Is all really quiet on the shop floor?

Is all really quiet on the shop floor?

New Delhi saw an unexpected explosion of middle-class political power thanks to the Anna Hazare movement. A social group that was assumed to be living unconcerned in its gated-community bubble suddenly announced -- at least for a short while -- that it was after all interested in what was happening in the country.

The industrial belt outside New Delhi has seen a sporadic stirring of another type of protest of late: strikes. The working class has seen its power decline in recent decades, so it is worth speculating whether another social group that has been silent is now ready to flex its muscle. Even persistently high inflation has failed to rouse the working class to protest.

The persistent labour troubles at the Maruti Udyog factory at Manesar in Haryana, which accounts for about a fourth of the annual production of cars by the company, could spread to other manufacturing facilities in the area. Newspaper reports suggest that thousands of workers employed in factories at Manesar and nearby Gurgaon have shown solidarity with the striking Maruti Udyog workers.

Trade union activity is no longer as intense as it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s. The textile strike in Mumbai helped reshape the city at the cost of thousands of shattered lives. The strike began in 1982 and involved more than 250,000 workers in nearly 50 mills. Those days are gone. Yet, each time a strike breaks out in one of India’s manufacturing hubs, there is speculation whether labour militancy is making a comeback. It’s not any different this time around.

Data from the government’s labour bureau does not offer any evidence about growing labour militancy. In fact, provisional numbers for the first six months of this year shows that the man days lost because of strikes and lockouts is far lower than what was seen in the first half of 2010 and 2009.

Here is the data:

Despite recent incidents in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt, all seems quiet on the shop floor -- either because workers are a contended lot or (more likely) because the decline of trade unions has led to a fall in their bargaining power.