On 5th December 2000, 600,000 postal workers in India went on a nationwide strike. All sections of postal workers, in all corners of India, were involved in this strike that lasted till 18th December 2000. From day one of the strike the entire media and state machine, including the highest courts, were directed toward attacking and discrediting the postal workers as a selfish and irresponsible sector holding ‘society’ to ransom. The state used all the tricks short of direct violence to crush the militancy of the workers. It declared the strike illegal, proclaimed no work, no pay, enforced the ESMA (Essential Services Maintenance Act), called paramilitary and military units to man postal services. All this was accompanied by propaganda about how private courier service operators were managing the situation very well and the government was not bothered about the strike.
The postal workers are a particul workers are a particularly exploited and militant section of public sector workers and have often fought the bosses for better living conditions and better pay. The last time they went on strike, in 1998, it was one of the major episodes of class combat at the time. But the recent strike was the biggest since their historic 15 days strike in 1969. In 1969 postal workers had gone on strike in a context of massive and militant struggles of many sectors of workers. Faced with the militancy of the postal workers, at the time, the state had used naked and brutal violence against workers and their families to suppress the postal strike. This time around, alongside the direct oppressive instruments of the state, the unions played an insidious role in defeating and demoralizing workers.
As part of a round of ‘economic reforms’, the bosses have been talking of new attacks on the jobs and living conditions of postal workers. In line with different estimates put out by the bourgeoisie, due to technological changes more than 30% of postal employees have become surplus to requirements, so that postal services need ‘restructuring’. In addition, the bosses speak of privatisation of segments of postal operations. The present strike and the ferocious response it provoked from the bossesvoked from the bosses needs to be understood in the context of the extremely bad working conditions of postal workers and above all of the proposed offensive of the bosses.
From the start the unions tightly controlled the strike. It was called jointly by all three main postal unions - the leftist NFPE (National Federation of Postal Employees) and NPO (National Postal Organisation) that control the majority of the branches, and BPEF (Bharatiya Postal Employees Federation), the union of the ruling BJP. It is significant that very little initial mobilisation was done among the postal workers. When the strike started most workers were not even aware of the demands. On the first day the participation was very low, often limited to union cadres. It was only later that workers jumped into the struggle - they thought this a good opportunity to fight for better working conditions and above all against the threat of redundancies looming in the background.
The demands that the unions framed did not even raise the issue of the threat of redundancies that is the main agenda of the bosses. Moreover, they were framed in such a way as to sow mutual suspicion and divisions among and divisions among the workers, especially between the 300,000 full time workers and an equal number of part time rural postal workers. Clearly, the unions had started with an agenda of dividing and defeating the workers and laying the groundwork for the bosses’ coming offensive. The workers were full of anger and militancy and persisted in their fight despite all threats of the bosses. But they were not strong enough to defeat this trap laid by the bosses and unions.
From the very beginning of the strike, the bosses were determined that workers should come out of the strike with a sense of defeat and surrender. This was akin to what the bourgeoisie did during power workers’ strike in Utar Pradesh in June last year. The difference is that the power sector workers had struck against the bourgeoisie’s offensive (the ‘reforms’) and the bosses were determined to crush the workers and push through their offensive, which they did after crushing the strike. This time, they have taken recourse to demoralizing workers before initiating ‘reforms’.
The strike is defeated
Thus the government was not at all conciliatory - they proclaimed that they have imed that they have conceded what they could. And the strike finally ended, not as customarily happens, with a promise of ‘sympathetically considering’ workers’ demands. On the contrary, the government proclaimed the strike illegal and prepared to enforce the ESMA, which entitles it to imprison and sentence any and every striking worker.
Faced with these threats of the government, the BPEF, postal union of the ruling BJP, asked workers to go back to work on 18th December 2000. Next day the leftists followed suit and asked all workers to return to work.
In the aftermath of the strike, the postal workers find themselves bitter and demoralized. Unions are now going around hammering the message that if workers could not win with the recent strike, nothing can now be done. Clearly, workers need to understand that the bourgeoisie had laid a trap for them and that they are preparing for a bigger offensive. The communications minister, Mr. Paswan has been saying that postal services need to be restructured to remain profitable. In these conditions, workers need to draw lessons from their recent experience and prepare to confront the bosses by breaking the union stranglehold and uniting with other sectors ofth other sectors of workers. It will be a difficult task given the recent setback, but it will be the only way.
Communist Internationalist, ICC nucleus in India