History’s biggest strike – Indian workers show us how

Posted: April 14, 2012 by Admin in India, Workers' rights, Workers' strikes

by Don Franks

“India’s economic ascent seems like it should be the envy of the world’s richest nations; with rocketing growth rates and gargantuan consumer and labor markets,” the Times of India recently reported.

100 million workers on strike

“India’s destiny as Asia’s next superstar looks beyond a doubt. Except Indian workers just gave the boosters of global capitalism a few million second thoughts.”

India’s general strike last February united workers from civil servants to rickshaw drivers in massive opposition to the neoliberal policies of their government.

On Tuesday February 28th, tens of millions of workers in India mounted what may have been history’s biggest 24-hour strike. Some analysts put the figure at nearly one hundred million.

Union demands included government measures to contain inflation, universal social security cover for workers in the vast unorganised labour sector, pensions, end to attacks on unions, higher wages, permanent jobs for 50 million contract labourers, and an end to the sale of stakes in profitable public companies.

This was India’s 14th general strike since the imposition of neo liberal reforms in 1991.

The strike was backed by all 11 major trade unions in the country, including the left affiliated All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) linked to ruling Congress party, local television station NDTV said.

Such comprehensive labour unity was a first.  J. S. R. Prasad, director of India’s Union Development and Organising Centre (UNIDOC),  told In These Times that the strike marked “a firm step in opposing the Government’s policies dealing with workers in India” and displayed unprecedented alliances. “For the first time the INTUC, the Trade Union Federation affiliated with ruling Congress party, also participated along with communist controlled Trade Union Federations in India,”

The strike was not universal: in the capital, New Delhi, and in Mumbai, buses and taxis operated and shops were open for business.

However, in Mumbai, India’s financial hub, Vishwas Utagi, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association, claimed a “complete shutdown” in the banking sector.

The clearing house for transaction at the central bank had been shut, “so the private and foreign banks where we do not have a presence, also get affected,” he told the Press Trust of India news agency.

Al Jazeera’s Prerna Suri, reporting from New Delhi, said: “In states like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura where the communist parties have presence, local agitators have blocked roads and rails and commuters are having harrowing times.”

In the eastern city of Kolkata, a traditional trade union stronghold, most bank branches, shops and other businesses were closed, with taxis and rickshaws staying off the streets.

In the southern city of Hyderabad, members of left-wing parties clashed with police during street protests.

Transport, banking and postal services were all hit by the strike that began midnight on Monday with port operations also shut down.

Prior to the action,  India’s labour minister, said the government was ready for talks on any labour-related issues, NDTV website reported.

AITUC leader Gurudas Dasgupta rejected the claim, saying, “The government had enough opportunity earlier to sit with unions to discuss the issues”.

“We are fighting for our rights against a government that is anti-people,” he added.

In a recent  analysis of Indian labour issues, the International Trade Union Confederation reported that many of the most oppressed workers are children, who “can be found in a wide variety of industries, sometimes undertaking hazardous tasks, including in mining and quarrying, textiles, leather and garment factories, fireworks factories and many others.” In general, according to the report, “forced labour is a problem in agriculture, mining, commercial sexual exploitation, and other sectors. Overall law enforcement is poor and judicial capacities are not effective in addressing the problem.”

Yet even in mainstream sectors, the free-market development agenda is steamrolling workers’ rights.

The system of outsourcing, contractualisation and casualisation of workforce started in 1993-94. During 1995 the total number of permanent central government employees was 3.98 million whereas in 2008 it came down to 3.11 million. Nearly 22% of permanent jobs were lost, which were replaced by casual workers including on jobs of permanent nature.

Apart from a growth of the millionaire class – now relatively larger than that in Japan- there is little to show for India’s privatizing.

Hit by high interest rates, stubborn inflation and a stuttering reform agenda, India’s economy is expected to grow by about seven per cent in the fiscal year ending March, compared with earlier expectations of about nine per cent growth.

India’s inflation rate has been above nine per cent for most of the last two years, although it had come down to 7.5 per cent in December..

Though the general strike suggests that labor groups are being galvanized by shared economic struggles, union leader J.S.R.Prasad noted  that “division among working class” is still a major impediment to organizing.

( this division) “loosens their united strength and bargaining power.  This is where the government and managements take full advantage and deny their legitimate demands.”

However, despite all ongoing difficulties, the February strike is a massive step up for the working class.

As the Times of India was forced to concede:

“The labor movement of the world’s largest democracy issued a stark challenge to the idea of deregulation as an economic cure.”

Or as activist La Khan more forthrightly told In Defense of Marxism:

“ After being coerced for decades in communal frenzy, sectarian violence, regional conflicts, caste prejudices, religious bigotry, nationalist chauvinism, regional antagonisms, democratic deception and cricket hysteria by the ruling classes and their harlot media, the Indian proletariat is awakening to the new epoch that is dawning across the planet. The 24-hour general strike that took place on 28th February is a turning point in the social and political evolution of present day India.”

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