Workers and trade unions often go through life with their demands unmet, little crossed off their wishlist year on year, and continually under the thumb of neoliberal exploitation. That’s what gives industrial action all the more historical relevance.
Strikes have historically been the labour force’s sole expression of solidarity and protest against capitalist oppression. | Imaging: Mihir Balantrapu
To me, the best fragrance in the world is the smell of the sticky, greasy stain oozing out of fried cashewnut shells. The pungent, lung-filling odour is so strong that one’s olfactory faculty can catch it half a mile from its source. And, I bet, most will frown at it. But for me this fragrance represents the best part of our lives. Because my mother wore it for over four decades thanks to her job at Factory No. 10 of the Kerala State Cashew Development Corporation in Pullur, a nondescript suburb in Central Kerala’s Thrissur district, which is also famous for a general hospital-cum-mental asylum.
As a teen, I used to pass through Pullur almost everyday on my way to school and, later, college. And the moment I entered the area, the overarching scent would hug me. My mother rarely hugged me and my sister; especially when she was working in the factory. She always felt she should not smother her dear children with this ugliness. But we would force our way to her waist and place our cheeks on her creasy belly, feeling the fragrance, which she would term “the worker’s odour”.
Cashew workers often resorted to industrial action, demanding, in many cases, simply solidarity. But most of the time they failed to achieve their demands, most of which went unnoticed by the powers that be.
Like my mother, most workers at Factory No. 10 carried the same smell on them. I realised this one day when she took me to a “meeting” of her “comrades”. She said it was a “union meeting” and they were planning for a “strike”. For most workers there, the factory was an extension of their families. The state-run factory gave them almost everything they wanted — a job, social security, financial assistance towards their children’s education, free medical care to their family and relatives through the Employees State Insurance Corporation, and so on. But there were talks that many of these facilities would vanish soon because the then PV Narasimha Rao had opened the economy up with the liberalisation reforms, and labour was expected to soon lose its sheen.
The white-washed walls inside her factory looked bluish in the pre-noon sun and I saw a lean, frail man whom they called Kumarettan talking animatedly to the workers, asking them to get ready for an agitation the next day. I later realised he was narrating the history of strikes to his comrades. The first recorded strike in history, he said, happened in ancient Egypt in November 1152 BC. Artisans of the Royal Necropolis at Deir el-Medina stopped work, seeking redress for many issues. And when did this happen? Under the rule of the Pharaoh Ramses III. Workers, my dear comrades, he insisted, always challenged the mighty.
Members of trade unions take out a rally in Mysuru on Friday. | M.A. Sriram
The workers, most of them women, looked charged up and agitated, but all of them were smiling. They joined hands in uneven intervals and smiled at each other. They beamed love and care onto each other. And I instantly liked all of them, and the slogan they shouted: “Inquilab Zindabad. Thozhilali Aikyam Zindabad.”
That was my first experience of a trade union meeting. My mother was a member of the All India Trade Union Congress, affiliated to the Communist Party of India. The CPI unions dominated the cashew sector in Kerala in the 1990s. They still command strong influence among workers in the sector. Cashew workers often resorted to industrial action (which they called the strike) demanding wage rise, other benefits and, in many cases, simply solidarity in protests against burning issues such as price-rise in essential commodities. But most of the time they failed to achieve their demands, most of which went unnoticed by the powers that be. But my mother and her comrades never disliked strikes or even for once questioned its efficacy as a tool to record their angst. They were helpless, but were never hopeless.
Doubts over how effective strikes are may arise from various quarters. But that has scarcely undermined the importance of industrial action among workers the world over.
My mother retired from Factory No. 10, Pullur, on December 31, 2013. By the time she called it quits, she had accumulated umpteen collateral damages from her work, including nagging diseases and allergies. And the Employees State Insurance facility, which she used to proudly make good use of in the past, had already become a tragedy and a farce. Her provident fund monies and gratuity benefits had been slashed and squeezed over time by the myriad amendments to the rules and regulations of the state-owned cashew corporation, most of which are thanks to the economic labour policies pushed by the Central and State governments. The union, by then, had lost its bargaining power, she told me. And workers are now desperate searching for solutions to their growing list of problems. Comrade Kumarettan is dead and gone.
Still, millions of workers like my mother enthusiastically support every industrial action. They do not buy the stories, merrily pumped day in and day out by the media, of union leaders being bribed. Of course, there are fifth columns everywhere, my mother used to tell me, but nothing can beat down the spirit of workers: “Because labour is truth. And workers move the world.”
Of late, workers of her ilk have been having a harrowing time in the country and across the globe, especially since 1991, when India introduced economic liberalisation, paving the way for lax labour regulations tilted in favour of employers. Reports say India has seen 17 nation-wide general strikes in the 15 years since. And a look at the charter of demands of the striking workers (almost 15 crore at last count) show several repeats and overlaps. Obviously, most of their demands went unmet — be it significant raises in the minimum wages, or ending privatisation of public sector companies or ensuring better pension and social security measures. And, often, they are unable to engage the managements or labour ministry in talking to them. So, they resort to strikes.
To be sure, strikes are not new to India. The first-ever industrial action of Indian workers was held in March 1862, when 1,200 railway workers went on strike at Howrah station, demanding an eight-hour work-day. Interestingly, over a century later, the nation’s workers still have the same demands.
The latest edition of the general strike, being observed today (September 2) by ten of the biggest trade unions — representing over 15 crore workers — in the country also has the same litany of demands for better working conditions and pay. And most workers know they will be submitting the same wishlist next year too, given the way labour policies are tweaked by the government and the way companies and employers are dealing with workers’ benefits.
For instance, this August, the NDA amended Section 64, 65 and 115 of the Factories Act, 1948, and introduced the Factories (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in Parliament. The changes could impact the lives of at least 10 crore factory workers in the country. The law increases workers’ overtime hours from 50 hours per quarter to 100 hours (Section 64) and 75 hours per quarter to 125 hours (Section 65). This essentially gives the government the power to tamper with workers’ rights and can have far-reaching consequences, according to trade unions.
And recently, the government decided to move a slice of the workers’ provident fund to the equity markets. Unions say this will play havoc with the hard-earned money of workers. The unions are justifiably worried. And they believe industrial action is the only way they can be heard. Especially when the government has chosen to turn a blind eye to their repeated demands.
Doubts over how effective strikes are may arise from various quarters. But that has scarcely undermined the importance of industrial action among workers the world over. Just a few weeks ago, Post Office workers in the UK voted to go on strike over jobs cuts, services issues and pension problems. In a ballot, the strike was supported by 83% of those members of the Communication Workers Union that voted.
How can unions make sure their voices are heard by the right people? As things stand now, that stands as a big ask. The middle-class apathy towards street protests and loud agitations, coupled with profuse propaganda against unionisation make matters difficult, but those who study trade union activities suggest that trade unions must use the power of social media to garner support and get flexible in their approach towards new generation workers such as software engineers or Uber-drivers. This is happening in a way, slowly but steadily, but it will take time. Also, trade unions need to introspect on matters such as violence (as France has witnessed recently) and strait-jacketed ideologies. New age demands new strategies.
Workers on strike stand next to burning tyres as they block the access to the Total refinery of Donges, western france, on May 17, 2016, to protest against the government’s planned labour law reforms. | Reuters
In an age when the very character of work is evolving, thanks to technology, unions are facing a myriad challenges to maintaining their relevance, but the increasingly exploitative practices of employers — in the United Kingdom, the United States, France (which has seen one of the biggest and most violent worker-agitations in recent history), Kenya, Indonesia or even Pakistan — lend legitimacy to their claims. Today, with exploitation-on-steroids, unions say that striking work becomes all the more important today than ever. From nurses in Kerala, Delhi or Sydney, to wildcat strikes by plantation workers in Munnar, teachers in Nairobi, doctors in the UK and factory labourers in the U.S., workers are striking work regularly, winning small battles in the war against exploitation.
And that’s where the September 2 strike gains its historical relevance. You can oppose it or express solidarity to it, but no working Indian can ignore it.
My mother would vouch that.