As always, Bollywood anticipates Indian realities much better than real-life participants. In any number of films in the 1970s and 80s, union leaders raise the pitch of labour militancy and at a ripe moment, “sell out” to the management.
Something similar occurred last week with the workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited’s Manesar plant near Gurgaon.
News reports suggest that 30 fiery leaders of the prospective union—the cause of industrial unrest in the firm—received severance packages and have not been heard of since. The company has not disclosed the exact amount paid as severance—reported figures vary anywhere from Rs14 lakh to Rs40 lakh per person. These amounts are 215 to 615 times the monthly wage of contract workers.
Already there are chants of “betrayal” on part of trade union federations. These political unions were a part of the problem. Maruti’s unions are, so to speak, “depoliticized” entities that deal exclusively with workers who work there. The company has resisted outsiders having any say in its unions. If anything, the intensity and militancy of the industrial action pointed to the interests of larger—political party-based—unions. Workers at Maruti were a mere tool. So it is natural that “betrayal” is a dominant theme amongst these groups at the moment.
But was it betrayal truly? Collective action—which ranges from trade union activities all the way to national revolutions—is based on the premise that individuals recognize their “class” position very well. This, in turn, helps them submerge their individual interests and focus on bigger, more important, goals such as creating powerful unions and socialist countries.
In reality, that never happens. In Maruti’s case, some 1,200 workers went on a strike at Manesar. Of these 1,200, it was 30 who bore the brunt. They were suspended and, at one point, their jobs appeared to be under threat. Effectively, they spearheaded the campaign while the others were free-riding. The expected gains—better wages and working conditions—would accrue to all the 1,200 workers. In contrast, the cost to the 30 leaders was much more. So why would they make sacrifices for the 1,200 in the first place? The events show this was not the case and they gained much more than the others. What they did was to take a rational, if disturbing, step.
Karl Marx once said that ideas such as religion breed “false consciousness” in workers. He, of course, did not say that “class consciousness” is perhaps the biggest illusion of them all.
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