Political barriers dissolved, for the first time, in what leaders see as a big plus for Indian labour

The 48-hour agitation that began on Wednesday saw, for the first time, all the 11 central trade unions in the country calling a strike with a list of common demands. Trade union leaders have termed this coming together, an “historic milestone in the Indian labour movement”.

Unlike other countries where trade union memberships have seen a steady decline in the past decade, in India, and in Karnataka, both the number of registered trade unions and the number of memberships have seen a significant increase. However, the rise in union membership has not resulted in more effective collective bargaining, trade unionists say. They say the onslaught of economic policies has forced them to sink ideological differences. Since 2010, trade unions have come together for two strikes, but both occasions saw one or two organisations holding back.

Prasanna Kumar, general secretary, Karnataka State Committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that the working class has been particularly hit badly since the economic slowdown in 2008-2009. Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, the government has failed to intervene to provide relief. This explains why the issue of spiralling prices of essentials has been a key demand cutting across all sections of the Indian workforce — blue collar, as well as white.

Minimum wage

The call for a minimum wage of Rs. 10,000 is also a key demand, which is based on the fact that real incomes have dramatically shrunk as a result of price rise. The demand for abolition of contract labour and expansion of the social security net, a universal public distribution system, and pension and medical benefits are also common demands that are based on the recognition that the quality of employment has deteriorated significantly.

Mr. Prasanna Kumar said: “The CITU wants to work towards institutionalising this collaboration, so it is not just an off and on thing. So we can meet together and increase the impact of our protests. There was some talk of mergers, but we feel the important thing is to build unity at the grassroots among workers,” he said.

This consensus has thawed political and ideological differences. Sanjeeva Reddy, chairperson of the coordination committee for this strike and leader of the Congress-backed Indian National Trade Union Congress, said “government apathy” and “people-unfriendly economic policies” have forced unions to overlook political affiliations.

“Earlier, even the Congress believed in collective bargaining, supported workers and was listening to the people. Today, it gives more weightage to industrialists and is after investments. This has compelled all of us to come together.”

Mr. Reddy called the 48-hour strike a “healthy sign for Indian labour” and underlined the importance of “keeping away political [barriers]”.

‘Failed the people’

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh’s Ramakrishna Poonja put it bluntly when he said “the trade union movement has suffered because some of us have acted like political agents of certain parties.” Though his is a BJP-backed union, he said there are “no two ways” about the fact that the government, and political parties, have failed the people.

“In all this politics, the purpose of the trade union movement was lost. That is the biggest mistake we made along the way. Though, individually, we were able to educate workers about their rights, our resistances were not making any impact with the government, nor with private managements. This has really forces a rethink in our approach to struggles.” The only option is to throw all our weight together, Mr. Poonja added.

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