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100 years on, India's trade unions face a tough road ahead

Trade unions across political affiliations concur that the fight will shift from the physical to the digital, mass movements will become targeted strikes. (Photo: AFP)Premium
Trade unions across political affiliations concur that the fight will shift from the physical to the digital, mass movements will become targeted strikes. (Photo: AFP)

  • The changing employment scenario, the continuous growth of services sector where unionism is almost negligible, lack of permanent jobs, and industries' desire to outsource hiring pose threats to their existence

NEW DELHI: India's trade union movement faces a tough road ahead, with experts and stakeholders agreeing that unless unions change their strategy, innovate, and adopt evidence instead of emotions, it will be tougher.

"We are facing the toughest time now and there is nothing I can tell you concretely on how to overcome it right-away," said Ramanedra Kumar, a senior leader of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the first trade union of India founded by freedom fighters like Lala Laljpat Rai and Joseph Baptista without any political affiliation. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was behind the move but he was dead before it was formally established on 31 October, 1920.

“We know we are in 2020 and not in 1920. The state and the employers are against us, and they will do everything to dismantle us. What we need to do is go back to our roots and work grounds up," added Amrajeet Kaur, secretary general of AITUC.

The changing employment scenario, the continuous growth of services sector where unionism is almost negligible, lack of permanent jobs, and industries' desire to outsource hiring pose threats to their existence, said experts. And unions, like experts, agreed that the new Labour Codes discourage their involvement in workspace.

Trade unions across political affiliations concur that the fight will shift from the physical to the digital, mass movements will become targeted strikes to seek negotiated results, and the knowledge of changing jobs, the need of the Industry 4.O will empower their strategy and fight for right, than just mass street fights.

“Trade unions in India are not in sync with the changing workspace. They are doing a lot of work but are still driven by emotions and ideologies. Their argument is loud but is not backed by evidence. Do you see a vision document from a trade union or a whitepaper on future of work? No. This is where the state and employers have foxed them and countered them through evidence," said K. R.Shyam Sundar, a labour economist and professor of XLRI, Jamshedpur.

“Yes, working class need trade unions but they want unions which are which are abreast of real-time developments, tech savvy and speak the language of the common man. A modern dynamic, trade union movement led by young leaders is the need of the hour, not a top down system led by old leaders who are finding it tough to accept reality," Sundar added.

A.R. Sindhu, national secretary of Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) almost concurred. “Adoption of technology for mobilization, outreach is a must. We have started doing it. The second, the unions are now shifting gear from being top down to bottom up. During the lockdown the success of coal workers strike and defence factory workers strike told us that it’s the regional leaders or sectoral leaders who will increasingly help the trade union movement to survive and thrive is a tough environment. The slow death of public sector companies has harmed the unions but off late, informal workers are joining the movement. The grass root movement, we believe, will now become stronger and push for workers welfare and here technology will play a big role," Sindhu said.

Last month, during a conference RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat told Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) functionaries nearly the same thing. “Everyone in the country should get justice. For the purpose, new ways (of trade union works) needs to be designed according to the changes in the time," he said. BMS is the largest trade union in the county and is affiliated to RSS.

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