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.

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