INDIANS ON STRIKE: Caste and Class in the Indian Trade Union Movement

The working-class movement in India can be traced to the late nineteenth century, when the country was still a British colony. At that time, there were extremely draconian laws in place, and the onerous task of organizing was so fraught with risk that it was only undertaken by committed political activists.

The first national trade union—the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)—was established in the 1920s, during the colonial period, amid tremendous working-class upheaval. Until 1947 (the first year of national independence), the AITUC served as an umbrella organization for trade unions all over the country—workers and political activists of all leftist persuasions (communists, socialists, left-wingers), some of whom belonged to the Congress Party. Still, its writ did not go unchallenged. In the late 1920s, in Mahatma Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat, the textile mill workers saw the birth and development of a peculiarly Gandhian trade union, committed to his philosophy of “trusteeship,” whereby capitalists held wealth in “trust” for their workers.

The union was led, interestingly enough, by the sister of one of the biggest mill owners. She was, however, fairly uncompromising in her opposition to the mill owners, remaining committed to the workers’ cause within the Gandhian framework. The Communists were also a formidable rival in this state. In fact, in most of the big textile cities of Calcutta, Bombay, Indore, Kanpur, and Ahmedabad—and wherever else there were industries like jute production and engineering—it was the Communists who provided the backbone to the AITUC. The colonial government did everything in its power to break their influence.

Thus, the trade union movement in India has been linked to political and ideological organizations since its inception. This characteristic has remained unchanged even after independence, and it has helped make Indian trade unionism prone to splits and divisions. Today’s trade unions—even those that proclaim their independence (from both political parties and ideological constraints)—owe their existence to and are still led by political activists with strong ideological and political associations.

After independence, a pro-government trade union—led by leaders of the ruling Congress Party, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC)—formed as the beneficiary of government and employer largesse (and bias). In Bombay, the Trade Union Act itself was worded in a way that made the INTUC textile union the only union to win recognition and, therefore, the only accepted bargaining agent. In the 1940s and 1950s, there were more than one million Bombay textile workers, and their long history of organization and struggle (not to mention their sheer numbers) had negative implications for the trade union movement as a whole. The textile industry was the earliest organized industry to be established in India. Since it employed such a large number of workers, the earliest unions were formed within this sector. The workers launched militant struggles not only on trade union issues, but also in support of the national struggle for independence. Soon, the Socialists also split from the AITUC and formed a trade union center of their own. A couple of decades after independence, a right-wing party, swearing allegiance to the Hindu nation, came into existence and soon after launched another trade union center. In the 1960s, new regional parties developed and successfully formed state governments, many of which also started trade union wings. In the same decade, the Communist Party split, first into two and then into three. In the 1970s, the Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) broke away from the AITUC and, much later, several smaller trade union centers were formed by other splinter groups. However, the CITU—belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—became, by far, the largest and most influential communist-led trade union center.

In addition to these central trade union organizations, there are also industry-wide independent federations for those who work for insurance companies, certain banks, the defense and telephone industries, the postal system, and the local government (railway workers, teachers, etc.). Most of these employees work in the public sector—for state-owned enterprises—and while some industries are represented by a single union, others are represented by several.

Private (Indian and foreign-owned) banks, insurance agencies, airlines, the telecommunications industry, and most branches of the IT sector do not have trade unions. This is for two reasons: state and central governments give employers their full support in not allowing the formation of unions (or in helping to crush those that do emerge); and myths engendered by globalization and neoliberal apologists have successfully affected the thought processes of the highly educated youths who have been employed in these sectors. In a country like India, with abysmal levels of poverty and high unemployment, it is not unheard of for people who technically belong to the working class, or who come from working-class backgrounds, to identify as middle class. In fact, even among unionized workers, there is a strong sense of middle-class identity—except during actual struggles and strikes.

This is not just a result of “false consciousness.” A huge chasm separates many workers from the vast masses of the poor, the unemployed, those working for a pittance in an unorganized sector, and members of the rural proletariat. Furthermore, most of these unlikely middle-class identifiers belong to the upper castes, creating an additional distance from those nearer to the bottom of the heap. The “new workers” that have been created by neoliberal policies—including privatization, unregulated entry of multinational corporations (MNCs), the setting up of call centers and IT hubs, and a service sector that is growing exponentially—are even further removed from any kind of working-class consciousness, and feel privileged enough to not “need” trade unions or recourse to improve their working conditions. The creed of “individual endeavor leading to individual success” (and its reverse) is strongly ingrained in most of them, and depression and suicide are more likely responses to unfair management practices than organization and opposition.

The trade union movement’s fissiparous tendencies have been further strengthened by the ways in which the caste system functions in India. Caste is a peculiar feature of Indian society that is linked to birth and an unchangeable fact of an Indian’s life. Caste oppression and the exclusion of both the former “untouchables” and the backward caste people—the lowliest and most numerous members of the caste system, who nonetheless enjoy a status higher than “untouchable”—have, naturally, given birth to various kinds of resistance and response. The Constitution of India reserved government jobs, and seats in public educational institutions, for those formerly known as the “untouchables” (who are now designated as the “scheduled castes”). The scheduled tribes (living mainly in remote forested regions of Northeast India)—another sector of Indian society that has suffered the worst kind of oppression and exploitation—are also entitled to these rights. As far as the working-class movement is concerned, the important aspect of this constitutional provision is that workers and employees belonging to the scheduled castes are now 25-35 percent of the government workforce.

This sector of society, logically, should have been at the vanguard of struggles against an oppressive social system and on behalf of working-class movements. However, the dynamics of the caste system have largely excluded them from playing crucial leadership roles in the workers’ movement. There are many reasons for this. One is certainly the attitude of the upper-caste employees who often dominate trade-union membership. So, too, has the promotion of opportunistic “identity politics” created separatist organizational tendencies among the scheduled castes—most state-owned industries and departments are now home to scheduled caste/tribe associations which often parallel the trade unions. The relationship between the two groups is, at worst, confrontational and, at best, mutually exclusive. Government espousal of privatization, however, has recently brought the two closer to each other.

The Unorganized Sector

I t is very important to remember that, in the context of workers’ struggles in India, only a fraction of workers are organized. A government report states:

About 7 percent of the total workforce is employed in the formal or organized sector (all public sector establishments and all non-agricultural establishments in the private sector with ten or more workers) while the remaining 93 percent work in the informal or unorganized sector . . . It is estimated that 369 million workers are employed in the unorganized segment of the economy whereas only 28 million workers (7 percent) are engaged in the organized sector.

The term “unorganized sector” does not begin to describe the conditions of work or the remuneration levels for this vast army of 369 million men and women. Suffice it to say that the minimum wages in most parts of the country have only in the last year been raised to one hundred rupees a day (fifty rupees = one U.S. dollar)—i.e., to the level at which the United Nations Development Programme has set the poverty line. It is important to remember that many workers do not receive even this minimum wage.

There are various important categories of workers in the unorganized sector in addition to those working in small factories or cottage industries, performing contracted work in their homes, or working as contract laborers. One group is comprised of poor, rural men and women who have been enlisted under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). This was a very significant piece of legislation pushed through by the Left from 2004 to 2009, when the existence of the Congress Party-led government was dependent on left-wing support. The Congress Party and the main party of opposition—the rightist, “Hindu,” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—are both deeply committed to neoliberal policies and obeying the diktats of the IMF and World Bank. This legislation, therefore, bucked the trend of the government’s shrugging off of its responsibilities to provide employment and minimum welfare measures for its citizens. The legislation provided for one hundred days of guaranteed employment per rural family at 60 to 130 rupees a day (depending on the minimum wage in different states). At least 30 percent of beneficiaries were to be women. The work they were to be given was extremely backbreaking—eight hours of hard labor in the open, digging ditches and creating other kinds of rural infrastructure. The fact that hundreds of millions of poor men and women have been queuing up for this scheme gives some indication of the extent of rural poverty and unemployment.

Not only are vast numbers of people demanding work under the NREGA but, in many parts of the country, they are also being organized—by the Left, for the most part, and also by some committed NGOs—so they get the work that’s been promised to them, and then also get paid. While the effort to organize these workers has not yet reached massive proportions, the fact is that these workers have engaged in struggles, protracted and sporadic, throughout the length and breadth of the country. Since the NREGA is implemented through the elected village councils, these are very local struggles involving hundreds of thousands of very poor people. This is an extremely important development for the working-class movement that can lead to a tremendous widening and deepening of future struggles. Every passing year is witness to this.

Another development critical to the Indian working-class movement, and Indian women in particular, has emerged in the health and education sectors. Privatization of health services and educational systems has had a severe impact on general well-being. It has also led to much retrenchment of relatively secure, well-paid government jobs. It has had another consequence as well—the government, following World Bank prescriptions, has hired contract, ill-paid, “temporary” laborers to carry out permanent tasks. Millions of poor women—most of whom have at least ten to twelve years of formal education—now work for rural health systems as auxiliary nurses and health care workers (especially involved in monitoring pregnant women and ensuring institutional deliveries); as providers of a few hours of “crèche services” and nutritional supplements to infants in cities and rural areas; as cooks and servers in the “midday meal scheme” at government primary schools, which several states have extended to municipal schools as well; and as “helper teachers.” All of these jobs entail a full day’s work but are deliberately treated as temporary jobs of a part-time nature, to deprive workers of a minimum government salary. The pay range is five hundred to twelve hundred rupees a month! And the twelve hundred upper limit has been reached only after many struggles, demonstrations, and strikes. What is important is that many of these ill-paid and thoroughly exploited women are getting unionized and are participating in increasingly militant struggles. Once again, there is the possibility of widespread movements, transgressing urban-rural boundaries.

Important Struggles of the Past Year

Despite the fact that, in absolute terms, the number of workers in the organized sector is relatively small, the impact of their struggles is felt not only among the unorganized sector workers but in society as a whole because of the way in which these struggles affect government policies.

The thrust of neoliberal policies has, of course, been most directly felt by the organized working class, which has seen its numbers, its organizational strength, and its very social importance diminish considerably under neoliberalism’s impact. In the recent past, however, the intensity of the attack on the organized working class’s very existence seems to be providing this group with some new weapons and cleaning the rust off some of its traditional ones. As a result, 2010 witnessed some significant battles.

The most important battle was the one-day general strike of September 7th (and the campaign leading up to it). The CITU called a meeting of all the central trade unions, and all India federations of employees, at which the decision to strike was made. The reality of the attacks they are facing—in the form of government policy and the unprecedented rise in prices over the last two years that has tremendously eroded workers’ living standards—spurred them to come together and adopt a common charter of demands: 1) take urgent steps to curb the continuous price rise through universalization of the PDS (public distribution system) and by banning speculation in commodity markets; 2) strictly enforce all basic labor laws without any exception or exemption, as well as stringent punitive measures for labor law violations; 3) adopt concrete, proactive measures to make employment protection in the recession-stricken sectors a condition of the stimulus package that’s being offered to entrepreneurs, while also adopting concrete steps against retrenchment, layoffs, contractorization, and outsourcing; 4) remove all restrictive provisions respecting eligibility of coverage under the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008, and create a national fund for the unorganized sector that provides a national floor-level social security for all unorganized workers (including contract/ casual workers); and 5) end the disinvestment of shares by central public sector enterprises (CPSEs) to meet budgetary deficits and use their growing reserve and surplus for expansion, modernization, and revival of sick public sector undertakings.

The strike was an enormous success and more than one hundred million workers participated. Total bandhs (closures of shops, public transport systems, restaurants, etc.) were observed in the three Left Front-governed states of West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura. This is not unusual or unexpected, but what was astonishing was that at least five other states also witnessed bandhs. In a city like Mumbai (Bombay), all means of public transport—including taxis and autorickshaws—were off the roads. The following sectors were involved:

• The entire financial sector—covering the banks and insurance companies—witnessed almost a complete shutdown throughout the country, involving around two million employees.

• More than ten million state government employees, teachers, boards, and corporations—covering almost all of the country’s states—participated.

• Around two million central government employees—covering about 80 percent of the workforce—struck (in the defense sector, the strike was also about 80 percent effective).

• About 80 percent of the six hundred thousand coal-mining workers—in nine companies— joined. In the non-coal-mining belt (granite, graphite, iron, phosphate, limestone, and other minerals)—spreading across Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh—the strike was near total.

• Strikes led by the telecom workers—under the telecom giant BSNL—were more than 70 percent effective.

• In the petroleum sector—in upstream operations, refineries, and at the marketing end—the strike was nearly complete in the eastern, northeastern, and southern parts of the country, and partial in Northern and Western India.

• In steel, the strike was massive in Durgapur, IISCO, and Visakhapatnam, and partial in other places. • At the ports in Kochi (in Kerala) and Kolkata (in West Bengal), the strike was massive, while at other ports it was partial.

• In the plantation sector, the strike was near total.

• Unorganized-sector workers in brick kilns, head-load workers (who carry loads on their heads and are identifiable by their red shirts and bandanas), beedi workers (who make paperless hand-rolled cigarettes from tobacco leaves), and mandi workers (who load and unload goods at wholesale markets) took part, organizing rail-roko and rasta-roko (rail and road stoppages, by sitting on the rails and highways) throughout the country.

• Construction workers—organized and unorganized—responded to the strike call in a big way, and construction workers in all the hydel projects under construction in the state of Himachal Pradesh struck.

• More than one million anganwadi workers (women who provide nutritional and other support services to infants and new mothers) actively participated.

• Hundreds of thousands of fisherfolk and fishery workers took part throughout the country.

• The transport workers—from both the state and the private sector—magnificently responded.

• Electricity workers took part in most of the states.

• One hundred and fifty thousand of the country’s medical representatives (sales employees of drug companies) chose to strike.

• The special economic zones in Visakhapatnam and West Bengal were shut down.

• The industrial areas of Gurgaon and Dharuhera—in Haryana—witnessed almost a complete stoppage, despite attempts at suppression.

Another very important struggle was in a special economic zone in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where many MNCs have set up manufacturing units and where trade union activity is banned by law. Here, workers of the Foxconn Technology Group—which has witnessed seventeen worker suicides in the past couple of years—went on strike, demanding the right to form a union of their choice. These workers come from the rural areas around the factory, and many are women. They are exposed to poisonous gas emissions and work overtime without getting properly compensated. The workers finally decided to organize themselves, formed a union, got affiliated with the CITU, and demanded recognition of their union. When negotiations foundered, the workers went on strike (there were also large-scale solidarity actions by other workers in the area). Hundreds of workers, along with their leaders, were temporarily imprisoned. An uneasy peace now reigns at the factory, but no one has any doubts that the workers will renew their struggle in the near future. This struggle has tremendous significance since it mobilized workers who had once been quite averse to trade unionism and collective action.

Women workers have, perhaps, been the most active organizers and struggle-participants in the last year. Tens of thousands of them—health workers, midday meal workers, crèche workers—have organized conventions and conferences all over the country, and have participated in (small and large) struggles and strikes. They have been successful in winning small victories—an allowance here, a wage increase there—but, most importantly, they have won recognition for themselves as people entitled to rights that the government was determined to deny to them on principle.

The challenges posed by globalization and neoliberal policy implementation have created many setbacks and roadblocks for the working-class movement in India. But they have also opened up some new avenues for advance, new avenues for bridging rural-urban divides, new avenues for the militant entry of women workers into the forefront of political activism, and new avenues for unity in a much-fragmented movement.