How to get 250m workers on strike

The latest UnionDues podcast goes behind the headlines of what has been termed the world’s biggest ever strike, when at the end of 2020 a coalition of Indian trade unions mobilised 250 million workers to take action in support of a programme including emergency food and financial assistance, employment support, universal provision of pensions and an end to privatisation.

But let’s start with a necessary caveat – the Indian trade union movement, like the country itself, is complex and multi-faceted, with as many views as there are stakeholders.  Competing perspectives are available.

World’s largest strike as seen by INTUC

Ajitesh Pandey gives us an unrivalled insight into the dispute,  it’s causes and context, from the perspective of the 40m-strong INTUC, the largest of the country’s 10 union centres.  Ajitesh himself is a lawyer by profession and serves as the President of INTUC’s youth section in West Bengal and is also Joint GS of the national youth section.

To give some context,  West Bengal is home to an estimated 100m people, 45% of whom are under 20 years old.  The main city is Kolkata (population nearly 15m), and the area covered is 90m km2. Or put another way,  there are one-and-a-half times the UK’s population in an area a third of the UK’s size.

The impact of the Modi administration on employment rights and working conditions is a constant theme in our conversation as is the relevance of class to union structures.

Party politics

As Ajitesh explains,  most Indian union centres have party political links – INTUC to Congress, BMS to the ruling BJP, and more left wing centres  to Marxist, Communist or Socialist-orientated parties.  The rivalry is such that the government have refused to ratify the latest INTUC membership figures for fear, according to Ajitesh,  that they will show a widening gap with BMS.

The 2020 strike can be traced back to a gathering of the ten trade union centres in 2011.  They agreed a 12 point charter and created a national co-ordinating group to progress matters.  Some of those points became the main causes of the phenomenal turnout nearly ten years later.

The Indian Labour Conference is an annual tri-partite gathering to ensure that there is at least clarity on the respective positions of unions, business and government, and hopefully some agreement  too.  But the ILC has been suspended since 2015 which is a further factor in the 2020 mobilisation.

“A charter for fire and rehire”

When you add to the mix Government refusal to move on minimum wage rates, and statutory holiday entitlement, and a legislative programme to rationalise 44 labour-related laws into 4 new acts,  it becomes clear why Ajitesh and INTUC describe the new laws as a  “charter for fire and rehire” as well as an existential threat to grass-roots union structures.

Certainly there is absolutely no love lost between INTUC and the BJP party, with the latter’s success being “attributed to Mr Modi’s charisma and the politics of religious polarisation and strident nationalism”.

We also chat about the epic “long march” from Chittaranjan to Kolkata, covering 300km in 12 days,  the crowd growing into hundreds of thousands as they went, the campaign by farmers to prevent privatisation of the markets where they sell their produce and the importance of the then-current West Bengal state elections – not to mention the INTUC approach to recruiting, organising and developing young members. (Footnote – Congress won in West Bengal)

Different worlds, common problems

This is a very different world to the one UK unions live in, but it is not totally divorced.  International supply chains and UK-India family links mean that the two economies are connected.  And an uneven playing field, enthusiastic privatisation and deregulation, and one sided flexibility in working arrangements are disturbingly familiar common features.

#thought4theweek and RadicalRoundUp

Mel Simms’ #thought4theweek looks at trade union mobilisation and organising.  Is there a difference and what makes one approach more effective than the other?  If you thought they were just different words for the same thing, this will make you think again.

And of course, Josiah Mortimer gives us an exclusive preview of this week’s #RadicalRoundUp – union concerns over facemask policy, a lifeline for UK steel making, GPs taking court action over a takeover of practices in London,  retail workers lose out as police set to get powers they haven’t asked for, and post graduate researcher fear for their future.

Access this and all episodes here.

An edited version of this post appears on Left Foot Forward

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