Since the advent of the neoliberal reforms in 1991, there has been an escalation of national level united strike actions by trade unions. Wednesday’s general strike was the 16th in the series. During this period of nearly a quarter century, widely different political combinations led by both Congress, BJP and non-Congress and non-BJP parties have been in power. This alone should be sufficient to lay bare the lie in the allegation that these general strikes are politically motivated.
There is no political party that has not, at one time or the other, supported the general strikes. The working class actions have exhibited growing unity with even independent trade union centres and unions joining the general strikes. The conclusion is inescapable that something fundamentally different from the past has occurred on the industrial relations front, which in turn has created grave disquiet among workers. It is important to understand this fundamental break in the industrial relations paradigm rather than join the middle class chorus on causing inconvenience to the public, national loss, anarchy and so on.
It may be a surprise to many that in the long history of working class from the time of industrial revolution, it is only in the post world-war period that the workers, even in the West, have been guaranteed security of tenure, periodic upward revision of wages, social security and fringe benefits.
Watch: Sitaram Yechury explains the logic behind Bharat bandh
App users, click here
The Precarious Employment of the past gave way to a new concept of Standard Employment Relations. This transformation of work took place under the aegis of the welfare state within the framework of Keynesian policies, but prodded by militant working class actions. The neoliberal counter-revolution aims to put an end to the welfare state as well as the Keynesian policies.
A major stumbling block before the onward march of neoliberalism is the organised working class that thwarted labour flexibility and any attempt to reduce the wage share. Both, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, launched their neoliberal offensive by breaking the militant unions. Since then, trade union membership and resistance has declined in the West resulting in greater casualisation of employment and demolition of the standard employment contracts. The results for the workers have been disastrous. The average share of wages in national income among 16 developed countries has declined from 75 per cent in the early 1970’s to 65 per cent in 2007. The real wages have stagnated or declined. Inequality has widened.
Broadly, the same trend towards casualisation is evident in India too. In the organised sector, 50 per cent of the public sector workers and 70 per cent of the private sector workers are either temporary or contract workers, with no security of tenure. They are being paid much lower wages and fringe benefits than regular workers. This extent of casualisation has been achieved in violation of the existing labour laws and through violent confrontation with workers, such as in the automobile sector. The share of wages in the organised sector has declined from around 30 per cent in the 1980’s to less than 20 per cent in 2009. Only one third of the workers in the organised sector are unionised. The trade unions have been fighting a losing battle against the forces ushered in by a tacit approval of the central and state governments.
The present BJP government wants to make what is de facto into de jure through a total overhaul of labour relations, bypassing Indian Labour Conference and the unions, through unilateral amendments to the labour laws. The national strikes are a desperate response of the unions to the above situation. The previous governments, though they informally connived with the employers, had never dared to tamper with the labour laws. On the other hand, the new BJP government has declared the neoliberal idea of restructuring labour relations as their top most agenda. Hence, the national strike.
On the eve of the strike, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) withdrew under pressure from RSS arguing that the government has conceded to the major demands of trade unions. To me, nothing can be further from the truth.
As against the ILC decision of Rs. 15,000 per month as minimum wages, the government is willing to give only Rs. 7,000. Contract workers are guaranteed only minimum wages and not equal wages given to regular workers such as those in factories.
The existing anti-labour laws passed by some states like Rajasthan would continue and the union government has refused to withdraw the directive given to the states for making labour law amendments in line with Rajasthan government. Instead of a reversal of the policy, the government promises only consultations before amendments. It refuses to accept the Anganvadi, Asha and mid-day meals employees as workers, but considers them only as volunteers entitled to certain social security coverage. Little wonder, then, that the government refuses to discuss policy related demands such as: ending disinvestment, FDI in Railways and Defence, guaranteeing an assured pension of Rs. 3000, and universal social security benefits.
One of the demands was the withdrawal of the Land Acquisition (amendment) Bill, which the government has formally conceded; but only allowed the anti-farmer ordinance to lapse. A united resistance put up by farmers’ organisations, political parties and social movements has forced the government to retreat. If it can be achieved in the farming sector, the united workers can also checkmate the neoliberal offensive in the industrial relations field too. This successful mobilisation of workers during the September 2 strike is reassurance that the working class resistance to neoliberal labour policies will continue.
– The author is a central committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and is a former Finance minister of Kerala. Views expressed by the author are personal.