The General Strike of December 14th 2006:
An Assertion of Working Class Power
A National Convention of Workers was held on 25 July 2006 in New Delhi, organised by the Sponsoring Committee of Trade Unions, Industrial Federations and Independent Unions. A declaration was adopted at the Convention that condemned the neo-liberal policies of the UPA government and its attempts to legalise flexibility in the labour market through legislation. The key issues highlighted in the declaration were the ever-increasing prices of essential commodities, policies that are precipitating an agrarian crisis, the running down of the public sector and the persistent lowering of the interest rates on Provident Fund and small savings. The Convention decided to call for a General Strike on December 14th to agitate on these issues.
This is the eleventh general strike since the launching of the New Economic Policies within the present framework of imperialist globalisation. After a period of lull, the upswing in trade union actions since 2003 reflects the increasing confidence of the working class. This mood needs to be strengthened by a deeper understanding of the striking capacity of Indian working class and ensure that strikes are not reduced to tokenism. As trade unions we must ask ourselves, has the series of strike action been limited to the same sections of the working class or has it been effective in progressively bringing in new layers of the working class? Have the strikes deepened class solidarity by creating the space for trade unions to raise specific demands of such sections of the unorganised sector, that have so far been outside the strikes? Have the strike preparations and campaigns been successful in reaching these sectors? Furthermore, have trade unions been successful in extending financial support to weaker unions within their own areas? The assessment of the strike needs to be made to know the strengths and weaknesses of Indian trade union movement. This analysis is an effort in that direction.
The striking capacity of the Indian trade union movement
The national character of general strikes has mainly been based on the strength of trade unions in banks, insurance, coal, steel, port and dock, ordnance and certain manufacturing industries in the public sector and partially on government employees. The organised transport, power, shipping has had low strike participation. Workers in private manufacturing and services have only participated in general strikes in a sporadic manner, and in enclaves. The unorganised workers involvement, except for West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura has been almost negligible and largely unions outside the Sponsoring Committee’s fold have led the mobilisation. The total bandh in the three states is more out of inertia, as a consequence of governmental support, than an active and autonomous trade union organising of a strike action.
As a run up to the strike, activists of the AITUC and the Bharatiya Khet Mazdoor Union (BKMU) took out a protest march in Delhi on 23 November 2006 demanding enactment of a comprehensive law for the unorganised sector. On 14 December, under the banner of the Sponsoring Committee of Trade Unions, all industry federations and central trade unions joined a demonstration at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi.
Breaking New Grounds
NTUI in the National Convention moved two specific additions as amendments to the declarations. First, we felt it is important to reassert the right to an 8-hour working day and the strict implementation of this right, and second, to demand payment of equal wages for equal work in an industry. These amendments were sought in order to sharpen the focus of the general strike by highlighting the specific and concrete mechanism through which capital, in the present phase of imperialist globalisation, exploits labour in the manufacturing and service sectors.
The weakening of working class power enables capital to seek easier and cheaper methods to extract larger profits by reducing share of workers wages. The most general one is through the increase in the length of the working day. Most business organisation has demanded such extension of working day. It is necessary to focus and bring the strength of the organised sector of working class to limit the working day to 8 hours and sustain this historical gain.
Similarly, in the organised sector the principal form of wage reduction is through increasing replacement of stable and permanent workmen with contract labour. Industrialists make contract workers do the same work at less then one-third the historically gained wages, thereby pitching one section of the working class against another.
Unfortunately, the Steering Group of the Sponsoring Committee decided to reject these additions, which expressed the most general offensive of capital, whereas some sectoral amendments of the public sector were included. The Steering Group thus reflected a lack of concern and understanding that unity of the organised and unorganised is best built on basis of common interest.
New workers and unions join the strike
NTUI looked at the strike as an opportunity to build unity between the organised and the unorganised sector. It tried to include new sections of the working people to join the strike, as well as move the strike action to new locations. NTUI developed an independent campaign for strike action opposing the economic policies of the UPA government and focusing on five broad demands to resist capital at the workplace: No work beyond 8-hours a day; Equal wages for equal work; Social security for all; Work and living wages for all, and Democracy at work place.
Beside posters and a handbill issued by the central office, specific campaigns were conducted to bring in contract labour into strike action. The new unions, formed in the drive of NTUI to organising contract labour, in oil and gas, steel, coal, refineries, chemical, fertiliser and power generation joined the strike with confidence. This new layer of working class contributed in making the strike a success in Assam, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
The focus on 8 hours a day took the shape of a campaign in Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. In the expanding power loom and garment sectors, where the norm is a 12-hour workday, specific areas were targeted for strike action and were successful. NTUI united with AITUC and UTUC (LS) at the grassroots to bring their issues as a part of general strike. The workers in these areas joined the strike for the first time. Construction workers and women workers from different districts in Tamil Nadu also joined the strike. NTUI initiated local level joint committees with other trade union federations in Surat, Mumbai, Salem and Bokaro.
Forging new unity with Kashmiri workers
The Jammu and Kashmir Trade Union Centre (JKTUC), the single largest government employees union in J&K, affiliated to NTUI, held large demonstrations before government offices in all district headquarters. Apart from the government employees, all employees unions of PSUs, LIC, GIC and BSNL joined the strike and participated in the demonstrations. A rally of more than five thousand workers and employees was organised in Srinagar that culminated in a dharna at Lal Chowk. The strike was a grand success with all government offices, except the Civil Secretariat, remaining closed both in Jammu and Kashmir. This was the first time in a decade and a half that government employees in J&K joined a national strike. This linking of the working class of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian working class will pave the way for overcoming their alienation from the general working class movement and stepping in to play their historic role in democratising the working class movement.
The importance of the General Strike
NTUI saw the participation of unions across the country in a General Strike as extremely important for upholding two basic working class principles.
First, the General Strike was a political articulation of working class solidarity in the face of a sustained attack of capital and political parties on labour rights. After a decade and a half of weakening of the right to association and collective bargaining, it was important that working class organisations came together to articulate the power of working class unity. The victories gained for democratic rights of all workers in the elections over the last two years now need to be consolidated.
Second, workers need to reclaim the right to strike as a fundamental working class right. In a period where capital was gaining increasing freedom to dispose of labour as it wished, and rights of workers to react was being curbed, it was important that the collective power of labour organisations affirmed the freedom of workers to withhold work as a legitimate part of collective bargaining struggles.
‘Union Power’, a monthly bulletin of the New Trade Union Initiative, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2007
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