a dead dogma.

Therefore the role of reasoned intellectual thoughts is of paramount importance rather than just to address some local economic demands in isolation. One witnesses such departures from traditional or classical approaches in the past as well by Marx, Engels or Lenin frequently. The changes of the society are to be factored, in framing new working class manifestos. The impulsive radical approach may not serve much purpose in today's scenario, if not it is updated with the aforesaid changes.

Earlier traditional direct exploitation theories associated with direct colony are to be freshly evaluated against these changes in the age of 'finance capital'', "neo-liberal economy" & "new digital information" systems.
India's central trade union organisations must recognise the sustainable secular, reasoned social laws & justice, ecology protection and any sorts of discrimination in the society. The primary health, life expectations at birth, education, nutritious food, communication, independence, social security and mobility, post retirement & old age social security are of important facets in the day today lives of masses and its sustainability.

These are applicable to working classes and in their movements. One must realise that present day working classes are nothing but a subset of entire population!

Acknowledgement :

1.      Pratnaik Prabhat—Ways of Neo-liberalism—Frontline ; Dec 15-28 2012
2.      Prabhat Patnaik—Neo-liberalism and Democracy—EPW, April 12 2014
3.      Tapas Piplai—Industry Transformation in the era of 4'O—unpublished article
4.      Tapas Piplai—Industry & Artificial Intelligence—Presentation in Calcutta University seminar-2018
5.      Sarat Davala—Independent Trade unionism in West Bengal (1996), EPW Vol-52
6.      Sanhati—Issue on a brief history of workers movement—August 23,2007.
7.      Manifesto of Communist Party–Marx K & Engels F (1848 edition)—reprinted by Progressive Publishers, Moscow.


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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019