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Trade unions across party affiliations said the fight will shift from physical to digital and mass movements will become targeted strikes to seek negotiated results. priyanka parashar/mint
Trade unions across party affiliations said the fight will shift from physical to digital and mass movements will become targeted strikes to seek negotiated results. priyanka parashar/mint

A century later,  trade unions see growing threats to their survival

Experts say union movements will face a tough time unless they change their strategies and innovate

After 100 years of its existence, the Indian trade union movement faces a rough road ahead. Trade unions and experts said unless they change their strategy, innovate, adopt and initiate evidence-based movements, it will be tough to survive. “We are facing the toughest time now and there is nothing I can tell you concretely on how to overcome it right away," said Ramendra Kumar, a senior leader of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the first trade union of India founded by freedom fighters, including Lala Lajpat Rai and Joseph Baptista.

While Bal Gangadhar Tilak was behind the idea, he had passed away before AITUC, which did not have any political affiliation till independence, was formally established on 31 October 1920. “We know we are in 2020 and not 1920. The state, 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 ground up," said Amarjeet Kaur, secretary general, AITUC.

The changing employment scenario, growth of the services sector where unionism is almost nil, lack of permanent jobs, and the industry’s desire to outsource hiring will pose fresh threats, said experts. Unions also said that the new Labour Codes will discourage their involvement at the workplace.

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

“Trade unions in India are not in sync with the changing workplace. 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 white paper on the 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, XLRI, Jamshedpur.

“Yes, the working class needs trade unions, but they want unions which are abreast of real-time developments, are 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 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 in a tough environment. The slow death of PSUs has harmed the unions but of late, informal workers are joining the movement. The grassroots movement, we believe, will now become stronger and push for workers welfare and here technology will play a big role."

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

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