As we reported last week, the general strike of 7 September in India was called by a wide range of trade unions. It was in protests at the rocketing prices of food and fuel while wages stagnate and hours and jobs are cut.
“It was an unprecedented and inconceivable strike all over the country. It is the unity (of the trade unions) that inspired workers to join the stir and its impact was massive”, said AITUC general secretary and CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta in New Delhi.
As usual, most of the print and electronic media screamed at the general strike, saying it was a futile, wasteful exercise, and the Trade Unions and their struggles are a drain on the buoyant Indian economy, yet the general strike took place involving millions of workers.
In each of the state capitals around India and in major cities, tens of thousands of working-class poor demonstrated their anger; primarily against the central government ruled by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) under the leadership of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi of the Congress Party.
In many states their frustration was very evident against the so-called opposition governments, which follow the same anti-poor, neo-liberal economic offensive against the organised and the unorganised sections of the working people.
Given the vastness of the land mass of India, it will be difficult to put a number, to say how many took part in the general strike on 7 September, but the statement of G Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) said: “Around 100 million (10 crore) workers and employees from sectors including banks, insurance, coal, power, telecom, defence, port and dock, road transport and petroleum, and unorganised sectors such as construction had joined the strike”, gives a glimpse of what happened on the day.
Ten crores and more!
“Around 10 crore workers, both from organised and unorganised sectors participated in the shutdown. Several unions did not openly come but they are with us,’’ H Mahadevan, deputy general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC – linked to the Communist Party of India – CPI) commented on the success of the strike.
A joint statement issued by the unions said the strike had affected the metropolitan cities. West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, even Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and other states responded to the strike call.
Contrary to biased media reports limiting the participation of the workers to the customary three states – West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura where traditionally the left parties have a substantial working class base, the 7th September General Strike was historic on two counts: it was the biggest in the past few decades, and it was the first time since independence from the British Raj that INTUC – the Congress-controlled union – officially joined the strike.
Crocodile Tears of Sonia
Many on the left thought that INTUC would be pressurised to withdraw from the strike. In fact, a section of the INTUC leadership, hailing from Andhra Pradesh, did issue misleading press releases to the effect that the union had withdrawn from the strike.
But even the top leadership of the union could not have deterred the workers from participating in the strike, because the underlying economic reasons were far more convincing in leading the workers to join the strike and express their anger.
The last-minute statement of Sonia Gandhi (president of the Congress Party), extensively flashed by the media, to the effect that she sympathises with the plight of the workers and that she would speak to the prime minister to look into the workers’ demands, was an attempt to distract the attention and to blunt the edge of the strike. It is not the strike that the establishment feared, but the domino effect that a united struggle would have on the consciousness of workers in the coming period.
Keeping to the traditional style of ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ demands, the trade union leaders put forward the following five point charter:-
Urgent steps to curb the continuous price-rises through universalisation of the Public Distribution System (Food Rationing) and the banning of speculation in the commodities market.
Strict enforcement of all basic labour laws without any exception or exemption and stringent punitive measures for violation of labour laws
Concrete pro-active measures to be taken for linking employment protection in the recession-stricken sectors as a condition for the stimulus package being offered to the concerned entrepreneurs and for concrete steps against retrenchment, lay-off, contractisation (casual labour contracting) and outsourcing
Removal of all restrictive provisions, based on the poverty-line, in respect of eligibility of coverage of the schemes under the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act 2008 and creation of a national fund for the unorganised sector to provide for a national floor for social security to all unorganised workers, including the contract/casual workers
Disinvestment of shares of Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs) should not be resorted to for meeting budgetary deficits and instead the growing reserve and surplus should be used for expansion and modernisation purposes and also for the revival of suffering public sector undertakings.
The trade unions also demanded the rehabilitation of the workers and employees who have lost their jobs due to the economic recession and for Rs.50,000 crore for an unorganised workers’ social security fund, while the government has only allocated Rs.1,000 crore for 40 crore (400 million) unorganised workers in the country. It must be noted that the Finance Minister, Pranab Mukharjee, in his Union Budget gave over Rs 5 lakh crore (Rs 5 trillion) to business enterprises, which is around 8 per cent of the GDP.
Given the extreme poverty and injustice, even the mild reformist minimum demands put forward by the JCTU (predominantly led by left-wing trade unions, such as the Confederation of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All-India Trade Union Confederation (AITUC), found a welcoming and enthusiastic response from the vast majority of the organised and unorganised working population.
Though underplayed by the leadership of the Joint Committee of the Trade Unions (JCTU) as a strategy, the decision of the union, controlled by the right-wing opposition controlled BJP – Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) – to stay away from this historic strike shows that the empty sloganeering of the BJP against the economic hardship of the people was a farce.
The BJP knows very well inside and outside parliament, that its free market ideology completely coincides with that of Congress and it has been directly supporting the neo-liberal policies of Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukharjee and Chidambaram combined.
Their regimes in Gujarat, Karnataka, Chattisgarh are in competition with the Congress-ruled states and with the centre as to which state is most conducive for maximum exploitation of labour and resources by foreign and national companies.
In spite of the global economic crisis, the 7% to 9% growth rate of the Indian economy in the past four years has undoubtedly been achieved by the super exploitation of the workers and poor in India.
A very thin layer of educated middle class have benefited from the much heralded boom and growth, the startling revelation of the deprivation of the majority of the population comes from the statistics of the government itself. Apart from the government-acknowledged fact that 77% of India’s population (836 Million) earns a meagre income of Rs.20 (less than half a US dollar), the great land grab that is going on in the name of “development” has displaced more than 60 million people from their land and livelihoods across India.
Given this extreme poverty and injustice, even the mild reformist minimum demands put forward by the JCTU (predominantly led by left-wing trade unions such as Confederation of Indian Trade Union, CITU, and AITUC) found a welcoming and enthusiastic response from the vast majority of the organised and unorganised working population. But apart from cheering the overwhelming participation of the workers in the general strike, if one critically looks at the pre-strike preparations, it was very much wanting.
Except in the three left-ruled states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura where Bandhs, Gheraos and strikes have become routine, most of the times officially supported by the ruling party/front, there was hardly any preparation and mobilisation for the strike. In the rest of the country among the major metropolitan cities such as Bombay, Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore, the leadership did hardly anything extra to mobilise for success of the strike.
The top leadership of the left and the trade unions suffered enormously from a crisis of confidence, because their claims to be the custodians and leaders of the working-class movement had taken a severe beating in the recent years. When the class collaborationist politics of the left parties practised during the late 1980s at the time of the National Front Government, led by the early neo-liberal V P Singh’s regime, was receding from the memory of the class, they again plunged into the same treacherous exercise of joining the Congress-led government of United Progressive Alliance (UPA), albeit this time to keep the BJP from coming to power.
Their stint with the UPA not only gave enormous leverage to Manmohan Singh to unleash his aggressive neo-liberalism, while engaging the “comrades” to memorise and read by heart the different clauses of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP). This was a programme drafted by the left parties as the minimum to go about in economic and social governance of the country during the UPA regime. It also made them practise capitalist economics and politics more forcefully and successfully than the capitalists themselves in the rest of the country.
West Bengal’s CPI (M) regime, for a time at least, was showered with accolades and by the capitalists nationally and internationally, for its “pragmatism” in practising capitalist-friendly communism. The famous quotes of CPI (M) leader Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, such as “Reform or Perish”, and “There is no alternative to Capitalism” became subjects for theses in many management institutions.
The way the CPI (M) and the rest of the Left Front eroded its own base among the rural poor by sending their goons and police to rape, harass and shoot down villagers protesting at the land grab of Tata’s and Indonesia’s Salim Group of companies at Nandigram and Singur did, above all, show up the fundamental contradictions of these Stalinist parties who are increasingly behaving like other bourgeois parties.
Many analysts, including some of the left, have started predicting the rout of CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal in the coming assembly elections in 2011. Even in the last few local elections and by-elections, the CPI(M) has lost heavily and has conceded defeat in many of its strongholds.
The more than routine success of the general strike, as claimed by the left leaders, especially in the left-ruled states, does produce a contradictory picture of the whole objective situation.
The general strike has brought many issues to the fore. While the leadership of the left parties will try their best to bolster their sagging image among their own rank and file and try to win the next elections in West Bengal and Kerala, the working class in general will get an enormous boost to their confidence in struggle and direct action. There will be increasing demands for unity and militancy among trade unions in future. Already there are indications that a “Parliament of Trade Unions” will be held this winter as an alternative forum for workers to address their concerns.
One of the AITUC (CPI-led) leaders, Gurudas Dasgupta, considered a militant, speaking to the press after the successful strike, rebuked the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, for criticising the tendency of the trade unions to call for strikes by saying: “Before Buddhadeb was born, before I was born, the workers have protested through strikes. And this will continue.”
Dasgupta asserted: “The all-India strike called by nine trade unions on September 7 is a new wave and initiative in the trade union movement”.
“If the government does not heed our demands after the strike the movement will be intensified. We will march to the parliament to lay siege to it.”
Regardless of what happens on the ground in the coming weeks and months, a psychological burden has been lifted from the most militant sections. A new search for ideas will begin as to whether there is scope for reform within the system of capitalism or that the system must be changed.
A press release during the general strike by a less well-known trade union centre of Manipur, from the remote corner of the North East of India, speaks volumes of the churning that is taking place. It commented: “As the crisis of imperialism grows more severe all over the world, in spite of bourgeois economists trying to persuade us that the situation is improving, the only possible answer for imperialism is to burden the working class and the consumer.
“Indian governments, whether the UPA in its present or past edition or the NDA or any other, have been following the neo-liberal credo of allowing the free market to solve all problems. Actually, this has meant allowing the greatest leeway and concessions and help to big industry – the removal of all obstacles in its path – while burdening the working class with closures, retrenchments, contract system, casualisation, privatisation and price rises. While fully supporting this strike on 7 September, we also call upon the working class not to let this strike, like the scores that have preceded it, become a mere flash in the pan.
“This strike must signal the start of a continuous movement to take up the demands of the workers in a sustained and systematic fashion. We have to fight the system itself. It is not the workers who are to blame for the lack of politicisation in the working-class movement, it is the leadership.
“Unions like the INTUC, CITU and AITUC, while calling upon the working class to support such strikes, end up also exhorting the workers to support the Congress, the CPM and CPI respectively.
“This is no answer for the working class. We call upon the workers to unite with all like-minded unions and politicise this struggle and to take it on towards a struggle for real democracy and for socialism".
The general strike has surely heralded a new wave, it is bound to radicalise the new generations of workers and youth who for the first time were drawn into struggle. It is no accident that the visiting Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) supporters from Europe got an enthusiastic response for their intervention during and before the strike in Bangalore and Chennai.
A challenging task lies ahead for the forces of genuine Marxism and socialism grouped around New Socialist Alternative (CWI, India), to reach out to the new layers looking for socialist solutions to the present day capitalist anarchy.
The fighting programme of the New Socialist Alternative includes:
A campaign to demand a living wage and jobs for all.
Elected committees of workers and poor people to decide on price and subsidy levels.
An end to all ’reforms’ in the interests of capitalists and the rich.
An end to cuts and ’austerity’ programmes; there is enough poverty in India!
Cancel the debts of the poor! Genuine nationalisation of all the banks, to be run under the democratic control and management of working people.
Stop the rape of India’s resources and the destruction of Adivasi, Dalith and others’ livelihoods!
Take over the monopolies – foreign and Indian – and run them through democratically elected representatives of workers and poor people!
For a mass workers’ party to fight for a government of workers and poor with a socialist programme.
For a Socialist Confederation of the sub-continent and for socialism in Asia and internationally.