For a New Trade Union Initiative
Globalisation and Labour

The present phase of globalisation has put tremendous pressure on the working class.

The global capital institutions, WB-IMF-WTO, are putting together a system that provides international capital access to the world market and mobility to invest. It induces international competition, which enables centralization and concentration of capital. All this is being forged through the political pressure of the imperialist states, at times backed by the military strength of the US.

This emergent new global economic environment has been both, conducive and constitutive of the TNC’s capability for expansion and consolidation. It has linked the production systems of national economies, and thus segmented the labour market, into a multi-tiered production chain with progressively lower wages. In the process, the MNC’s regain the control over the global commodity chain, in particular, over the finished commodities for consumption in the developed economies.

This pressure of a restructured production process and international competition affects different sections of the global working class in different degrees. At times, even the forms of the offensive are different. As a result, the class struggle has intensified due to this international competition. Both the recessionary trend surfacing in the world economy and the declining rate of profit suggest a longer phase of intensified class struggle.

In the globalised economy the managers of capital translated this increased competition into management strategies for lowering wage costs per unit. First, by slimming measures like privatisation, closures, lay-offs, retrenchment, Voluntary Retirement Schemes and sub-contracting. Second, by labour intensifying incentives schemes, performance linked wages systems and compulsory overtime. In all these management strategies the key element is the flexibility in the labour relationship.

Union rights under threat

At first, the companies pursue these strategies by undermining the bargaining power of the unions. Both the labour administration and the judiciary enable this process, one by pursuing a policy of non-intervention in capital-capital disputes. Second, by the reinterpretation of law in a manner that is derogatory and a restrictive reading of the powers and rights of the workers and unions, as provided by law. The unions respond in various ways, and invariably as these pressures of capital reach a threshold, where even the restrictive reading of legal provisions provides protection against these company measures, the union uses this legal power to resist such measures.

From the vantage point of capital, the protection of the law and unions appear as rigidities affecting the operation of the labour market. And so, a pro-market ideology is unleashed to build a case for a change in the political management of the capital-labour relationship. The labour law changes are initiated to minimize:

a) the legal protection of employment and the conditions of work, and

b) the legal rights and powers of unions to collectively bargain for wages, and conditions of employment and work.

This generalized offensive of changing the legal relationship between capital and labour breaches the common and widely prevalent trade union consciousness of organized labour. A general mood of opposition and an awareness of the need for unity become prevalent among the workers. As experience deepens, slowly the will to resist begins to incubate and develop.

Trade unions are stable mass organizations of the workers. Emerging as centres of resistance the unions are built on values, ideals and the vision of a society in which the central role of labour in society is recognized. The discourse and the debate within the trade union movement revolves around the issues of workers’ rights, of eliminating exploitation, providing justice to all, and ultimately of the reorganization of society solely on the basis of labour. The principal asset of the union is the capacity to mobilize its members for what it believes and to transform dominant structures, relationship and ideas.

This perspective attempts to focus on the resurgence of the trade union movement from the ongoing defensive struggle of the workers. For this two aspects need to be addressed. First, the assessment of the weakness in the existing trade union movement, and second a plan for an initiative to overcome the identified weakness. Both, the assessment and the action plan require to be evolved from the base of the trade union movement: the work place level organization of the unions, through a participatory process and acceptable to all.

Focus to confront capital

The emergent struggle of the workers reveals that though the opposition to globalisation is international in scope, the resistance is taking place mainly at the work place and national level. In a way that is a normal response of the workers. The plant level union organizations confront the effects of globalisation at the work place. And the changes in the political management of the labour capital relationship in terms of changes in labour laws and their modes of administration are taking place at the national level.

The workers and unions have to evolve a response to capital’s offensive that has a built-in ability to be flexible at various operational levels: international, national and the work place, according to the correlation of existing forces at each level. But, this differentiated response has to be evolved from a strategic concern and focus to confront capital. It is a period of adjustment to provide time to unite the workers, and for this purpose reorganise the unions, in order to change the balance of force, at each site of struggle against capital in defence of labour.

Reorganize for industrial level bargaining

The learning of the defensive struggle in the last few years has been that the line of defence cannot be held within the framework of existing bargaining structures but by militantly mobilizing to change, reshape and restructure the bargaining framework itself in a manner that increases the bargaining strength of workers.

The majority of unions have been involved with firm level bargaining and conducting defensive struggles within that bargaining framework. But, in a competitive environment, the global economic pressure emerges as ‘cost pressures’ to a firm and the labour market institutions propel the firm level management to continuously search for short-term labour flexibility options to reduce costs.

The cost pressure can be contained and gradually reduced only at the industrial level. The unions have to frame a broad employment policy, specific to each industry and agree on a collective bargaining strategy to enforce that.

Promote Secularism, Social Justice and Human Rights

Civil and political rights are essential for sustaining labour rights. So democracy has to be defended at all costs. Moreover, the democratisation of society will increase the power of the workers to shape the world they live in. It will ensure social and economic rights. So defending democracy and supporting all initiatives to democratise society should be a major political objective of the trade unions. But this task can be accomplished only through the political process. And the pre-condition for asserting within the political process is social cohesion of the trade unions. For this, the values of secularism, social justice and human dignity need to be accepted by the unions and deepened within the labour movement.

Democratic opposition under capitalism

In a capitalist society the unions are always in opposition, fighting the government from outside. This ability, initiative and will to mobilize the members is an essential character and strength of the trade unions. Historical experiences have taught us that this freedom and will is susceptible to being undermined in a single party dominated union organizations even if such a party has left orientation. The electoral and governmental strategy of a political party does influence the union’s decisions but should not undermine the union’s freedom and will to act independently as an opposition force. This new organizing initiative is for repositioning the trade union movement in a proper political perspective that allows us to reclaim this freedom, will and the opposition space within a capitalist society.

Unite all sections of the working class

Today, the unions are viewed as spokespersons of narrow concerns. In a way, this is inevitable with the narrow membership base of the unions and the unions being mandated by their members. But this perception needs to be reversed. Unions have to represent broader sections of society. By expanding the union base the diversity of the work force gets reflected in the organization and shapes the trade union movement.

The new organizational initiative will have to have a strategic orientation to use the strength, resources and capacity of the organized sector of working class to organize those who find it difficult to self organize like the contract workers, casual workers, household workers, the migrant workers, the self employed and rural and urban poor, in a spirit of fraternity, brotherhood and equality. The trade union movement has to embrace the diversity of working class in order to overcome its major weakness : fragmentation. It has to commit itself to struggle against all ideologies, prejudices and practices that inhibit the social cohesion of the working class and resist the overcoming of the fragmentation of the working class. The new unionism should be based on the values of equality, respect and dignity to everyone encompassing the diversity of working people. Our call is for expanding the base for the trade union movement, to go all out organizing the unorganised and organize them militantly.

The wider recognition of women’s work, both paid and unpaid, and the increasing participation of women in the labour process requires that the trades union agenda, policies, strategies and struggle be shaped by a gender perspective. In our society gender inequality is so pervasive that every labour issue has a dimension of such inequality. As a result women are pushed into spheres of work which lead to structural differences in terms of wages and vulnerability in comparison to men. But adequate attention to this concern is lacking. And we need to address this with urgency and focus, not only for reasons of fairness and equity, but also for expanding and deepening the trade union movement in the society. The new initiative will increase the participation of women in the unions, make greater representation of women in the decision-making structures and allow the unions to become the instrument for shaping the life of men and women at work, in family and society.

Broader concern for society

Unions pursue a common interest and share values with other social movements that arise in struggle against oppression and exploitation. Such an objective basis exists for building strategic alliances with other movements of women, dalits, tribal and migrants as well as movements for sustainable environment and human rights. These movements have organizational capacity and structures to complement and enhance the bargaining strength of the workers and the ability to transform society in the direction that benefits the workers in general. The building of such social alliances implies moving into a new terrain, debating and clarifying issues with these new constituencies and building new structures and strategies to forge this alliance into a fighting force.

International solidarity

At the international level, the real work, and the most difficult one, is to build cross-border industrial and global company union alliances. In this phase of globalisation, effective internationalism rests on the ability of the working class to build to intervene all along the supply network and the commodity chain of the Transnational Corporations. The solidarity and the organizing work should actually influence the management decisions, defend the victimized workers, ensure trade union rights and evolve feasible common demands for bargaining.

Democracy for uniting the class

Another weakness of the trade union movement has been the lack of democracy in its functioning. The low commitment of the leadership to a participatory process is translated to their low confidence in the strength of the union membership to resist and struggle.

Democracy has to become a major instrument for building the new federation, for building solidarity, for determining political and bargaining objectives and for deciding policies and strategies. The federation should instil institutional mechanisms that allow for multiple tendencies, including political ones, to openly express their views, debate and decide the direction of the federation in a democratic manner. In the policy-making bodies adequate representation should be allowed to reflect the diversity of opinions and views. Moreover the federation’s key strength should be a plant level union organization based on industrial coordination. All other organizational structures should be able to support this organizational focus. Federations are made by the unions and are created to serve and support the unions. To actualise this principle in the new federation the work-place level union organization should have the residuary powers in the federation and only such powers will be delegated to the higher industrial, regional and national structures, as decided by unions through a democratic and transparent process.

Federation is for the unions

Federations are created and built by the unions for their needs and demands. They are higher organisational forms to enable unions to acquire the capability to shape and decide social goals. Such social goals can be both political and bargaining demands. And so, the federation should emerge from the real needs and concern of the unions. In order to address these needs, the union delegates powers and resources to the federation to build capability and competency that all affiliated unions can share and use.

Historically, the union movement in India grew from the national movement and so remained the creation of the political movement. If this had a positive side, that unions had a political perspective and support, it also acquired the negative aspect that political differentiation always led to union splits. The underlying assumptions that all political differentiation necessarily requires union differentiation is neither theoretically nor historically valid. The union movement needs learning space to acquire the capability to assess and decide which differences of values, vision, social goals and strategy may require trade union differentiation, and if so, when. Neither, this space was aggressively claimed by the union movement nor unilaterally conceded by the political parties.

Unity is the perspective

The general mood of the workers is for unity. The strength of any new organising effort has to build on this felt need of workers and lead to a larger organisational entity than that which existed before. The proposal for a new federation of unions has to based on organising principles that make it consistent with this viewpoint.

First, at the work place, the principle of single union will be strictly followed. A union under this initiative, if it is a majority union, will allow other unions at the workplace to merge with it or allow the members to join it, and in the first instance give the new union members a proportionate representation in the decision-making committee at the work place. Thereafter, the union constitution, if required, will be amended to consolidate this unity and new officials of the union will be elected as per this constitution through a secret ballot election. In case the union is a minority at the work place then it will merge itself with the majority union provided it accepts the principle of proportionate representation in the work-place decision-making body and secret ballot election.

Second, at the industrial level, the major focus of the initiative will be to build a single industrial federation, and to facilitate industry-wide collective bargaining strategy. Following this focus, efforts will be directed to bring the majority of unions in the industry, irrespective of their affiliation or ideological orientation, into a participatory process to build such an industrial federation. In case, either one or many such industrial federations under different central trade unions exist, the policy will be to join the largest and most democratic industrial federation and make it an instrument for such consolidation.

Third, more than one third of the unions are not affiliated to any central trade unions and so are unable to shape the national trade union movement. This initiative’s main concern is to build a national federation of all independent unions through a participatory process of the unions themselves. It does not strive to become either the largest or the dominant central trade union, but to acquire the critical strength to be able to democratically engage with other central unions on issues and agenda that the present situation demands, with seriousness.

Fourth, the various efforts among the Central Trade Unions for unity and merger have resulted in failure. It reflects their inability to overcome their historical legacy and associated political sectarianism. This is also partly due to their underestimation of the historic need for consolidation of the trade union movement and the deep urge for unity among the working class. Each CTU is strategising on the assumption that the other is disintegrating. In reality no tradition vanishes automatically. So the real option is the merger of federations. This initiative will create the critical strength to trigger the process of unity. First, by putting the agenda of merger, from the inception itself, in their bipartite relationship with other central unions. Second, by proposing a Confederation of all centre-left trade union federations and striving to build such a confederation with any federation that accepts such proposal.

Signed and endorsed by the following trade unions who were present at the meeting :

Sarva Shramik Sangh, All India Blue Star Employees Federation, Blue Star Employees’ Union, All India Council of Unilever Union, Kamani Employees Union, Koyla Udhyog Kamgar Sanghathana, Wan Kamgar Sanghatana, Karnataka State Industrial and General Workers Union, Tamil Manila Katida Tozhilalar Sangam, Penn Thozhilalarsal Sangam, Bharitaya Shramik Sabha, National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers, Maruti Udyog Employees’ Union, Chemical Mazdoor Union, L & T Kamgar Union.

16th December 2002
New Delhi

Click here to return to the April 2003 index.