An independent voice for workers
With their long history of affiliation to political parties, unions have been unable to articulate the
interests of workers independently. Also, a narrow understanding of labour has made them irrelevant to the
majority of workers in the unorganised sector. A new formation proposes to tackle these failures.
11 April 2006 -
Who should represent workers? Who should articulate their concerns and grievances, and seek proper
redress in policy or schemes? Far a very long time, the union movement in India has worked with a peculiar structure - the affiliation of
the major workers' unions with political parties. This has meant that the politcial interests of those parties were placed first, and
workers' concerns were taken up only within the umbrella of such partisanship. Many unions have, as a result, lost their credibility as
effective ways of addressing labour issues. Moreover, the varying political affiliations of various workers' organisations has
effectively split their voices, rendering each of them quite powerless on its own.
Against this backdrop, a new effort is now underway to more clearly separate the interests of workers from other aims, especially political ones. The founding conference of New Trade Union Initiative, a new federation of independent Left non-partisan trade unions, was held on March 5 and 6 in New Delhi. Delegates repeatedly noted that the trade union movement in India has been hijacked by political parties for their own purposes. And any effort to highlight workers' plight now must end this. Simultaneously, the conference attendees also emphasised that unions themselves must redefine their objectives, to come out of the narrow confines of collective bargaining to address more broad-based social issues like caste and gender that have a direct bearing on labour issues.
The debate at the conference based itself on certain tenets, set out at the very beginning by V Thangappan, president of Kamani Employees Union. The aim of founding the NTUI, he said, was not to create yet another power centre, rival to others. The core objective of the NTUI is instead to encourage multiple political tendencies in workers, and to create space for a new kind of dialogue on unity, based on democratic principles, with special emphasis on voicing the issues of minority groups.
Picture: Delegates at the conference.
Given the history, it was understandable that many speakers vented their frustration and anger with the state of labour organising today. They were unanimous in lashing out at the assimilatory tactics of political parties, which have not hesitated to compromise the cause of workers for the sake of their own political gains.
Anuradha Talwar, of the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti, an agricultural workers' union in West Bengal, gave the example
of Burdwan district, where, despite the active role of Left parties in wage negotiation, minimum wages have never been paid to
agricultural workers. It was also the Left parties which were against an independent union of agricultural workers in the state,
insisting that the Kisan Sabha essentially a body of employers in the agriculture sector was sufficient. V Cherian, who was the
national secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions till the year 2000, accused the Communist Party of India of
attempting to dislodge him from the leadership of the CITU; when that failed the party split the union, he said.
The way forward
H Mahadevan, deputy general secretary of All India Trade Union Congress, clarified that politics itself is not to be
avoided; it is political affiliation with individual political parties that must be ended.
What is needed is a union movement with an independent stance on political, labour and social issues, and independent action without
affiliating with or being hamstrung by the views and methods of political parties.
The AITUC, which was formed in 1920 to give strength to the Freedom Movement, became an adjunct to the ruling party after Independence.
Minimised by the law
Coalition backs garment workers
Left entering the environment
Good practice, bad theory
The flaws within the trade union movement, which have led to its present state of isolation, also came for much incisive
critical analysis. Yashwant Chauhan, a veteran of the trade union movement in the country, said in his founding speech that the
movement's narrow identification with organised workers alone has prevented it from bringing the huge unorganized work-force into its
fold, and this is its greatest weakness. This has allowed employers to use unorganized and casual labour to break workers' movements.
Another problem is division within workers' organisations themselves - R Kuchelar from Chennai said that multiple power centres emerging
within the trade union movement has divided instead of uniting the working class, and employers can afford to ignore the unions because
they know this. It is also a reason why the working population does not come to trade unions any more.
Asim Roy commented on the tendencies among trade-union leaders to split unions when differences arise. "In NTUI our motto is that leadership can change, but the union must not be split. It is for the workers to decide who they want as their leaders, not the other way round."
More than labour
One crucial issue that was raised very prominently at the meet was the need for the unions to create space within their purview for social issues like caste and gender. Speaking during a workshop on the issue of caste and its bearings on the labour question, Vincent Manoharan of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights pointed to the inherent ideological split within various people's movements. "The Dalit movement attacks the caste system, the trade union movement attacks
liberalisation and privatisation, while the women's movement attacks patriarchy. Such partial emphasis leads to contradiction and
bickering between various movements. The trade union movement must broaden its ideological base to incorporate all these aspects."
The lack of a unified view also leads to loss of faith, said Dr Umakant, of the same organization. The entire labour force, he said, is organised along caste lines, with Dalits performing the least paid manual work. These people have also been hit harder than other sections by the contract labour system, as the lower rung jobs are the first to be deregularised. But because trade unions have not recognised caste as a pertinent labour issue, Dalits, as also tribals and other economically and socially weaker sections, have lost faith in the movement's ability to protect their interests as workers.
Similar views were also raised during a workshop on the issue of gender in the trade union movement. Women trade union leaders from all over the country said that gender inequality within the trade union movement continues to be a grim reality. "Even the men within the unions do not want women to get equal wages," said Anuradha Talwar. She was of the opinion that if women's participation in union activities is to rise, then issues pertaining to women - like domestic violence and unequal distribution of domestic work - must be taken up as labour issues, and not merely as individual problems, as the practice has been so far.
V Chandra from the Koyala Kamgar Sangh, Nagpur, emphasised the need for enhancing women's roles in trade union leadership, where it is negligible at present. Sujata Mody, who runs an organisation for women in the unorganised sector in Chennai, felt that separate organisations exclusively for women could help provide space to women workers apart from enabling female leadership to emerge.
The raging issue of the need to organise the unorganised sector gave rise to much discussion at the conference. V
Thangappan said that the core organisational strategy of the NTUI must be to organise the whopping 93 per cent of the country's
work-force that is in the unorganised sector, and a large section of which comprises women, Dalits and other disadvantaged sections of
society. A workshop on this issue discussed the Unorganised Sector Labour Bill that has long been pending in Parliament, emphasising both
the need for a coherent trade union position on the Bill and a common strategy to fight for the Bill to become legislation.
Participants agreed that in areas where the trade union movement was strong and focussed on the struggle, some gains had
been possible. The case of the struggle of construction workers organised under the Tamilnadu State Construction Workers Union, leading
to a comprehensive welfare Bill in the state, not only for construction workers but also for other sections of unorganised workers, was
highlighted as a case in point.
The NTUI meeting may well turn out to be an interesting turning point, if the issues identified by delegates here lead to a different kind of struggle for workers' welfare. The dominant issues themselves - independence from party politics, enhancing the role of women, Dalits, tribals and other weaker sections, the growing need to address concerns of the unorganised workforce - are simply too big to be ignored for very long, and trade unions weakened greatly over the last decade are waking up to the missing pieces in their organising and other efforts. It was decided that a comprehensive programme for carrying the struggle forward along the new paths discussed, and taking it beyond campaign and advocacy, will be drawn up. Perhaps, for workers around the country, especially the working poor, this will be a new beginning.
Aparna Pallavi is a journalist based in Nagpur, and writes on development issues.