May Day used to be an occasion for expression of working class solidarity. Though there is no dearth of trade unions, May Day no longer holds the same fervour in the era of globalisation and privatisation.

Awareness of Labour Day appears to be low, especially among workers in the unorganised sector. Not long ago, Chennai was home to a vibrant workers' movement.

While trade union leaders stress that May Day continues to have relevance, reminding the working class of its rights achieved through struggle, they observed that militant trade unionism has taken a backseat as the political character and profile of the workforce has undergone a change.

When it comes to the labour movement, Chennai's contribution is unparalleled. It was here that Singaravelar, a pioneer of the Indian Freedom Movement and Communist Movement in India organised the first May Day in 1923.

“The labour movement predates the organised Left movement in the State. Till 1937, you cannot find the presence of leaders of the political parties in the labour movement. It was the socialists in the Self-Respect Movement who organised the movement. Even Singaravelar was a non-organisational communist,” pointed out A.R. Venkatachalapthy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

In the post-Independence period, the labour movement witnessed an upsurge in the late 1960s. “It continued for a decade before going through a lull. The one-day mass casual leave protest by the employees of the TNEB in 1971 is another example. And the May Day was observed in the backdrop of these struggles,” said A.K. Padmanabhan, national president of the Central Union for Trade Unions (CITU).

Mr. Padmanabhan spoke about how the labour movement in Chennai faced attacks in the 1970s, when managements sought to break the unity among the workers with the connivance of the ruling party.

“Goondas were brought into factories to target workers. Leaders such as V.P. Chintan and Kuchelar were attacked. Workers were victimised,” he said.

While the onslaught on the workers and closure of many factories put the workers on the defensive, the new economic policies introduced in 1990s created fresh crises for the labour movement.

N. Nanjappan, general secretary of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, said that labourers, particularly those in the unorganised sector, do not realise the importance of organising themselves.

Even if they do, awareness seems to be low. Andalamma, a flower seller in Flower Bazaar, makes about Rs.30 to Rs. 50 a day. “I am 65 and have been doing this since I was 15.” Largely a pavement dweller, she stays at a nearby police quarters in the nights. Asked if she would consider being part of a union or an organisation, she said, “Yes, I think it is important to belong to a group if we have to raise our issues, but I do not know if my clan has an association. So I have joined an organisation working on rights of working women,” Andalamma said.

N. Sithamma, along with her husband, has been making baskets for nearly 30 years. “Labour Day? I did not know of it. I only know to weave baskets. We raised four children from the money we earned through that. We work all day,” she said. On whether she would like to take part in any celebration, she said, “No, more than any celebration, it would be really helpful if the government gave us loans.”

According to the National Sample Survey, two per cent of the permanent workers are in the public sector; the figure is one per cent in the private sector. These figures put the size of the workforce in the organised sector at below 7 per cent of the total.

Mr. Nanjappan also pointed to the “indifferent attitude” of the trade unions to the employment of casual workers. “Instead of fighting against casual labour, many trade unions prefer to remain silent,” he said.

Though trade unions are turning their focus on organising workers in the unorganised sector, Mr. Padmanabhan said the workforce in these sectors lacked the capacity to make an impact.

“Who is bothered when beedi workers decide to strike?”

Both Mr. Nanjappan and Mr. Padmanabhan said that trade union activities based on sectarian ideology were confined to a few pockets.

Mr. Venkatchalapathy also argued that the politics of the Left parties, such as identifying with a workforce such as “autodrivers and aristocratic labourers” also led to disenchantment.

“Mobilisation of workers against the policies of the government will once again put workers on the offensive mode,” said Mr. Padmanabhan, pointing out the coming together of 12 Central Trade Unions in this regard.

(With inputs from Meera Srinivasan)

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012

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