India: 150 million workers strike

Modi government faces growing opposition

It is no exaggeration to say that the nation-wide strike on September 2nd was the biggest ever that India has seen since independence from direct colonial rule.

Headlines in the western media declared: ‘World’s Biggest General Strike involves 150 million Workers!’ and the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN carried exclusive reports on the strike. In India, the press and T V channels tried their level best to play down the impact and make it look inconsequential.

But nothing had deterred the hitherto silent resolve of the workers to teach a lesson to the National Democratic Alliance government led by the right-wing communal BJP and the prime minister, Narendra Modi. In spite of great promises to ‘grow the economy’ beyond recognition, his government has, in the span of one year of its rule, further ruined the economic, political and social life of the working people of both urban and rural India.

Real impact

The major 10 trade union federations called the strike through a 12-point Charter of Demands of the workers including minimum wages, social security benefits to all, trade union rights, labour law amendments as well as other issues like disinvestment, privatisation of Public Sector Undertakings etc. It also included some burning issues of importance to the common people.

In the recent past, general strikes have been routinely called and the response has been half-hearted. This was the 16th General strike since 1991, when aggressive Neo-Liberal economic reforms were started by the previous Congress regime.

In several states – not only those where the trade union movement is traditionally strong like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura – but in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Karnataka, the industrial belt of Gurgaon, Manesar, Dharuheda in Haryana, the strike turned out into a virtual bandh, with shops and offices closed and everything coming to a standstill.

Reports show that workers in defence units all over the country participated in the strike in a big way and defence production was seriously affected by the strike. It was 85 percent in Trichy, 75 – 100 percent in different units in Avadi in Tamil Nadu and the strike was almost total in Defence Labs, Hyderabad.

Though officially, at the last minute the ruling BJP-affiliated union federation – Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) – boycotted the strike, the resentment among the rank and file workers was so severe that many grass-roots level unions affiliated to the BMS were not ready to withdraw the strike notices served earlier, despite such instructions from their leadership above. In many places the workers owing allegiance to the BMS participated in the strike.

In Bangalore, Karnataka, permanent and contract workers were all on total strike at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), BEML (Bharat Earth Movers Limited), Indian Telephone Industries. Supervvisors at Bharat Electronics Limited in Bangalore wore black badges as a mark of protest, as they cannot by law join the strike directly. Altogether 50,000 public sector workers in Karnataka participated in the strike.

Bosses’ concern

The Assocham – the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India – representing the bosses cried: "Trade unions’ strike caused R25, 000 crore (around $3.7 billion) loss". The president of the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry), Sumit Mazumder, pulling out his stock reaction said, “The real concern is that the image of India as an attractive business destination could take a beating”…The Indian economy cannot afford such disruptions. The "suave" minister of finance, Arun Jaitley, speaking to the bosses of the car industry made a classic ’tongue-in-cheek’ statement about the strike having had “a marginal or an inconsequential impact".

In fact, the massive participation in this historic strike in banking, coal-mining, the docks and the steel industry surprised many in the government. They had just been comforted by a report on the decline of strikes and lockouts in the last two years since February 2013 when more than 100 million workers in India participated in a two day general strike! As per the Ministry of Labour’s data, in the year 2014 the country had witnessed just 143 strikes and lockouts, down from the nearly 447 strikes and lockouts in 2012. Last week’s united labour action looked like a massive resurgence of militancy.

The September 2nd strike was “phenomenal and magnificent” as Gurudas Dasgupta, a veteran trade unionist of the AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress affiliated to Communist Party of India [CPI] ), said of the extremely successful strike mobilisation. This was in spite of the last hour U-turn by the BMS, the boycott by the "independent" National Front of Indian Trade Unions (NFITU) and the opposition of two unions affiliated to All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu.

Of course there were innumerable attempts to sabotage the strike from the side of the administration and the club of the profiteering bosses. They tried their level best to introduce confusion in the ranks of the Trade Unions by inviting their leaders to get involved in a futile "round of talks".

In the immediate run-up to the general strike, the ‘Group of Ministers’ (GoM) led by Arun Jaitley together with the minister of labour, Bangaru Dattatreya, engaged the TU leadership in a merry-go-round of talks and statements to the press, trying to infuse chaos among the ranks.

This GoM made statements like:

• The unions have a 12-point charter of demands and “both parties are positive on some six to eight issues”.

• Workers’ safety would be borne in mind while carrying out reforms. “We are and will do our maximum”.

• Dattatreya said the ministry is amending the minimum wages Act to set a national floor (- a change of stand from earlier this year when the ministry had said that it will be left to the states to decide).

• One labour ministry official said the government is creating a model where states will be divided into three categories – ‘developed’, ‘developing’ and ‘underdeveloped’.

• For an ‘underdeveloped’ state, the minimum wage for an unskilled worker can be set at Rs.7,200 a month and for a developed state it can be a little over Rs.9,000.

The government also resorted to threats and issued notices to central government employees about not only losing wages but also breaking their service. National Thermal Power Corporation in Ramagundam threatened action under the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA).

The Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (BPCL) management approached the Kerala High Court which directed that no strike should be called until the case against it had been heard. On the eve of the strike in Noida near Delhi police conducted a ‘flag march’ (with rifles drawn) to intimidate the workers. In Assam, 1,000 workers were arrested on the day of the strike. Around 100 workers, including leaders of the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions affiliated to the CPI(M)), were arrested in Ahmedabad in Gujarat.

But the turn-out on picket lines and the mood was more defiant than in the past. Placards and slogans included: ‘No more sham reforms!’, ‘Modi murdabad! – Down with Modi!’, ‘Us – the workers united – you cannot defeat us!’, ‘A minimum life demands a living minimum wage!’.

The political build-up

Ever since Modi came to power in May last year, it has become almost a weekly, if not daily routine, that the government officially or unofficially announces one or another "reform" detrimental to the lives of working people in the country. Be it the annulling of the Five Year Planning system, the Land Acquisition Bill, the threat of regressive labour reforms, changing curriculums and text books in education by introducing Majoritarian Hindutva ideology, attacks on what remains of food and other subsidies, Modi and his cohorts have kept everyone on tenterhooks.

Socially too, the most downtrodden people in India have been feeling the heat of the present set of reactionaries in power – through sporadic attacks on religious minorities, Dalits and Adivasis, increasing sexual assaults and moral policing as well as the gunning down of ‘rationalists’ and progressive and well-known figures.

Government put on notice

The Land Acquisition Bill, which the Modi administration was hell-bent on executing, is now expected to be dropped as it was seen as an extremely unpopular step to promulgate it through a Presidential Ordinance. This and the massive general strike of September 2nd are pointers to the way opposition to the government can develop and grow in the near future.

The organisers of this month’s nationwide strike have been taken by surprise by the mood and the militancy as well as the numbers of workers who joined the strike. The working class has totally rejected the attempt to defraud workers by amending the labour laws to push out more than 75 percent in the organised sector alone from being covered by any legal protection.

The working class of India have made it very clear that it is aware of the evil designs of the government proposals aimed at benefitting the capitalist bosses through amending the Factories Act, the Minimum Wages Act, the Payment of Wages Act, Payment of Bonus Act, Industrial Disputes Act, PF Act, ESI Act etc.. It wants to legalise what was hitherto considered violations of labour laws.

Through this massive strike, more than 150 million workers in India have emphatically asserted that they cannot be cheated by vague assurances on minimum wages, bonuses etc. while being denied protection under the labour laws. Through this strike, the working class has warned the government that it is not going to tolerate such fraud.

New Socialist Alternative (CWI-India) intervened in the general strike with leaflets, slogans and placards on the issue of a living minimum wage of R100 an hour, which is an ongoing campaign. In Bangalore our leaflets and slogans attracted a lot of attention, as we distributed more than 2,500 leaflets. Many workers, especially those on low wages, have volunteered to take leaflets to further the campaign.

The New Socialist Alternative will be calling for political and trade union organisations across India to hold meetings in the workplaces and the neighbourhoods to follow the September strike by stepping up the fight against the Modi government.

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