On February 28th over 100 million Indian workers are set to participate in a one-day general strike across the subcontinent – a move branded as one of the largest shows of industrial strength in the world. The twenty-four hour walkout has the backing of India’s main trade unions from across the political spectrum, who in a rare move have united for a national tour in support of the action, and numbers are likely to surpass that of the anti-privatisation strike in 2010; which at that point was the largest worker action taken since the country’s independence in 1947. Action on the 28th will likely affect crucial areas of the nation’s economy, including public sector banks, an aviation sector currently in crisis, mining, and the closure of ports and docks.
The sheer numbers involved gives some indication as to the strength of feeling amongst the Indian working class. Compared to the dire economic prospects facing Western economies and the Eurozone, India’s economy has seen a GDP growth rate of almost 9% year on year, yet the harsh realities of the neoliberal agenda are stark. Recent studies indicate that there are 410 million people living in poverty, in contrast with a moneyed elite of fifty-five billionaires who have amassed over $250 billion since new economic policies were adopted in 1991. Many of the poorest workers are employed in construction and manual labour, where wages are often as low as 500 Rupees per month (or £6.50). With European and North American companies increasingly taking advantage of low wages and production costs by contracting to India, it is in the interests of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government to maintain the status quo. The coalition has come under increasing pressure since 2009 when allegations of corruption were lodged regarding the election. Industrial action of such a size has the possibility of weakening the UPA government further, with elections just two years away. However, where there is unity in the calling and support for the strike, concrete demands for the 28th are far from clear.
Many of the major trade union organisations in India are affiliated to a political party or organisation, and can in some cases be regarded as the labour wings of these groups. For instance the All-India Trade Union Congress, India’s oldest union representing around three million workers, has a deep and long standing association with the Communist Party of India. Much of the unions of the left, including the AITUC, have been pushing to move the strike in the direction of defending existing workers in the face of increasing attacks on the trade union movement, as well as addressing the growing problem of unemployment in urban areas. There is an urgency for these issues to be addressed. Last month in Puducherry, police opened fire on workers who were protesting being locked out of their workplace at a ceramics factory, injuring dozens and leaving a local union leader dead. A press release today by CITU, a union affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), reports that several local leaders in West Bengal were hacked to death on a demonstration in support of February 28th – murders which they allege were perpetrated by those in pay of the local government. Others on the left are calling for the implementation of a minimum wage to be rolled out across India and protection for the millions who are employed in precarious or irregular work. The government, they argue, has promised these demands in the past but are yet to implement them. Yet these are merely a handful of demands made by various different unions and organisations. Given the size of the strike this is perhaps understandable, but it may have practical implications for the success of the strike.
The danger of not agreeing to a unified list of demands is reflected in the participation of right-wing associations and unions. Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist organisation who in the past have been responsible for stirring up ethnic hatred against the Muslim population, have thrown their weight behind the strike, as has the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently in opposition to the UPA coalition in the Lok Sabha. These parties are clearly no friends of the working class – seen clearly in the BJP led administration from 1998-2004 which aggressively pursued privatisation in office, alongside playing a significant part in race-related riots in the state of Gujarat. Shiv Sena and the BJP wish to jostle for influence within the movement in order to favour their own ambitions for governance rather than to stand up for ordinary workers. It is no surprise that both parties find themselves in the same NDP alliance in the Lok Sabha, and will be keen to manoeuvre themselves by any means possible in a bid to make gains in local elections which will take place in several states over the next few months. Goa, a key target area for the BJP due to a widespread corruption scandal, will go to the polls on March 3rd.
On the other end of the spectrum, there have been mixed messages from the Indian National Trade Union Congress, affiliated to the Indian National Congress of Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Originally a supporter of the strike, in recent days the INTUC has condemned the action as “baseless and illegal”, being the only major union to do so. On a governmental level, Congress have been eerily silent about the All-India general strike for two reasons. Firstly, they do not wish to inflame a situation by generating column inches on industrial action primarily aimed against the government. Yet perhaps more important at a time of economic uncertainty, Congress realises that India has the potential to become another epicentre of anti-neoliberal unrest, and they fear scaring off foreign investment firms looking for a cheap workforce. To remedy this, the party has instead employed their union wing in an attempt to distance themselves from their critique of the strike. That the union’s leader, G.Sanjeeva Reddy, is a Congress MP in the upper house of the Indian Parliament shows the extent to which they can control the top layer of union bureaucracy. Time will tell just how successful this strategy is, as over the last several months INTUC has been involved in a bitter factional struggle between elements supporting and detracting from the government. Nevertheless, what is clear is that the political elite consider the strike to be a significant threat to their political agenda. Rakesh Sheetty, INTUC youth president, stated “We have already submitted a letter to Chief Labour Commissioner to provide security to the employers while attending their duties on Feb 28, 2012 and the unions involved in this strike should be banned”, indicating that Congress are prepared to allow their union to take up an explicit anti-worker position in defence of the status quo.
Looking back at the 100 million workers who struck in 2010, the action was successful from an economic perspective, yet lacked any real political direction and as a result little significant change arose from it.
What makes the general strike on the 28th February significant is not merely the strength of numbers involved – which will be the largest to date – but also the context of a global collapse in the neoliberal economic model. As Gurudas Dasgupta of the AITUC comments, this strike will be “only a wake up call. This is a warning signal to the United Progressive Alliance government, whose policies of neo-capitalism have brought about this situation in the country.” Plans are already being formulated for a further strike wave in the coming months of 2012. There is hope that the All-Indian general strike may have the possibility of transcending national borders, instilling confidence in workers worldwide to take on the super-rich and the austerity policies of their governments. However, the strike must not fall into the trap of lacking clarity, which severely impacted upon the longevity of the 2010 movement. The different ambitions and goals of the unions involved may not be agreed to in the form of a clear list of demands, and is unlikely to, but activists in India need to maintain the current focus of attacking a UPA government whose members have a long history of selling out the labour movement and not providing for the desperately impoverished. Right-wing elements supporting the strike for opportunist reasons run the risk of weakening the potential for a solid show of strength, and this must be opposed by the rank and file.
What is crucial is that the working class of India is united in a long-term strategy of pushing the government to make good on previous assurances to basic standards of living, and a fundamental right to work in a country where poverty is higher than in all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined. The left needs to pay close attention to the events in India as the strike unfolds, standing in solidarity with workers and taking lessons in how to conduct militant resistance against those who say that ordinary people must pay for the crisis of the system.