For most Indians, Labour Day not only brings back memories of fiery trade unionists such as the late Datta Samant, but also serves as a reminder of the sweeping changes in the country’s polity that have transformed workplaces and lessened the relevance of old methods of agitation.
After the government began economic reforms in 1991, it was only a matter of time before individual negotiations began replacing collective agitation as a tool to protect the rights of workers, thus limiting the growth of trade unions. Also, the new economy offered a built-in protection as more employers meant more options for many workers.
Nothing, perhaps, underlines the inevitability of this shift more than the pro-privatization policies of the Communist government in West Bengal.
Aituc activists in a May Day march in Hyderabad
The emergence of coalition politics—that ended the decades-old single-party domination in India—further reduced the scope of political support that sustained labour agitations. The inability of a single party or even a single coalition to rule for long also reinforced negotiation rather than protest as a tool.
As the clashes between workers and auto union leaders at the Honda and Toyota plants in the past few years show, unions are less formidable now, although they continue to survive.
What began as a demand for 8-hour workday way back in 1886 in Chicago, came to be observed in most countries as Labour Day or International Workers’ Day. May Day has also been a rallying point for Indian trade unions, like their counterparts across the world.
Trade unions have traditionally been formed by employees in the organized sector. Datta Samant, for instance, led a massive strike in 1982 for over a year for better wages and working conditions for employees of Mumbai’s textile mills.
However, the organized sector did not grow as fast as the unorganized sector, which is not represented by unions. “Between 2000 and 2005, 60 million new jobs were created in the country, of which only nine million were in the organized sector, and that too, on an informal, contractual basis,” said K.P. Kannan, member of National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector.
New businesses brought in new practices, too. “The employee was so central and important to the IT industry that it never displayed the iron fist of management that characterized the traditional brick-and-mortar industries,” said Jaswinder Ghumman, country manager for Zenta, an outsourcing firm that focuses on credit card and real estate services. “That doesn’t happen if bargaining power is with the employee in the first place,” said Ghumman. “A software programmer has the project on his mind. It’s best to finish the project with the same people on it.”
In 2002, when the labour ministry last verified numbers, it identified 11 central trade union organizations, orCTUOs, compared with 12 in 1989. CTUOs are umbrella organizations of trade unions that have affiliates spread over at least four states and four industries, with at least 500,000 members.
The right-wing Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, or BMS, the biggest of the lot with 6.2 million members, is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh. It rejects the ideology of class struggle central to Left-wing unions. Ensuring some stability in the tenure of contract workers tops its agenda. “The Special Economic Zones Act and foreign direct investment in retail, which is depriving livelihoods of farmers, are also areas of concern,” said Lakshmana Reddy, general secretary of BMS.
The Indian National Trade Union Congress, or Intuc, which has around 3.8 million members, is affiliated to the Congress party. It has taken up the cause of unorganized sector workers, as well as demanding a national minimum wage instead of different wages set by state governments.
“Expansion of the pension system for organized sector workers is also on our agenda. Pension must be at least Rs7,000 per month. And provident fund deductions should be 15% instead of 12% of the salary,” said Intuc president Sanjeeva Reddy.
Formed in 1920, the All India Trade Union Congress, or Aituc, the oldest central trade union organization in the country, has around 3.3 million members, with Hind Mazdoor Sabha close behind with 3.2 million and the Left-backed Centre for Indian Trade Unions, or Citu, following with about 2.6 million members.
“Our goal is unification of workers to advance class struggle and international solidarity to combat the advance of imperialism,” said M.K. Pandhe, president of Citu.
“There are new ways of organizing and bargaining in the new economy, where bargaining has become an individual process and the role of unions as agents for wage negotiation is changing,” said J. John, editor of Labour File, a bimonthly journal on labour and economic affairs.
While John summed up the challenge for the trade unions, Kamal M. Chenoy, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: “I don’t believe the trade union movement will fizzle out. One case for them is to bring about a collaboration between trade unions in the unorganized sector and landless labour unions since they have common interests.”
Not surprisingly then, most central trade unions have already started talking about the unorganized sector. But unions may also survive because of their capacity to mobilize heads for political causes. “Nowadays, when there is a workers’ agitation, no one knows the name of the trade union they belong to. Rather the agitation is attributed to the political party to which the union belongs,” said Umraomal Purohit, general secretary of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha.
1.Rickshaw pullers take out a rally in Imphal
2.Labourers at a brick factory at Kodhasar village near Allahabad
3. A labourer carries dust and ash at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar
Ruhi Tewari and Aruna Viswanatha contributed to this story.