Strike by airport workers in India - Leftists sabotage workers' militancy

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On 1st Feb 2006, 23000 Airport workers of 123 large and small airports spread all over India struck work to resist attacks on their jobs. For next four days work at most airports of the country including main airports at Delhi and Mumbai remained paralyzed. At Calcutta, the flights were stopped. Elsewhere, to keep the flights going, airports were taken over by the Police and Paramilitary forces. The strike was declared ‘illegal’ by the Courts. Government threatened to invoke the repressive law of ‘Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Civil Aviation’ and to deploy the Air Force if the struggle were to escalate. The Police resorted to repression and ‘cane charge’ against the striking workers of the Mumbai airports injuring several workers. The workers anger was expressed in other cities as well.

Workers of Airport Authority of India, that runs country’s airports, have been worried and angry for several months as their jobs have been under constant threat. In the name of ‘modernization’ and privatization government has been pushing forward a process that, even by government claims, is going to eliminate at least 40% of the jobs. This means 9200 workers out of the 23000 will loose there jobs. Workers have been particularly upset, as many of them are old and will find it difficult to get a new job. This fear was expressed by many workers during the strike.  

The militancy of Airport workers has expressed itself in the context of rising militancy and greater willingness of workers everywhere to go on strike. No doubt, the strike by Honda Workers in Gurgaon in August 2005 was one of the most striking recent expression of this willingness to fight back – one which stirred panic among the bourgeoisie and certain enthusiasm among the working class. It gave rise to a widespread spirit of class solidarity for the workers in struggle. But it has not been the only expression of increased willingness to fight back and to express solidarity.

Since August 2005 many workers from different sectors have gone on struggle. Some of the struggles that have expressed both militancy and development of a spirit of solidarity have been strike by Toyota Car Workers near Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, and struggle by workers of Hindustan Lever in Mumbai. 

The strike at Toyota car plant near Bangalore started on 4 Jan 2006 and lasted 15 days. The workers went on strike against punishing work loads and repression by the bosses. They expressed anger against increased speed of car assembly lines and against punishment and fines imposed on not being able to work at new conveyor speeds. Workers protested that increased speed has led to increased spinal cord injuries among the workers. The strike was met by repression – 1500 out of 2300 workers were arrested for disturbing ‘peace’. Although the strike was sabotaged by the leftists, it has not been able to break workers resistance – workers of Toyota has engaged in protest actions since the end of their strike. This struggle and repression of the bosses and government have stirred deep and active class solidarity among workers of other industries in Bangalore. Other workers came out in support of Toyota workers. To contain this class solidarity, unions in Bangalore have been compelled to set up a sham city-wide ‘Coordination Committee’ in support of Toyota workers. 

Similarly, in the middle of Feb 2006, workers of many Mumbai industries came out in support of fight-back by 910 Hindusthan Lever workers in Mumbai against job losses.

Although many of the expressions of solidarity have not succeeded in going beyond unions so far, this tendency is unlike the spirit of resignation and hopelessness witnessed in last few years. In a rudimentary way, it harks back to the traditions of active working class solidarity witnessed during major struggles of the 1970’s.

The bourgeoisie is aware of this tendency toward resurgence of workers struggle and the danger it poses for Indian bourgeoisie and its great economic and imperialist dreams. The state therefore made particular efforts to ‘deal’ with the airport workers whose anger and militancy has been visible on many occasions during last some months. The state did this in cahoots with unions and the leftists who are partners in the coalition government at New Delhi.

While the decision to ‘modernize’ the airports leading to 9200 job losses was known for months, unions and the leftist held the workers back. The decision was ‘declared’ by cabinet on 31 Jan 2006 and unions, fully aware of the anger of workers, called a strike from 1st Feb 2006, possibly with an explicit understanding with the Prime Minister and cabinet. There is no doubt that for the leftists the whole thing was a well planned political charade. But workers anger and determination was genuine and was visible both in workers demos at Delhi airport and at Mumbai and in the fact that all ground activities were halted. But before workers could sense leftists maneuvers, leftist bosses requested a meeting with the Prime Minister on 3rd Feb afternoon to discuss airport workers situation. After meeting the PM, they brought the union bosses to meet the PM who promised to set up a committee to study the issues. Using what even the newspapers called ‘a face saver’, next morning the unions took back the strike. The frustration of workers against this was quite clear – most workers wanted to continue the fight. They had gained nothing and did not want to go back to work. Even some of the union bosses, no doubt as a part of division of labour, termed it surrender.  

There is no doubt that airport workers struggle has to some extent been a limited experience for the workers. Strike was tightly controlled by the leftists and unions, unions succeeded in keeping it isolated from other workers and in maneuvering airport workers into a frustrating retreat. But it can’t but be a minor set back. Also, the struggle unmasked the cynical maneuvers of the leftists and showed the traps the workers should avoid. Some of the lessons of the recent struggles are:

  • Workers must beware of unions maneuvers. Workers struggles becomes stronger as much as they escape unions and leftists controls.
  • Isolation is the death of workers struggle. Workers must spread their struggle and link up with other workers.
  • The tendency for the development of class solidarity must be taken forward and transformed into active, militant solidarity leading to joint struggles by workers across sectors and factories.
  • Also, increased willingness of workers to fight and the development of class solidarity open up opportunities for greater revolutionary intervention and put great responsibilities on revolutionaries.

New Delhi 18 Feb 2006



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