On the day of the strike, 7 September, the right-wing nationalist paper, The Hindu, had not a mention of the action on its front page. Instead the lead article itself demonstrated very clearly the need for the strike and for further action. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has come out against a high court order that the poor should be given grain that scandalously will now be allowed to rot in the go-downs (ware-houses). It is estimated that 70% of India’s population lives on less than Rs20 a day - less than half a dollar!
Young women working at Gold Winner Oil near Chennai were striking for better wages.
The strike gave a glimpse of the potential power of the working class in India. In Mumbai it was reported that 90,000 auto-rickshaw drivers struck. Nationally hundreds of planes were grounded and rallies and protests took place across the country. In Bangalore, where garment workers are super-exploited, members of New Socialist Alternative (NSA), the CWI in India, helped to bring out workers from six garment factories to join the strike.
However, the experience in Chennai gave the impression that more planning and preparation could have yielded much greater results. Auto drivers complained that they had not received a single poster or leaflet to help them advertise the strike. No posters were visible before the day itself. It appears that most areas did not have preparatory meetings either.
There is a myriad of reasons for the workers, poor and young people to strike and protest in India. Poverty, dire working conditions, lack of public services, oppression on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, caste or language, state repression and many more transgressions of human rights. This strike was particularly focused on the enormous price hikes in food and fuel which further punish the poor. The cost of staples like rice and dal have rocketed while wages stagnate and hours and jobs are cut. Meanwhile the wealthy of India live on a different planet of air-conditioned restaurants and chauffer-driven shopping sprees.
The leaflet of the New Socialist Alternative called for genuinely elected committees of working and poor people to control food prices and for the general strike to be followed by further action - well-organised and prepared.
The strike was called by a number of trade unions mainly, but not all, affiliated to the Communist Parties. Even unions affiliated to the biggest ruling party – Congress – came out and its leader, Sonia Ghandi mouthed words of concern for the plight of workers just before the strike! The attitude of some Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) members was that the general strike should sound a warning shot to the government. But a ‘warning shot’ with no clear signal of a determined and organised follow up is unlikely to put sufficient pressure on the government.
However, the workers who took action showed courageous determination. Young women working at Gold Winner Oil near Chennai were striking for better wages. Satya has been at the company for six years and receives a miserly Rs3,100 a month (US$ 67). When Priya spent 30 minutes in the bathroom, the ladies’ supervisor at Gold Winner publicly asked her who she had been sleeping with! These women workers also took strike action against sexual harassment. For two days’ action they lost eight days’ pay! They described their conditions as “semi-slavery” and were angry that the mainstream Indian and Tamil Nadu media did not cover their conditions and struggles.
Workers from the Special Economic Zones were also out on strike. Companies in these areas are not required to recognise trade unions or the minimum wage. Of the 70 companies in the ‘Tambaram SEZ 50’ pay below the appallingly low minimum wage.
Young men working at RSB, a supplier for the giant US-based firm Caterpillar, were striking against the price hike and against job insecurity. They were members of a new independent trade union, the United Labour Federation (ULF). Their complaints were many. While managers took home 1,500,000 - 2,500,000 rupees ($32,000), 400 workers shared one toilet, received no lunch or dinner at work and faced suspensions over minor issues. When they established their union, the ULF, the management set up a new boss-friendly union, bringing in political parties for support. It was thus unsurprising that these young militant working class fighters felt there was no political party that represented them. They hoped that Caterpillar workers in the US would organise solidarity with their struggles.
The police were also determined and made mass arrests at the CPI(M) unions’ rally. Hundreds of workers were driven away in vans and trucks. However the presence of western tourists with cameras seemed to keep them at bay at the ULF rally.
The ULF’s honorary president, V Prakash, described the horrendous wealth gap and the conditions of the workers. He condemned the political parties and the way that the trade unions had ordered the strike from the top when it should have been organised from the bottom up.
There was a warm welcome for visiting socialists (from the CWI) who gave solidarity greetings, with particular applause for the call for a new workers’ party to be built across all sections of society and with no discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, sexuality, religion or language. This point was made in the NSA leaflet and repeated by V Prakash. Many participants expressed interest in the leaflets and the work of New Socialist Alternative.