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‘Unions must provide political education or labor will find itself more powerless than ever before’—Timir Basu on labor in India

Posted Apr 30, 2019 by Farooque Chowdhury and Timir Basu
Topics: Labor , StrategyPlaces: India
Labor around the world is facing a hostile situation to the extent and intensity unprecedented in labor’s history. At the same time, labor in the Global South and Global North is theoretically, organizationally and politically unarmed. In this interview conducted in April 2019 by Farooque Chowdhury, Timir Basu focuses on labor in India, a large economy in the Global South. Basu, once a revolutionary who organized among the poor peasantry, spent years in prison, during which time he focused on organizing prison labor. He has been an editor of Frontier, the radical weekly published out of Kolkata, ever since.

Farooque Chowdhury: You were actively involved with organizing the poor peasantry along revolutionary line. That was days of organizing armed struggle, years ago. Then, after getting out of prison, you actively got involved with organizing unions. You were simultaneously writing on labor and unions/labor movement in two famous weeklies—Economic and Political Weekly and Frontier. Later, over the years, as editor of Frontier, you keenly observe the labor and labor movement in India. What’s the present condition of (a) the labor, and (b) the labor movement in this south Asian country?

Timir Basu: Labor has been on the defensive everywhere since the 1990s, more precisely since the beginning of ruthless aggression of neo-liberalism. And, the South Asian region is no exception.

As for India, labor here is doubly disadvantaged because of a backward manufacturing process inherited from the British colonial rulers. Indian big business houses never tried to modernize their industry despite tremendous advance in technological up-gradation in manufacturing in Europe and America. Indian business tycoons are industrialists with feudal mindset. Also, they never tried to explore and expand market beyond a certain point. Unlike the Chinese capitalists who are latecomer in the race, they remained satisfied with captive market. They were always apprehensive of losing control over their family business empires in case of expansion. But with rapid march of globalization, technological up-gradation became the buzzword in new corporate culture dominated by Ambanis and Adanis, in place of old Tatas and Birlas. They began to automate their production lines with the sole purpose of cutting labor cost, not the improvement in quality of products. This is the main reason why Indian goods are not competitive in international market despite the advantage of cheap labor. Indian economy is not immune to global recession. Despite pompous claim of high growth rate and fairy tale of GDP, joblessness remains the perennial headache of all governments irrespective of color. Barring services sector the much-touted organized sector has been witnessing systematic killing of jobs.

Trade Union movement in general even in the organized sector finds it increasingly difficult to arrest the falling membership and boost the sagging morale of workers who are in constant threat of losing job. They work under the state of fear-psychosis, always encountering uncertainty and insecurity. The old way of placing charter of demands with major thrust on wage revision and compensatory allowance in proportion to rise or fall in consumer price index no longer works. Labor offensive in the form of strike in isolation here and there, quite often fails due to lack of solidarity support.

The phenomenal growth of services sector has created a new generation of employees who are essentially footloose, and May Day has very little meaning to them unless they are politically motivated. They are not interested in the past but what they fail to grasp is they cannot protect their future without knowing their past. Labor in the era of digital economy looks more fragmented and the “cybertariat” is yet to stand on its own feet.

What’s the major hindrance—theoretically or politically or organizationally or assault by capital/opponent classes—the labor movement in India is facing now?

For the decline of labor movement what is theoretically valid for workers in the West is equally valid for workers in India. The collapse of Soviet Russia gave employers, more precisely corporate employers, extra leverage to curb their bargaining power. The model of’ socialist societies’ where workers used to enjoy better living standards and social security was no longer there. Socialism itself became a dirty word. The post-Soviet situation also helped right-wing forces organize trade unions under their banner of reactionary and backward ideology. Reversal in China gave them extra teeth to coerce labor and brakes on trade union rights.

Tragically, most workers in the organized sector came under the sway of political right while the left continued to wander in ideological wilderness. In truth, they are still in search of an appropriate strategy in the changed context. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controlled Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and [Indian National] Congress controlled INTUC together control most organized membership of unions and don’t allow workers to go on strike even in case of gross violation of workers’ rights.

Which class dominates the labor movement in India?

The middle class as a whole dominates Indian labor movement. It doesn’t matter whether unions are left controlled or rightist led, leadership always comes with middle class background. Communist and socialist outfits deploy whole-timers to organize trade unions. Rightwing forces too do the same. This tradition has been continuing since beginning of trade union movement in the 1920s. For economically sound big unions, trade union bureaucracy is a nightmare to ordinary workers. The trade union bureaucracy is part of the management now. In the name of maintaining industrial peace, this leadership sometimes openly works against the interests of workers. It’s not that leaders from the working community are rare. But in course of time, they too acquire the status of middle class. Once P C Joshi, the secretary of undivided Communist Party of India, made a unique observation—“workers being promoted to leadership become babus”, the well-off Indian middle class. Declassed in reverse order!

The system of “recognized unions” is a nice device to corrupt TU leaders who do nothing in workplace, but provide consultancy to management. Their sole job is to keep vigil on aggrieved workers on behalf of management and pacify workers at the time of unrest.

Divisive/sectarian politics by factions of the dominating capital is a crucial issue in this big economy. This divisive/sectarian politics of the dominating capital produces an equal and opposite reaction—concentrating on issues in the way, which is also essentially divisive/sectarian, and increasingly confining into another form of divisive/sectarian slogans. Both of these are acting as a tool in the hands of the dominating capital, and harming unity of the working classes, the wage-slaves, the exploited. Do you find slogans—program/demand/movement—from the labor that stand against all forms and colors of divisive/sectarian politics irrespective of appearance and sound, and stand on class line?

It is the basic weakness of labor movement in India that even the far-left, not to speak of official left, does raise the question of class. Nor do they educate wage laborers on class line. Frankly speaking, they consciously keep trade unions free from politics. As a result, it is no problem for capital to divide workers by manipulating divisive and sectarian issues through their paid agents when it is necessary. When the ruling parties spread war hysteria, no protest emerges from workers’ platform as if workers are not affected by such propaganda.

In India one major problem affecting workers and workplaces is caste. Despite toiling for decades side by side in an establishment workers remain vulnerable to caste and religious prejudices. They remain immune to progressive ideas—no change in their outlook. They come with prejudice and they go back with prejudice. Management encourages prejudice and obnoxious religious practice as Marwari businessmen would patronize in building up Hanumana, the monkey-chief who was an ally of Ramchandra during Rama’s Lanka expedition, temple inside factory premises so that their workers could worship there.

Despite encounter with modern urban life, workers assiduously nurse feudal values. Once a permanent worker in Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation’s mains department summed up the situation nicely: “the parcel that came from Bihar went back to Bihar after retirement without being opened”.

Should the labor with a heroic history of trampling divisive/sectarian politics tolerate and give space to a seemingly pro-people, but fundamentally divisive/sectarian politics as an answer to the divisive/sectarian politics of the dominating capital/factions of the ruling classes in this economy with many competing components/regions/sections?

As workers are not politically trained, they sometimes get swayed by divisive maneuvering of capital. Workers talk politics not at factory gate. No doubt, they discuss elections but they do it as common people, not as workers. So the working class perspective is totally missing in their discourse in roadside teashops or shanties where they live.

The country with its geo-strategically important position and vying for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is a hot bed for meddling/cajoling/pressure by imperialism. What impact is this making on the labor?

Labor being apolitical they do hardly bother about India’s quest to get a permanent seat in UN Security Council. For one thing, they definitely take interest in Pakistan-bashing. Jingoism is a time-tested tactic to divert public attention. Again, leftists don’t counter it from their workers’ platform.

Do you find the so-called NGOs, which are, in essence, longer and informal arms for implementing parts of foreign policy of a number of powerful states, influencing/intervening/organizing unions?

Yes, NGOs are operating throughout the country. Most people, not to speak of workers separately, do hardly question NGO’s source of funds and NGOs’ action program. But their influence among workers, particularly in TU movement is negligible. It’s basically a middle class enterprise trying to have their presence felt among rural people and marginalized communities.

How the radical unions are reacting to the imperialists’ moves at different levels of life in India including the areas of manufacturing and trade?

Radical Unions’ response to global capital’s anti-national activities and naked interference in some cases is too inadequate to be taken seriously. One area that is totally neglected by radical unions and their rightist counterparts as well is ecology and climate. Imperial capital means unlimited plunder of natural and human resources, and in the process, they destroy ecological balance, inviting climatic catastrophe and engendering future generations. Tragically enough, radical unions don’t consider destruction of ecology as a serious threat to humanity. They talk about it very casually. It’s not on the agenda of their party. Nor is it on their TU agenda. In this area, some NGOs work in their own way and highlight climate change and its adverse impact on society and economy. But their target audience is educated middle class. So workers in Vedanta’s aluminum smelting plant are least bothered about the disaster brought about by their company in indiscriminate mining of alumina bearing hills. However, these mining activities are displacing thousands of tribal inhabitants and killing small rivulets and streams, which sustain life in the hilly region.

Suffering of the farmers chained to credit capital, and their protests in India are now widely known. Bollywood, it should be Mullywood, has produced at least one feature film on this suffering. How the labor in the industrial part of the economy is reacting to these suffering and protests, i.e., expressing solidarity, joining the marches, etc. or having a position of onlooker, indifferent, no move to build up an alliance, etc.?

Communist parties have been propagating the concept of worker-peasant alliance since their inception. But in practice they do precious little. It’s just a theoretical proposition to be discussed in party congresses and conferences. Jute workers struggle against retrenchment and arbitrary shutdown, but plight of jute growers is not their headache.

The idea of worker-peasant alliance cannot grow in isolation. Political parties and unions they control, never try to develop any common program, so they can be work jointly. Workers at best are onlookers, rather passive onlookers even when farmers march in thousands in scorching sun. Communists formulate this worker-peasant alliance strategy by borrowing from classical Marxist literature, but what they practice in the field will never succeed in building worker-peasant alliance. In the recent farmers’ long march to Mumbai, many middle class people showed sympathy to marchers—but no central TU came forward with a clear-cut strategy to support their cause. That TUs are asking workers to withdraw labor even for a day to protest farm suicides is unthinkable.

What are the major (a) successes, and (b) failures of the main part and radical part, if identified in this way, of the labor movement in this country?

Some labor welfare schemes have been incorporated in some labor acts. These are successes. But the present dispensation is trying to take away these hard-earned rights under the garb of “labor reforms”. And here unions of all shades, including unions owning allegiance to the ruling parties, are protesting rather half-heartedly. Here they fail miserably to put up a united fight without which workers are going to face medieval tyranny.

The development of an ever more technological complex manufacturing process is root cause of re-skilling of labor force. What they call fourth industrial revolution is all about maximization of automation. Maybe, automation has reached its limits after massive introduction of robots, negating physical presence of labor that was unthinkable at the beginning of the 20th century. Trade unions yet have no answer to automation beyond a certain point. They cannot oppose technological up-gradation. Nor can they resist the advent of labor-eating process even in areas where labor-organizing could have made decisive impact on the broader aspect of bargaining.

Do you like to suggest/propose any step—ideological question, political struggle, relation between unions and radical political party of labor, leadership, inner-union democracy, political education of union members, literature—to the radical part of the labor movement in India?

Well, in the organized sector, TU bureaucracy must be fought out. Even radical unions are not free from this virus. It acts as a brake on labor movement. TUs must raise political issues frequently at workers’ meet, even at plant level, instead of agitating to achieve sectarian goals. Unless TUs educate workers on political lines, this apolitical approach will lead to a more complex situation in which labor will find itself more powerless than ever before.

Capital is global. But now, labor’s resistance is strictly localized, failing to cross the national boundary and make solidarity a reality even at the regional level. Thus, unions become powerless despite prolonged strikes in some work facilities. Gone are the days of international federations and regional or industry-wise groupings. So May 1 is one more ritual, having no lasting impact on the wretched of the earth. Internationally, both left-wing and right-wing labor consolidations hardly make any news these days; they are in limbo. Only revival of socialist outlook internationally can give boost to rebuilding international labor federations without which corporations cannot be confronted effectively.

Thank you for the interview discussing issues related to the labor in India.

Thanks. I like to express my hope that the spirit of May 1 will mend many loose ends that stand in the way of building up powerful labor solidarity across the world.

About Farooque Chowdhury
Farooque Chowdhury is a freelance writer based in Dhaka. His books in English include Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis, and The Great Financial Crisis, What Next?: Interviews with John Bellamy Foster (ed.), Dhakha: Books (2012), 190 pp.
https://mronline.org/2019/04/30/unions-must-provide-political-education-or-labor-will-find-itself-more-powerless-than-ever-before/
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