The politics of general strikes in India

General Strike in India 

On February 28th, India’s major trade union federations declared a general strike, with early estimates of workers participating in the one-day industrial action in the tens of millions, making it the largest strike in India since the nation’s independence in 1947.  This is the first time that the trade union federations (which are all affiliated to one or another political party) have come together to protest against “neoliberal economic and labor policies” pursued by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress Party) government; the action was also supported by more than 5000 independent unions.

This reveals two important things about India that are usually forgotten by the western media.  First, that India is not merely a seething mass of desperation composed of peasants and the abject poor; it has a massive working class with some real organizations that are capable of bringing out their own forces.  And second, that the economic realities of neoliberal growth do not go unchallenged indefinitely.  Even in the places where the vice grip on workers has been tightened to extreme levels, people still find a way to fight back.

Among the demands that the unions made were the establishment of a national minimum wage, the ending of temporary employment (what are called “contract laborers” in India) in favor of permanent jobs, more effort to curb runaway inflation (hovering at around 7.5%), guaranteed pensions, and an end to the privatization of publicly owned companies.

The banking and insurance sectors were hit the worst by the strike, but other workers including dockworkers, postal workers, and transportation workers were heavily hit.  The coordination of a national strike of this scale marks the beginning of a new stage in the confrontation between labor and capital in India, as the benefits of India’s boom have produced a sclerotic economy, with benefits accruing to the few at the top.

Despite threats from the central government and a last minute offer to negotiate, the strike proceeded and brought out millions.  In places like Kerala, the state government threatened workers with a “dies non” order (no work-no pay), while in other places like Delhi, the government attempted to enforce the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) to force workers in industries like power generation back to work.  In West Bengal, cadres of Mamata Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) also attacked and injured strikers.

Slumdogs, Millionaires, and Manmohanomics

For the past decade, India has been the darling of the economic pundits globally, with massive growth rates and a burgeoning middle-class whose consumptive powers have fuelled the national mythology of “India Shining.”  According to current estimates, the Indian economy grew at around 7% last year and is projected to grow again at a similar rate in 2012.

At the same time, the benefits of that growth have been massively skewed.  As Katherine Boo’s new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, demonstrates, the growth of the Indian economy has happened at the same time as the growth of its underclass.  Mumbai, the symbol of India’s new economic power and famous for its massive film industry, is now commonly referred to as “Slumbai”; more people live in slums in Mumbai than not, where they work in the hyperexploitative informal economy (if they work at all).

Agricultural reforms implemented in the past twenty years have immiserated people in the countryside.  Last year alone there were more than 15,000 farmer suicides as a result of indebtedness and bad harvests.  Desperate farmers then migrate to the larger cities and towns where they form the massive reserve army of the unemployed which drives down wages.

At its core, the national strike is a response to these conditions and the pinch that workers are feeling throughout the country.  Last year there were some spectacular job actions at places like Maruti-Sazuki in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, where workers fought a pitched battle for wages, and occupied the factory for almost two weeks.

At the same time, the official line of the Congress Party-led Government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is that neoliberal economic policies are going to continue.  At the heart of the fight with the unions is the controversial Pension Bill in Parliament currently, which would tie the pensions to market-driven financial instruments and put employee retirements in jeopardy.

But also at issue are Singh’s plans to sell off major state holdings in order to finance repayments on international loans and budget deficits.  Singh did, after all, cut his teeth as the economic architect of India’s neoliberal reforms which began to be implemented when he was the Finance Minister under PV Narasimha Rao.

It is the twin pressures that workers in India feel, both from the immiseration into which they are sinking from below (from inflation and from a growing underclass which they are trying desperately to unionize) and from above (in the form of neoliberalism and attacks on union rights) which has produced the conditions for greater militancy in India.

The Official Trade Unions

There are two reasons though that this confrontation between labor and capital in India will not be decisive, which are also the reasons that the unions have only put forward a tentative one-day strike with a rather long and vague list of demands.  First, the official trade unions are all connected to various political parties, and these massive days of protest are usually connected to political gamesmanship that the parties play against one another.

The unions at the head of the strike were dominated by the official left in India, which is still dominated by Stalinist and Maoist political organizations.  So in India there is the All-India Federation of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML-Janashakti), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML), All India United Trade Union Center run by the Socialist Unity Center, the All India Trade Union Congress (run by the CP), Center of Indian Trade Unions (CPIM), United Trade Union Congress (run by the Revolutionary Socialist Party).

Now since many of these parties are no longer revolutionary parties in the long run, they tend to play a dampening rather than developing role on class struggle.  Which is not to say that workers don’t fight back, they do, but that their fights are limited from the top.  In 2006, there was an attempt to form a federation of Independent Trade Unions called the New Trade Union Initiative, which holds out some of the best possibilities for an independent trade union movement in India.  Many of their unions also participated in this one-day action.

Second, there are also reactionary trade unions like the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sabha [this was corrected thanks to a comment below -NRI] run by the right-wing BJP and the Bhartiya Kamgar Sena, run by the ultra-right Shiv Sena which brought out their members.  Both of these unions also participated in the strike, largely because the leftist unions kept the slogans vague enough that the right-wing could use the one-day strike as cover for the purported populist politics.

Part of the reason that the right and the left were able to come together (as they have in the past, as under the Janata Party government in the 1970s) is because they are both now in the opposition to the Congress Party’s UPA coalition which runs the central government.  In fact, despite agreeing early on to support the strike, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (run by the Congress Party) withdrew, after the party leadership put substantial pressure on it.  “The strike is politically motivated and illegal.  We will oppose it on Tuesday,” said Ashok Chaudhary, the national president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).

But this alliance can only be temporary and opportunistic, as the BJP and Shiv Sena are both pursuing neoliberal policies (in Gujarat and Maharashtra respectively, where both of them play much larger regional roles).  It also sets forward a danger, since the right wing has not been shy about stoking up ethnic and communal hatred in times of economic contraction.

Communist Party and West Bengal

Part of the reason that the strike took place in as spectacular a way as it did was because of the routing the official left received at the polls in the last elections.  While they were in power in places like Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, they were able to play a dampening role on industrial actions.  Once they were removed from office, they have found it possible to release the discontent that their members face, in order to embarrass the current government, but only up to a point. Too much worker militancy threatens their own ability to contain mass anger, which is the only real thing that they have to offer in exchange for capital investments in their economically impoverished states.

It was also in those places where the strike was strongest and was able to do more than simply industrial work-stoppages but actually stop much traffic and business throughout major cities.  In other places throughout the country (Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka) the effects of the strike were not as strongly felt.

But the most significant showdown in the strike was clearly in West Bengal, where Mamata Bannerjee attempted to flex against her muscle against what she called “the politics of bandhs” (shutdowns of cities).  Having recently beaten the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the polls, Bannerjee is now in the position of having to do the bidding of large capital, despite having organized strikes and bandhs herself in the past.

In Kolkata, the police were out in droves attempting to get people back to work, while Bannerjee’s TMC sent many of its members to break up rallies and pickets throughout the city.  Bannerjee came to power on the basis of a negative referendum on the CPM, when it tried to raze entire villages in order to make way for a manufacturing campus in the countryside for industrial giants like Tata Motors.  Bannerjee’s opportunistic about-face (now doing the work of the same capitalists that she claimed to oppose) will only expose her to greater challenges.

What the general strike reveals is the simultaneity of ordinary working class anger at the economic and political system in India as well as the inability of the major left groups to deliver anything but symbolic and token changes in their lives.  The general strike revealed that the working class in India is quite large and has the muscle to topple capitalism, but it will require new forms of political and union organization than the ones that are currently on offer.

4 thoughts on “The politics of general strikes in India

  1. There is a factual error in this otherwise debatable write up. Hindustan Mazdoor Sabha is not run by the right-wing BJP, it is the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sabha (BMS) which is affiliated to BJP.
    HMS for its all faults is still an organisation where the ghosts of Lohia’s variety of Socialist principles do the rounds.
    Hope this factual correction is taken on board.
    Jagadish g Chandra
    New Socialist Alternative (CWI-India)
    +919448394365

  2. Pingback: La lista: grandes huelgas de la historia | Miradas de Internacional

  3. Some reporting from West Bengal after the strike:
    Left ear of a Govt. employee has been chopped up for the “crime” taking part in the strike.
    A rod is inserted in the eye of a brick field worker for the same “crime”.
    In Dhupguri, Jalpaiguri district, whole family beaten and their home vandalized for the crime of joining a rally.

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