Chandrika Radhakrishnan is an IT engineer and an editorial member of Thozhilalar Koodam, a blog committed to documenting and analysing labour issues in Tamil Nadu. This article is the second part of her three-part observation of unionisation in workers’ movement as a political activist. The first part was published in Aainanagar in May 2016 can be read here.
It all started quite militantly. The workers sat inside their factory on a flash strike following the dismissal of some of their comrades. The factory was doing what all the other factories do to make profits. It was paying low wages, cutting corners in amenities including food and transport, victimising workers for starting a union. The workers were experiencing, first hand, the exploitation of their labour at the hands of capital and set about changing their circumstances. They organised under a union affiliated to a communist party and struck work.
The management moved to contain the strike in various ways. They were already employing contract workers, who were not unionised, to continue production. They used the police to evacuate the workers after obtaining a stay order from court to stop the workers from assembling within 200 meters of the premises. The workers moved their strike outside the factory. For more than 2 months, the production continued uninterrupted with the state machineries ensuring so. The petition to Labour Department by the union resulted in endless meetings with no outcome. The union and the workers ended their struggle and returned to the factory after deciding to move the case to the labour court against illegal retrenchment of workers.
As months passed, the management’s repression on workers increased. Their wages were not being paid on time and for months. When workers wanted the union to respond to these shop floor issues, the union lawyers said that they could not strike citing the legal case before the court. The lawyers felt that the company would use these protests to prop their case. Complaints were filed with Department of Industrial Safety and Health (then Factories of Inspectorate) but no actions were taken by the Department other than providing advisory caution to the management. The workers started feeling that the union was not working for them. There were some protests organised over the course of the years, but these became symbolic without solving any of the issues of the workers. After couple of years, the workers moved to a union affiliated to a pro-capitalist party.
Unionism, according to conventional wisdom, arises out of the exploitative structure of capitalistic production process and has in fact grown in tandem with the modern industrialisation since 18th century. Labour and capital are in mutually antagonistic but dependent role for their survival. Labour cannot sell its labour power without the capitalist mode of production and the capital realises its profits by depriving the labour’s share in the process.
Within this system, the workers have realised organically that a collective voice would help them increase their share through collective wage bargaining. The process may play out both in favor of workers or against workers amid the historic specificity and strengths of the social relations. However, even where the labour realises these wins through unionised actions, it is hardly likely to transform the capitalist system which mutually binds these relations.
However the communist parties see an opportunity to use the unions as an organizational form to expose the exploitative system and mobilize the working class to play central role in the socialist transformation by promoting class consciousness and solidarity. Are the strategies and the tactics of left unions geared towards such ambitious and essential intervention? Does the organising process offer opportunities for developing worker consciousness and solidarity? To begin a discussion around these questions, We use some examples from Tamil Nadu on the approaches of the unions in organising the workers, the challenges of such approaches and opportunities for shaping the trade union politics.
Reliance on legalism
Between 2009 and 2011, a spate of labour unrest marked the industrial belt Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. The workers protests and strikes were happening in factories by MNCs touted to bring development to Tamil Nadu and India – namely Hyundai, Nokia, Foxconn, BYD. The industry and the media promptly took note and cautioned the state about ‘sending wrong message to investors’.
According to Economic Times, the higher echelons of Police Department assured the industry lobbies that the ‘law and order problem’ of labour unruliness would be dealt with.
True to their word, the police have been ensuring that the ‘industrial peace’ is maintained by quelling workers protests in various factories over Tamil Nadu. Notwithstanding this, Tamil Nadu has been recording long strikes since 2010, may it be over 100 days of strike in CMR Toyotsu, Asian Paints, 80 days of strike by Jintech, 30+ days of strike in Foxconn, SPEL etc. Flash strikes and on site protests periodically rise from deep injustices and indignities felt at the shop floor whether it be by 2400 trainees in Lucas TVS, 1000+ workers in Apollo and 400+ workers in Sanmina.
These workers are striking amidst harsh objective conditions of neo liberalism which is restricting the strength of workers at the factories with increased contractualisation, increased fragmentation of production via outsourcing, supply chain operations and delineation of production from distribution. They have drawn strength from the left unions which are active in these regions, may it be central trade unions or trade unions of regional communist parties or independent trade unions. In the course of these struggles, workers have shown and expressed a rhetoric showcasing their awareness of anti worker policies at heart of the system in various degrees.
Yet an analysis of these struggles reveal that the underlying union strategy has been to use legal recourse for negotiation with management. This usually takes the form of registering a union, presenting a charter of demands with the increasingly hostile management, followed by raising industrial dispute with unsympathetic Labour Department and a judicial process through labour court or high court when all the above fails. The unions use the most commonly referred laws Trade Union Act and Industrial Disputes Act, both of which provide a legal recognition of the union, but fall short of providing any teeth when it comes to enabling workers to fight shop floor issues.
That these processes fail is not surprising because this strategy assumes a behavior from both state and the capitalists, which is in contradiction to communist understanding of their bourgeoisie interests. On one side, it asks the state machinery to implement the laws ridden with loopholes. On the other side, it requires the capitalists to respect these laws when historically the struggles of working class show that this has hardly been so.
For example, when the Greaves Cotton workers in Gummidipoondi, north of Chennai, formed a union under DTUC in 2013, the management repressed workers by terminating the employment of union leaders. A year of labour conciliation process under Labour Department did not budge the management. When the union decided to pursue the case in Labour Court, the Labour Department delayed the process of giving failure notice(needed to submit a petition in Labour Court) by another 10 months. When the workers moved to the court, the management closed the factory illegally, retrenching more than 100 workers. When the workers protested the closure of the factory, the management got the police to evacuate the workers by getting a stay order from court barring the workers stop the process. While the workers also had a stay order that had ordered the management not to remove the machines from the the factory, the management got another order asking the police to escort the management to remove the machineries. Not surprisingly, the police decided to honor the stay order supporting the management and asked the workers to take the violation of their own order to the court. Since then, the workers have been continuing to fight the case legally with no prospect of immediate resolution. In most cases, the condition may not be as stark as Greaves Cotton Workers, the process has very similar outcomes. Once the process is initiated, the unions have hardly any maneuverability in looking for creative interventions.
The process of legalism determines how the union evolves and functions in the factory even if the intention is not so. For example, rarely are strikes conducted by the unions without giving strikes notices given to the Labour Department and the management. The strike notice of 2 weeks is supposed to give the management a chance to remedy its stance and find ways to reach a settlement with workers. More often than not, it allows the management to take steps to protect its production and ignore the notice or victimise the leaders of the struggle. Hence while the law allows for strikes to happen spontaneously, the practice limits the union to take steps which are counter productive. So much so that, even spontaneous protests and strikes by workers are eventually reduced to this legalism.
For example, workers in Sanmina who are unionised under AICCTU had recently initiated an onsite strike demanding action against a manager for verbally abusing a worker. The management refused to enter into discussion with workers or take action against the manager. As the workers (both male and female) continued to live in the factory site, the Tahsildar had to intervene forcing the management to come to discussion. When the incident happened again few days later with a manager abusing two other workers, the workers chose to send strike notice and follow due process.
This was much more apparent in the case of Apollo Tyres where 1000+ permanent workers struck work spontaneously alleging conditions of work. When CITU stepped in to support the workers’ struggles, workers were told by union representatives that the strike was not initiated with a due process which involves sending charter of demands and giving strike notice.
There has been an assault on working class rights in the past 20 years as labour laws and institutions these laws are systematically dismantled. Both the state and the capitalists are willing to deny the rights of workers either covertly or overtly, while the trade union strategy continues to rely on legalism as the means for winning workers struggles which is rarely playing a role in winning the struggles. However, what is more important to note is that these processes have implications on the larger agenda of working class politics.
Every union organiser and workers in a factory would rightly point out that increased contractualisation has divided the workers in the factories. Yet, barring exceptional cases (L&T, BYD Electronics), the contract workers are hardly being organised at the factory. Most of the plant level unions have in fact codified by-laws(needed for registering under Trade Union Act) limiting the union to permanent workers. One of the reasons for excluding contract workers is that the Industrial Disputes Act is seen to favor the permanent workers as workmen are identified as those who have completed 240 days of work.
Industries have increased contractualisation of their workforce where strikes are no longer effective in a single factory. Let us review the struggle of CMR Toyotsu workers in Sriperumbudur. Over 19 workers affiliated AICCTU struck work valiantly for more than 100 days. They drew inspiring support from other workers of AICCTU and the local community. Yet they could not succeed because the factory had over 300 contract workers that is more than 90% of the workers in the factory were contract workers. While there was tacit support from contract workers to the permanent workers, there was no organised form of support that would bring these workers together. When the workers decided to end the strike, the management did not allow the workers into the factory. It must be noted that where the permanent workers and contract workers have fought together (L&T under CITU where local tamil permanent workers and migrant contract workers came together), the strike had been more successful gaining wins for the workers.
Contractualisation has increased the barriers to solidarity between workers. While workers do understand that the processes of exploitation is the same for both workers, nevertheless, the structures of production exacerbate the divisions. For one, increasingly, contract workers tend to be migrant workers, dalit workers or women workers where as permanent workers tend to be male local workers(From Tamil Nadu). The linguistic, caste and gender social divisions are adroitly exploited by capitalists to divide the workers. More often than not, the permanent workers also are hierarchically placed above contract workers in the production process and tend to pass the pressures down the chain. This causes fractures in building solidarity among workers. There have been several instances where contract workers and trainees have complained on permanent workers passing their work load to the contract workers. In Lucas TVS, trainees initiated a struggle because they were given left over food after permanent workers had eaten.
Strikes have also been ineffective because production is increasingly fragmented across multiple factories regionally, nationally and globally. Hence factories are able to ramp up production in other factories or bring workers from other factories to continue production in these factories. CMR Toyotsu has 6 factories all over India and was said to have brought technicians from North India to continue production. Unions are still focused at factory level for organising, struggling and negotiation. This does not mean that there are workers solidarity from other factories to struggling workers. Both in CMR Toyotsu and Jintech, workers from other factories provided financial and other solidarity support.
However, what is not happening is strategic organising spawning from issues of workers in one factory. In Sriperumbudur, where automotive sector has established an intricate supply chain operations in the region, the potential for such organising are strong. For example, when Apollo workers struck work, the production in Renault Nissan was impacted according to inside sources. Yet, when Jintech strikes, there is no supportive action in Hyundai, a customer of Jintech, other than financial support. Even among central trade unions which have a national presence and are most poised to take up these broad level organising, this is sorely missing.
One reason why proactive organising does not happen is that increasingly, workers and organisers are caught up in the bureaucratic legal processes which include attending meetings scheduled by the Labour Department or Labour Court, developing materials to support their cases, meeting with lawyers etc. This becomes acute when it comes to workers being retrenched for building solidarity among workers or factory closure where the options for struggles such as strike become much less.
Labour Department, Courts and Police at best act as silos with a very limited view of their functions and hardly ensure that orders on behalf of the workers are implemented by their own agencies, let alone coordinate across multiple agencies to ensure justice for workers. It then becomes the headache of workers and unions to push these agencies to implement the orders, which can be a nightmare when these agencies turn actively hostile.
More often that not, it falls on the workers and union organisers to take up the burden of getting these agencies to do their minimal work(which is increasingly becoming difficult in the face of labour reforms) or coordinate the paperwork among various agencies. For the harried union organisers, organising and struggles becomes a series of steps orchestrated by the system rather than spending efforts on discussion, interactions, ground level actions and democratic decision making, much needed to build working class consciousness and solidarity. While these union organisers should be focused on building alliances across multiple factories and states, they are spent on the corridors of these agencies.
The other form of bureaucratisation is the paperwork that unions are required to maintain their status. Recently a union organiser of CITU working at the factory level organising had to spend time retrieving membership and other audit forms as far as 2011 to support their membership claims. It must be noted that the increased scrutinisation of the Central Government goes hand in hand with the labour reforms which is allowing the Industries to self-certify themselves on their adherence to labour laws. Not only the trade unions have to provide cumbersome paperwork for supporting their claim, it provides opportunities for state to withdraw services citing inadequate informations or such spurious reasons, as is being evinced in NREGA, PDS and social security welfare for unorganised workers. Whine unions rightly criticise the policies of the Government, nevertheless, they do not challenge the process by refusing to participate in such processes or subverting the same on behalf of the workers.
Demoralization among rank and file
In this process, when new issues emerge in the factory, there is often no time or effort to tackle these issues. There are no efforts or time engaged in understanding the specificities of the struggle and identifying alternate strategies. The workers start believing that the union is not helping their cause. Instead of seeing the union as a collective strength of their own, they express the union as a mediating agency which has failed in winning their struggle. They resort to alternate courses as is being seen in Tamil Nadu where workers either take VRS, a phenomenon that is being observed increasingly in factories across Tamil Nadu, or may opt to leave the union (Over 2 years, 30 permanent workers of Jintech left the union) or join another union (Asian Paints, Sanmina). But these moves hardly bring any solace to the workers as the issue is seen to be with the union and the content and forms of struggles are never questioned or brought to scrutiny.
The union organiser is also demoralised as they feel the workers do not appreciate the hard work by these organisers(A union organiser commented about closing the branch office if the situation is not changed). They end up either blaming the workers or unions which replace them in the factories. These inadequacies are seen as inter union rivalries which create new forms of friction and deny the opportunities for building alliances in the region. They also make it difficult for unions to maintain strength in the factory when unions such as INTUC are used by management to prop up a facade of union in the factory.
The cooperation that has emerged among the central trade unions across political spectrum ranging from the far right communal BMS to left unions only adds to the confusion. At one level, the workers are fighting the issues of pro management unionism at shop floor especially propped up through unions such as BMS and INTUC and for right to democratic functioning at shop floor, and they are required to come together at national or state level. There has been hardly any left working class alliance being built which does not include BMS or INTUC and other such pro management unions. Yet, we in the left think that workers should some how instinctively understand the larger level politics and accept these compromises, while being principled at shop floor struggles.
Organising to build solidarity
As can be seen from the above example, the process drives the worker and the union representatives to ideate in certain framework which is not geared towards fighting the inequality arising from the workplace but rather winning concessions based on the rights allowed to the worker at best. The unions become less and less of working class movements and more of a mediation agency for seeking these legal rights. They drive their recognition not from the collective strength of the workers but from the legal sanction provided by the state and at worst, by the factory or industry, as and when few wins can be achieved. Issues become relegated to struggles of wage negotiation and other issues are hardly discussed.
Workers instinctively understand and sympathise with other workers who are faced in similar conditions. But when faced with lack of choices, the instinct to restrict the collectivity to maximise their own resources is also present. In this paradox, the strategies can play a large role in directing the struggles of the workers towards building solidarity and consciousness among workers. Struggles arising organically out of shop floor injustice offer such opportunities. When the Hyundai management decided to victimise two senior workers who are part of HMIEU, which is not recognised by the management, 300 workers came together and stood resolutely for over 12 hours late into the night forcing the management to take back their stand. In OMAX, when a contract worker committed suicide after retrenchment, permanent and contract workers came together to force the management to pay compensation for the family.
As we have explained above, more often than not, when injustices seem excessive, workers instinctively come together and often fight by flash strikes. In Hyundai, Lucas TVS, Sanmina, the struggles were executed by the workers at the factory with so much commitment. The unions can support these struggles by adding their collective support to the workers struggles rather than shifting the terrain of the struggle to state authorities. Recently, NHK F contract workers went on a protest against termination of employment, over 3000 workers from various factories including Renault Nissan, NVH, Hyundai etc came to support their struggle. The Tehsildar had to come to the protest site to manage the situation. These examples show that when struggles are best retained at sites where workers can learn, build solidarity and fight rather than moving to arenas where they are at a disadvantage, the opportunities for building solidarity and consciousness become more pronounced.
The left unions are best placed to do these because they build various social movements including students, youth and womens’ movements and the party cadreship. Mobilising these groups and other workers would provide the impetus for both the struggling workers and the groups to connect with each other. When women workers of Venture Lighting went on a strike after repressive sexual harassment by a manager, the students movements connected to the same union’s party were fighting for justice for Raseela. an IT women worker who was killed at workplace. Connecting these dots to extend to the women workers of Venture Lighting can help to stop such injustices rather than only fighting in extreme conditions as the fight for Raseela signifies. Incidentally, the women workers at Venture Lighting have been retrenched for striking and continuing their arduous struggles through legal intervention. Workers in MRF have reminisced about how they used to bring community organisations in their own struggle which ensured that strikes had a strong community presence.
These necessitate solidarity across plant level unions and regional unions at ground level. Recently, unions have come together to support the struggles of Tamil Nadu Farmers and agricultural labourers who have been affected adversely by the drought in the State. There have been considerable support generated for workers incarcerated by the state may it be Maruti or Pricol. These need to be also strengthened by motivating workers across unions to support other ongoing struggles or issues that are not seen as working class concerns.
Informal and formal discussions among workers on issues and strategies, their strengths and limitations, specificity of their conditions and their production chain can help workers ideate how to move forward, what strategies to employ and if their struggles can be strengthened in various ways. Only a thorough analysis by workers of their production process can help them understand the structures imposed by capitalism and supported by the state and enhance their consciousness. When new unions are initiated, workers from existing unions can discuss their successes and failures and help connect these linkages within their own factory and outside. These can be bridges of communication that would only strengthen worker to worker solidarity.
Structural issues emanating from the production process especially those of safety and health are important not only to build collectivity among workers but also to understand the technical and the social context in which workers are being made to work. Recently, when a worker died in an automotive factory in Manesar, workers from 40 factories and their union leaders went to demand justice.
Social divisions exist among workers and are enhanced by the production process. In a recent episode at an automobile factory, a pregnant woman worker was abused by the manager for taking long bathroom breaks. As the issue escalated when workers went on a lunch boycott, the management called the woman worker and her husband for issue resolution. The union did not intercede on behalf of the worker and did not protest that her husband did not have a role in this negotiation. The woman was a worker and it was only the union that could have represented her collective identity. The patriarchal action of the management was never questioned by the union because these social divisions are taken for granted in the union function. Such actions only exacerbate the working class divisions and dissuade workers whether it be women, dalits or migrants to be actively part of the union. When L&T permanent workers struck with migrant contract workers, they ensured that the contract workers would be fed atleast once a day as they realised that this would be important for the struggle and it was an important process of solidarity that helped the struggle.
Concrete manifestations of workers conditions provide opportunities for building effective working class movement, if the workers are placed at the center of it. That these are happening in isolated fashion(as seen from the above examples) should not be taken for granted but have to be consciously placed at the heart of union organising. Struggles whether it includes legal processes or direct actions on the ground are arsenals for workers to build effective strategy to combat their voicelessness at the shop floor. When workers are limited by institutions on these options and if they are learning truly which institution is limiting them and for whom these institutions are working, what better political education do they need?
 For example, in a recent rally on Bhagat Singh anniversary, a woman worker talked about new forms of slavery at workplace in Sanmina
 While, this allows contract workers who have completed 240 days of work to be brought into the ambit of the law, the unions rely on the records of legal institutions such as Labour Department, Department of Industrial Safety and Health which are incomplete and insufficient. This is not challenged by using the union membership and work relationship with permanent workers to prove 240 days of employment.
 For example, unions do not use their own worker membership to challenge contract worker status.