Indian workers show their power

March 1, 2012

Snehal Shingavi looks at the background to India's massive general strike.

TENS OF millions of workers took part in a one-day general strike in India on February 28 in the country's largest industrial action since its independence in 1947.

This is the first time that India's main trade union federations, which are all affiliated to one or another political party, have come together to protest "neoliberal economic and labor policies" pursued by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the governing coalition led by the Congress Party. The action was also supported by more than 5,000 independent unions.

This reveals two important things about India that are usually forgotten by the Western media.

First, India is not merely a seething mass of desperation, composed of peasants and the abject poor. It has a massive working class with organizations that are capable of bringing out large forces. Second, the economic realities of neoliberal growth do not go unchallenged indefinitely. Even in the places where the vice grip on workers has been tightened to extreme levels, people find a way to fight back.

Participants in India's largest-ever general strike march in Hyderabad
Participants in India's largest-ever general strike march in Hyderabad

Among the demands that the unions made were the establishment of a national minimum wage, the end of temporary employment (what are called "contract laborers" in India) in favor of permanent jobs, more efforts to curb runaway inflation (the official rate is hovering at around 7.5 percent), guaranteed pensions, and an end to the privatization of publicly owned companies.

The banking and insurance sectors were hit hardest by the strike, but other workers, including dockworkers, postal workers and transportation workers, were heavily involved. The coordination of a national strike on this scale marks the beginning of a new stage in the confrontation between labor and capital in India, as the benefits of India's boom has produced an economy in which the benefits accrue to the few at the top.

Despite threats from the central government and a last-minute offer to negotiate, the strike took place and brought out millions.

In Kerala, the state government threatened workers with a "dies non" order (no work, no pay), while in other places like New Delhi, the government attempted to enforce the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) to force workers in industries like power generation back to work. In West Bengal, members of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) party also attacked and injured strikers.

FOR THE past decade, India has been the darling of the economic pundits globally, with massive growth rates and a burgeoning middle class whose consumptive powers have fuelled the national mythology of "India Shining." According to current estimates, the Indian economy grew at around 7 percent last year and is projected to grow again at a similar rate in 2012.

At the same time, the benefits of that growth have been massively skewed. As Katherine Boo's new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, demonstrates, the growth of the Indian economy has happened at the same time as the growth of its underclass.

Mumbai, the symbol of India's new economic power and famous for its massive film industry, is now commonly referred to as "Slumbai"--more people live in slums in Mumbai than don't. Many of these slum dwellers work in the hyper-exploitative informal economy--if they work at all.

Agricultural reforms implemented in the past 20 years have immiserated people in the countryside. Last year alone, there were more than 15,000 farmer suicides as a result of indebtedness and bad harvests. Desperate farmers then migrate to the larger cities and towns where they form the massive reserve army of the unemployed, which drives down wages.

The national strike was a response to these conditions and the pinch that workers are feeling throughout the country. Last year, there were some spectacular job actions at places like the Maruti Suzuki auto plant in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, where workers fought a pitched battle for wages and occupied the factory for almost two weeks.

At the same time, the official line of the Congress Party-led government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is that neoliberal economic policies are going to continue. At the heart of the fight with the unions is the controversial pensions bill now before parliament, which would tie workers' retirement benefits to market-driven financial instruments and put employee retirements in jeopardy.

But also at issue are Singh's plans to sell off major state holdings in order to finance repayments on international loans and budget deficits. Singh did, after all, cut his teeth as the economic architect of India's neoliberal reforms, which began to be implemented when he was the finance minister under former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

All this puts twin pressures on unionized workers in India. On one side is the threat of being pushed into the growing underclass, which labor is trying desperately to unionize. The other peril comes from neoliberalism and the attack on union rights. This has produced the conditions for greater worker militancy in India.

However, this confrontation between labor and capital in India will not be decisive. To start with, the unions have only put forward a tentative one-day strike, with a long and vague list of demands. Moreover, the official trade unions are all connected to various political parties, and these massive days of protest are usually connected to political gamesmanship that the parties play against one another.

The unions at the head of the strike were led by the official left in India, which is still dominated by Stalinist and Maoist political organizations. So in India, there is the All-India Federation of Trade Unions (run by the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) Janashakti faction), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (dominated by the CPI-ML Liberation faction), All India United Trade Union Center (run by the Socialist Unity Center), the All India Trade Union Congress (run by the Communist Party), the Center of Indian Trade Unions (controlled by the Communist Party of India-Marxist) and the United Trade Union Congress (run by the Revolutionary Socialist Party).

Since many of these parties are no longer revolutionary, they tend to play a dampening role on the class struggle, rather than developing it.

This isn't to say that workers don't fight back. They do, but the unions do their best to limit their struggles. In 2006, there was an attempt to form a federation of Independent Trade Unions called the New Trade Union Initiative, which holds out some of the best possibilities for an independent trade union movement in India. Many of these unions also participated in the recent one-day action.

Second, there are also reactionary trade unions, like the Hindustan Mazdoor Sabha run by the right-wing Bharatiya Janati Party (BJP), and the Bhartiya Kamgar Sena, run by the ultra-right-wing Shiv Sena. Both of these unions also participated in the strike, largely because the leftist unions kept the slogans vague enough that the right wing could use the one-day strike as cover for purported populist politics.

Part of the reason that the right and the left were able to come together (as they have in the past, under the Janata Party government in the 1970s) is because they are both now in the opposition to the Congress Party's UPA coalition that runs the central government.

In fact, despite agreeing early on to support the strike, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC, run by the Congress Party) withdrew after the party leadership put substantial pressure on it. "The strike is politically motivated and illegal. We will oppose it on Tuesday," said Ashok Chaudhary, the national president of the INTUC.

But this alliance between left and right can only be temporary and opportunistic, as the BJP and Shiv Sena are both pursuing neoliberal policies in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra respectively, where both play much larger regional roles. The left-right labor alliance is also dangerous, since the right wing has not been shy about stoking up ethnic and communal hatred in times of economic contraction.

PART OF the reason that the strike took place in as spectacular a way as it did was because the traditional left was routed at the polls in the last elections.

During the time that the left was in power in places like Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, they were able to play a dampening role on industrial actions. But once they were removed from office, they found it possible to allow the discontent of their members to be expressed in order to embarrass the current government. But only to a point: Too much worker militancy threatens their own ability to contain mass anger. Indeed, these parties have, in the past, used their ability to keep a lid on struggle to lure capital investment to their economically impoverished states.

Thus, in those traditional leftist strongholds, the strike was strongest, and it went beyond industrial work stoppages to actually disrupt traffic and business in major cities. In other places, such as Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Karnataka, the effects of the strike were not as strongly felt.

But the most significant showdown was clearly in West Bengal, where Chief Minister Banerjee attempted to flex her muscle against what she called "the politics of bandhs" (protests that shut downs entire cities). Having recently beaten the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the polls, Banerjee is now in the position of having to do the bidding of large capital, despite having organized strikes and bandhs herself in the past.

In Kolkata, the police were out in droves, attempting to get people back to work, while Banerjee's TMC party sent many of its members to break up rallies and pickets throughout the city.

Ironically, Banerjee came to power on the basis of an electoral backlash against the CPM when it tried to raze entire villages in order to make way for a manufacturing campus in the countryside for industrial giants like Tata Motors. Now, Banerjee is doing the work of the same capitalists she claimed to oppose--an opportunistic about-face that will only expose her to greater challenges.

What the general strike reveals is that although working-class anger at the economic and political system in India is growing, the major left parties have been unable to deliver anything but symbolic and token changes in their lives.

The general strike revealed that the working class in India is quite large and has muscle. But to take the struggle forward, workers will need new forms of political and union organization.

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