All-India workers’ strike of 28 February 2012: General strike or union ritual?

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The general strike called by trade unions representing 100 millions workers spread all across India took place on 28 Feb 2012. All national unions, belonging to all political parties, including the Hindu fundamentalist BJP, joined the strike, as did thousands of local and regional unions. Bank employees, postal and state transport workers, teachers, dock workers and many other sectors of workers participated in the strike. The fact that all unions agreed to call this strike together goes to show the dynamic of workers’ struggles behind it.

The unions put forward a mishmash of demands: defend the public sector, control prices, compulsorily register unions within 45 days, strict enforcement of labour laws, increase of minimum wages to Rs. 10000.00 per month and social security etc. They made no effort to show that the bourgeoisie is mercilessly attacking workers today as its system is in crisis and sick and rotten. Instead, the unions’ efforts were aimed at building trust in the system – the bourgeoisie can concede anything, if it wishes to do so.

But the way the unions went about this whole strike showed their real intent. For one, they did not ask several millions of their members to even formally join the strike. More than one and a half million railway workers, equal or even bigger number of state power sector workers, many others workers, most of whom are members of these unions, were not even called upon to join. While proclaiming a ‘general strike’, unions agreed to millions of their members going to work as usual and not disrupting the smooth flow of the main arteries of capitalism.

Even in sectors whose unions pledged to join the strike, their attitude was more one of proclaiming a ritual strike. Most workers who participated did so by staying at home. Unions made no big efforts to bring them onto the streets and together or organise demos. Not much effort was made to involve millions of private sector workers, who belong to striking national unions, in the strike. We can see the seriousness of this exclusion when we recall that recently and for quite some time private sector workers have been far more militant and less respectful of the laws of the bourgeoisie. Even industrial areas like Gurgaon and auto hubs near Chennai and factories like Maruti at Gurgaon and Hyundai near Chennai that have recently witnessed major strikes did not join this strike. In most industrial areas, in hundreds of big and smaller cities all across India, while public sector workers joined the strike, millions of private sector workers continued to work and their unions did not join the strike. 

Why then did the unions call the strike?

It is clear that unions did not use the strike to mobilise workers, to bring them onto the streets and unify them. They used it as a ritual, as a means to let off steam, to keep workers apart, to keep them passive and demobilised. Striking workers sitting at home and watching TV do not strengthen workers’ unity or consciousness. It only encourages a sense of isolation, a sense of passivity and of a wasted opportunity.  Given this attitude, why did unions then call the strike? And what made all of them, including BMS and INTUC, join it?  To understand this we have to look at what is happening at the economic and social level and within the working class in India.

Worsening living conditions of workers

Despite all the big talk about economic boom by the Indian bourgeoisie, the economic situation has been worsening over the last few years. Like capitalism everywhere, the capitalist economy in India too has been in crisis. According to statistics issued by the government, the growth has stalled and come down from nine percent to nearly six percent.  Many industries have been badly hit by the crisis. These include the IT sector but also other sectors like textiles, diamond processing, capital goods industries, infrastructure, private power companies and airlines. This has led to intensified attacks on the working class. General inflation has been hovering around ten percent for more than two years. Inflation in food and other items of daily use has been much higher, sometime going up to 16%.  This has made the life of the working class miserable.

Development of class struggle

In the midst of these deteriorating living and working conditions, the working class has also been discovering the path to class struggle. Since 2005 we have seen a slow acceleration of class struggle all across India. Of course this is not unique to India but part of a global resurgence of the class struggle. The years 2010 and 2011 have seen numerous strikes in many sectors, including in auto hubs at Gurgaon and Chennai. Some of these struggles, as the strikes by Honda Motor Cycle workers in 2010 and Maruti Suzuki workers in 2011, had shown great militancy and determination to confront the security apparatus of the bosses. This has also been the characteristic of strikes in Hyundai Motors in Chennai, where workers struck work several time against casualisation and other attacks of the bosses. These strikes showed strong tendencies toward solidarity and spread across factories. They also expressed tendencies toward self-organization and setting up general assemblies, as seen in strikes by the Maruti workers who occupied the factory against the advice of ‘their’ union.  

In addition to this slowly rising tide of class struggle, the struggles taking place in Middle East, in Greece, in Britain and the global ‘occupy movements’ have been having an echo in the Indian working class.

Fear of the contagion of class struggle

In the face of this situation the bourgeoisie has really been worried about the spread of class struggle. At times the bourgeoisie has been very scared. This fear has been clearly expressed in the face of many of the recent strikes.

At the time of violent confrontations at Honda Motor Cycles and in the face of repeated strikes in Maruti-Suzuki, this fear could be seen clearly. Each time the media was full of stories that strikes could spread and engulf other auto companies in Gurgaon and paralyse the whole area. These stories were not speculation. While the main strikes were in a few factories, other workers went to the gates of the striking companies. There were workers’ joint demos, even one strike across the whole industrial city of Gurgaon. The provincial government was itself seriously concerned about the spread of the strike. The Chief Minister and Labour Minister of Haryana, at the prompting of the Primer Minister and Union Labour Minister, brought management and union bosses together to dampen down the strike.

Like the rest of the bourgeoisie, unions have been even more concerned over loosing control over the workers if the militancy increases. Again, this was evident in strikes at Maruti in 2011 where workers took many actions against the directions and the wishes of the union.

This fear has been pushing the unions to appear to be doing something. They have called a number of ritual strikes including a bank workers’ strike in November 2011. The present strike, while without doubt an expression of the rising tide of anger and militancy within the working class, is also the latest effort of the unions to contain and channel it.

Taking the struggle into our own hands

Workers need to understand that going on a ritual strike and sitting back at home does not take us anywhere. Nor does it help to gather in a park and listen to speeches of union bosses and party MPs.  The bosses and their government are attacking us because capitalism is in crisis and they have no way out. We need to understand that all workers are under attack, all are in the same boat. Remaining passive and isolated from each other does not discourage bosses from intensifying their attacks against workers. Workers need to use these occasions to come out on the streets, to mobilise themselves, to come together and discuss with other workers. They need to take their struggles into their own hands. This will not immediately solve workers’ problems but it will make it possible for us to mount a genuine struggle against the bosses to defend ourselves, to push the bosses back. It will help us develop our struggle against the whole of capitalism and work toward its destruction. As those occupying the Athens Law School in Greece in February 2012 said, in order to liberate ourselves from present crises of capitalism, “we must destroy the (capitalist) economy.”

Communist Iinternationalist, 9/3/12