Trade Union Movement in Today’s Era and Challenges: Sanjay Parate

Trade unions have played a very important role in the freedom movement. Although the foundation of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in the year 1920 can be considered the beginning of the organized trade union movement in our country, before this, in July 1908, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment in a treason case. After this was announced, four lakh workers in Bombay announced a historic strike of 6 days and would take to the streets in the freedom movement. This was the first political struggle of the working class, which expressed the discontent of the common people against colonial exploitation and economic misery. With the foundation of the Kisan Sabha in 1936, the class feeling of worker-peasant unity against imperialism intensified. The Naval mutiny of 1946, in which the flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party were hoisted simultaneously, was its extreme expression because beneath every uniform there was a hidden farmer. This rebellion finalized the departure of the British from the country.

After independence, the role of trade unions became very important for the reconstruction of the country. Although trade unions are formed keeping in mind the economic problems of the workers, the role of trade unions in our country is not limited only to increasing the salaries/wages of the workers based on collective bargaining power, but it also has to deal with broader political questions. While this trade union movement supported the nationalization of banks, it also had to struggle against the Emergency. It always linked the questions of inflation and unemployment to the economic policies of the Central Government. To maintain the broad unity of the working class, it has also had to fight against communal fanatic forces. It is also conscious of fighting against the crisis arising from the policies of globalization, liberalization and privatization and is also keenly feeling the need to build broad worker-peasant unity to fight against these policies. It understands that only on the strength of this unity, democratic movements of the common people can be built. Thus, during and after the freedom movement, the role of trade unions has not been limited only to economic issues like raising wages, but also to advance our human civilization, to civilize the entire society and to protect, promote and to strengthen democracy. 

But there is a fundamental difference between the trade union movement of Europe and the trade union movement of our country. European society is a capitalist society born from the ashes of feudalism. In our country, capitalism has not been established by destroying the feudal society, rather capitalism has been imposed on feudalism. Therefore, the feudal land relations which European capitalism destroyed without any hesitation, remained in India. This was the alliance of capitalism with feudalism, due to which the ruling class and ruling parties of our country were never honest towards the basic democratic-secular values of the capitalist constitution. As a result, feudal values based on religion-caste-language-region were promoted, superstition and fanaticism were nurtured by ignoring scientific thinking, communal politics was allowed to dominate secularism and politics of money power and identity were brought to the centre. All this was done in a planned manner, so that there was no impact on the profits of the capitalists and the developing struggle against capital could be weakened at every level. This process had a very bad impact on our society. The democratic, progressive and secular forces weakened and this had an equally bad impact on the trade union movement of our country because in essence, trade unions are a part of our society and social structure. Traditional left trade unions have weakened. The weakening of the left trade unions means the weakening of the class unity of the workers. Now trade unions working based on religion and caste also emerged. These are such trade unions, which prevent workers from organizing themselves as a ‘class’ and developing a sense of working-class unity among them.

The era of neo-liberalization has changed the entire scenario and new challenges have arisen before the trade unions. In its quest to maximize profits, finance capital has become more ferocious and aggressive and the process of primitive accumulation has given rise to parasitic capitalism. In this way, capitalism has abandoned the work of democracy, scientific consciousness and building a developed and civilized society. The process of snatching away the rights that capitalist democracy has given to the common people, especially the working class has intensified and efforts are being made to push the entire working class into the era of bonded slavery. The result of this is the repeal of labour laws and imposition of labour codes on them. This capital has used all its resources including the media to establish ideological supremacy. The fight to save whatever has been achieved through struggles has become the main concern of trade unions today. Today the emphasis of the trade union movement is on the return of the four labour codes and restoration of the old labour laws; because only by saving what has been achieved, and by regaining what has been lost, you can fight the battle ahead.

In these three decades of liberalization, India has been linked with the world economy. Due to this, the upper class has become happy and their income and purchasing power has increased. On the other hand, the exploitation of the working class has intensified and they are not able to earn enough wages to survive. Employment in the organized sector has decreased and the number of workers in the unorganized sector has reached 93% of the total labour force. Permanent regular labourers are being replaced by contract labourers, who are living a life of extreme poverty, being deprived of the benefits of service period and social security. In the organized sector manufacturing industry, in the 1980s, if goods worth Rs 100 were produced, the labour component in it was Rs 30, while the cost of raw materials was Rs 50 and the profit to the capitalist was Rs 20. This situation has reversed in the last 40-45 years. Today the share of wages has reduced to less than Rs 10 and the profit of the capitalist has increased to more than Rs 60. This only shows the increasing exploitation of the working people.

The result is that today the poor are unable to access basic public services, education and healthcare. Unemployment has reached a new high and today is at the highest level in the last 50 years. According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, the rural unemployment rate is 7.44%, while the urban unemployment rate is 10.09% (as of December 2022). The steps the government is taking towards weakening the public sector are destroying the youth’s hope of getting employment in the public sector and it is hurting them.

A notable feature of the post-liberalization phase of Indian politics is the increasing control by corporates over policy formulation and implementation. This control has crossed all limits under Modi’s rule. Large-scale privatization of public resources is the main method of corporate appeasement. Even profit-making public enterprises are being privatized and natural resources are being exploited to further corporate monopoly. The country’s vast infrastructure assets are being handed over to private corporate companies and big business houses including foreign multinationals. This will adversely affect the entire economy and worsen the alarming situation of job losses and unemployment. It is estimated that around 12 to 20 crore workers have lost their jobs during the lockdown. Thus, the process of liberalization has moved beyond ‘jobless growth’ to ‘job loss’.

This is the condition of the Indian economy even though the country’s growth rate (in gross domestic product – GDP) is increasing. Despite this, India has been ranked 132nd among 191 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index 2021-22. India’s ranking in the Global Hunger Index has fallen from 101 out of 121 countries in 2021 to 107 in 2022. India has been ranked 135th among 146 countries in the ranking of the Global Gender Gap Report, 2022. This means that instead of the increase in GDP growth rate being an indicator of the prosperity of the common people, it has become an indicator of increasing economic inequality in the Indian society and further decline in the Human Development Index.

The result of these policies is that the total number of billionaires in India has increased from 102 in the year 2020 to 166 in the year 2022. In contrast, about 230 million people – the highest number in the world – live in extreme poverty. Oxfam’s report ‘Survival of the Richest: The India Supplement’ shows that more than 40 per cent of India’s wealth is owned by just 1 per cent of its population. The total wealth of the 10 richest Indians was Rs 27.52 lakh crore in the year 2022 and it has increased by 32.8 per cent as compared to the year 2021. The bottom 50 per cent of the population owns only 3 per cent of the total wealth. This means that the process of usurping the wealth that the working people are producing in the entire process of development has reached the level of obscenity. India’s trade union movement is fighting the ill effects of liberalization on the common people and the working people.

This process of liberalization has not only pushed the country’s economy and the survival of the common people towards destruction, it has also shattered the concept of a united working class. This has also given rise to different strata within the working class, due to which the feeling of class unity among the working people has weakened. The share of workers in the organized sector in the total labour force has decreased the percentage of workers in the unorganized sector has increased and the income/wage inequality between the two has increased alarmingly. Today, the workers in the unorganized sector of the country are struggling to protect their survival in the same way as the distressed farming community.

Uniting these different strata of workers in the struggle against neoliberal policies – especially organizing workers in private industries – and instilling a working-class spirit among them is a major challenge for the trade union movement. Registration of trade unions in these private industries is now a very difficult task because the employers target the leading workers for their repression from the very beginning. In such cases, even the state labour department does not provide any help, because they have already been made ineffective in favour of the capitalists.

These circumstances have created fertile ground for the spread of reactionary ideology and deculture among the working class because feudal values are already alive in the consciousness of the workers. The corporate-controlled media has also promoted these reactionary values and influenced a large section of the working class. The capitalist media has systematically exaggerated cases of individual success and ignored the collective efforts of trade unions. This has created confusion among a section of the working class, especially among the educated and middle-class youth, who believe more in individual efforts and less in trade union activities. The influence of caste, religion and similar identity-based organizations has also increased among the working class and this has adversely affected class-based unity.

The progressive movement of the working class is certainly facing these adverse tendencies, but they can be countered only by a strong working-class movement. The basis for developing such movements also lies in the same material conditions in which capital makes them victims of its oppression and exploitation. The concept of class unity will develop only in the process of struggle against class oppression. For this, appropriate ways of intervening in various sectors will have to be found and they will have to be mobilized in effective struggles against the attacks of capital. Today, when Indian capital is being internationalized and many industrial and non-industrial companies are controlled by big capitalists and these companies are tied to the structure of global production, the presence of different layers in the working class has become a characteristic of Indian capitalism. The level of consciousness of these workers will also vary, but all of them are victims of capital exploitation.

The global recession has been going on since 2008 and currently, there is no possibility of getting out of it. Our country is also not untouched by the effects of this recession. This means that the economic condition of working people is declining. At the same time, the governments of our country are pampering the sentiments of foreign capital and private investors. To get out of this recession and to maintain their profits, the capitalist class is imposing the burden on the working people. Depriving the working class of labour laws and imposing labour codes on them is part of this effort, which deprives them of the basic right to form organizations and bargain collectively. Due to this, the contradiction between capital and labour is increasing. Trade unions can find a solution to this only by strengthening the struggles against neoliberal policies. Therefore, there are all possibilities of developing a joint trade union movement.

But the struggles against neoliberal policies cannot be made comprehensive unless it is linked to the struggles against the communal policies of the Modi government. Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, right-wing reactionary forces have become stronger. This government is aggressively implementing the Hindutva agenda of the fascist RSS. Despite maintaining socio-ethnic divisions, it has succeeded to a great extent in imposing the ‘Hindutva identity’ on all these sections. It has also had a bad impact on the working class and working people. Therefore, today, countering the ideology of Hindutva and building class unity with a higher level of political consciousness is very important for the development of the trade union movement. For this, trade unions will have to come out of the factories and workplaces and go to the basis of workers and toilers and strongly raise their social issues, such as oppression of Dalits and exploitation of tribals, and link them with progressive cultural activities. This means that trade unions will have to rise above their narrow economic perspective and discharge socio-cultural responsibilities as well.

Marx’s slogan was: Workers of the world unite! The biggest capitalist criticism of this slogan is that when the workers in our country are not under any one organization, then how will the workers of the world be united? But this slogan of Marx does not mean a gathering of workers under any one organization. The real meaning of this slogan is that the workers should unite in the struggle against imperialism at the world level and against the anti-people policies of the governments within their respective countries. Today India is in the grip of the dictatorship of international finance capital, the nexus of corporates and Hindutva has put the country’s identity at stake, constitutional institutions are crumbling and the threat of a fascist dictatorship is standing at the country’s doorstep. The challenge before the trade union movement is to unite the working class of the entire country to move towards building a classless and exploitation-free society and to save the achievements made so far by human civilization. Based on this unity, let us build worker-peasant unity and build a broad democratic mass movement so that the fascist threat can be defeated. Only a capitalist society based on democracy can open the way to move forward towards socialism. The trade union movement will have to accept this challenge. Only the broad class unity of the working class can counter the challenge of the ruling class. The first step for this contest today would be to ensure the defeat of the fascist RSS-BJP government based on the Hindutva-corporate nexus in this Lok Sabha election.

( The writer is Vice President of Chhattisgarh Kisan Sabha and can be contacted at e-mail: sanjay.parate66@gmail.com )

Disclaimer: These are the personal views of the author

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