India: Workers strike with a vengeance

According to V. K. Gupta, one of the joint secretaries of the National Confederation of Bank Employees, 50 million took part in this historic strike. Some of the veterans of the movement say this was the biggest strike since independence.

The all-India general strike of 21 May was a resounding success.

The country’s press did its shrill best not only to notice the strike but also to decry it! The following are some of the headlines, which show the intensity of their fear of class action. "Centre of Indian Trade Unions strains at the leash; the city gasps!" (Telegraph, Calcutta). "Trade Unions’ strike paralyses work in Public Sector Units and banks." (Hindustan Times, New Delhi). "(Workers) strike against themselves!" (New Indian Express).

The one-day general strike was called by the left trade unions – the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (led by the ‘Communist Party of India (Marxist)’), the All India Trade Union Congress (‘Communist Party of India’), Hind Mazdoor Sabha, Trade Union Coordination Centre (‘Forward Block’), United Trade Union Congress (Revolutionary Socialist Party) and United Trade Union Congress – Lenin Sarani (SUCI).Lenin’s Path (Socialist Unity Centre Of India). 

The participation of the 800,000 bank workers, belonging to five major unions, made the financial sector come to a grinding halt in the whole of the country. Reserve Bank of India employees in spite of the threat of disciplinary proceedings, joined the strike en masse, which halted the clearing operations of the financial instruments to the tune of at least Rupees 100,000 crores. (One crore = ten million). 

Traditional blacklegs like the Indian National Trade Union Congress (affiliated to the Congress party) and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (belonging to the major ruling party – the BJP) tried to sabotage the strike by pulling out of it at the last minute. They suddenly declared it to be "anti- national" – against the economic interests of the nation! But their efforts went in vain; the strike was a total strike.

It had major impact in West Bengal, Kerala, Bihar, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Goa, Pondicherry and in Punjab. "In Srinagar, of Jammu and Kashmir, work in banks and insurance companies in the entire valley was paralysed," said the Tribune newspaper, published from Amritsar, Punjab. Apart from heavy manufacturing in the public sector, workers all over India joined the strike – in engineering, oil, power, telecommunications, textiles, post, ports and docks, railways, fertilisers, coal mining, steel and aluminium. Central government employees and different state government workers also joined the strike to express their anger against the increasing worsening of their working conditions.

Here in Karnataka state, apart from all the major public sector units going on strike, private sector workers belonging to the electrical, electronics and chemical industries also participated. Auto-rickshaws and the busses were off the roads. In Bangalore’s ‘Silicon Valley’, too, there was militancy to see. One electronics factory owner, who had made extra arrangements to force his workers to work by keeping them overnight in the factory, faced the wrath of angry protesting workers from the neighbouring factories. They smashed his entire factory to smithereens to bring their comrades out!

In all, there were 5,000 arrests reported around the country and police baton charges against protesting strikers in 16 different places. In Andhra Pradesh, all state road transport came to a stand still. Gujarat, which suffered the worst communal carnage last year, saw a huge, united participation in the strike.

One distinct feature of this strike was that it was not limited to the cities and metropolitan areas alone. All semi-urban centres and even country areas were affected by strike action. Public open protests were a common sight all over India. This time the workers did not passively stay at home but came out onto the streets to express their anger.

New Socialist Alternative intervened in the strike from the time of the May Day rally. We brought out two leaflets [15,000] in a fortnight – in four languages – to campaign for the strike. We have met many new people interested in our ideas and activities and are optimistic about strengthening our forces.

This is the first properly organised strike for at least the last 15 years. The pressure of the rank and file has played a major role in forcing the leaderships of the unions to act, however late, on the issues of privatisation and the worsening of working conditions.

The CPI-M and CPI – led Left Front which rules West Bengal have the biggest union following in the country as a whole. As their parties and the government led by them are carrying out exactly the same policies as the central government, the union leaderships had stopped taking initiatives in leading workers to struggle. Although for their own malicious reasons, the Telegraph of Calcutta quoted a CITU leader saying, "The state government’s decision to shut down over a dozen loss-making state public sector units has forced us to adopt an unusually docile posture even vis-à-vis the centre’s decisions. Besides, the unions are forced to play second fiddle to the management in many sectors and that has dented the force’s morale". 

The wide support by workers for the general strike marks a real revival of the workers’ movement and the regeneration of their confidence to combat and take on the establishment. As one union leader in New Delhi said after the strike, "We think the government will open its eyes and heed our demands, but if they want confrontation, we are ready for that also". The bank workers’ unions have already threatened an indefinite strike. 

New Socialist Alternative is planning to continue intervening in the work-places and factories with another leaflet on the future course of action and with a call for the intensification of the struggle.

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May 2003