By Dr B K Kango
The present strategy and structure of trade unions, evolved during the period when welfare economics prevailed and existing technology saw the evolution of big corporations with big manufacturing units, employing hundreds and hundreds of workers. The evolution of Fordism with assembly line production, deskilling of workers, etc, was seen during the period. But constant class struggle that was unfolding, power of workers to stop production was an important factor in increasing their bargaining strength along with the existence of socialist world, which also helped in increasing power of workmen vis-à-vis capitalists.
With the success of the 1917 Revolution in Russia, the message that workers can take over the State and run the business was loud and clear even forcing capitalists to offer concessions to bargaining trade unions.
The lessons of the Great Depression of 1929-31 were also significant. If consumer power does not expand, capitalism is doomed, not to forget the great struggles. A sacrifice of the working class and their supporters, no doubt also was an important factor in compelling the capitalist class to negotiate with the trade unions. Hence from 1930 to 1975, there was a period when productivity increased along with the real wages of working class as a whole limiting the growth of income disparity along with slowing down of the growth of income disparity.
The struggles of the trade unions in the 19th and 20th centuries for an eight-hour working day, their taking part in the nationalist upsurge against colonialism, the existence of the socialist world and prevalent technology along with the experience of Great Depression of 1929-31 contributed to the evolution of the power of trade unions. However, division among the working class on the basis communists, democrats and socialists along with ultra-nationalism and de-politicisation of the working class encouraged by capitalism restricted the political and bargaining power of the working class.
Thought process of capitalism, which could be described as the ‘hegemony’ and control of the media along with propaganda against the existing socialist countries helped capitalist class to retain its power and influence in the society and ultimately on the state power. But one thing was very clear that no state could afford to ignore power of trade unions and had to compromise. Hence, the period has been described as period of ‘Golden Compromise or Golden Hand Shake’. But in spite of such compromise, the class struggle was on and the use of technology, state power, etc, were used by capitalists to limit the power of working class and trade unions.
In many old-colonial but newly-independent countries, religion, caste, language and or other ethnic issues were encouraged leading to division among the working class, who got united only for their achieving their economic demands. Here, the influence of capitalist thinking that money can give you power, a better life and hence one can improve his or her own life by earning more money has played an important part. Hence, all trade unions started competing with each other to get more money for their members. All other important issues got pushed behind.
Question of better housing, better education, better health facilities, transport, etc, were supposed to be resolved through spending more money and hence it did not matter whether those services were state-controlled or private. In fact, due to indifference and neglect of good services through public sector, private schools, hospitals, transports, etc, were supposed to be better when managed by private players. Hence, it was felt that regulation should be left with the government and people started saying it is not business of government to be in business.
Expansion of trade-related activities would enhance the income of the state through rise in taxes and hence it was felt that the state would be in a better position to help people. At the same time emergence of new technology and its control by capitalists led to a new kind of production activities. Gone were the days, when everything was favoured under one roof and fragmentation of process to production-related activities at multiple centres helped in the establishment of multiple small or medium centres of production. The speed of this change was rapid.
Old nationalist economic thought process of self-reliance, import substitution, etc, was changed and foreign money, foreign market, export industries were encouraged. Under this new process all old structures evolved during the period of welfare economics were slowly dismantled. Contract systems increased. Permanent workers and permanent jobs slowly began to become history.
There is a determined effort to change the labour laws and reduce the bargaining power of workers. Thomas Piketty in his book ‘Capitalism in 21st century’ has demonstrated that the real income of workers in most of the countries have either got stagnated or fallen since 1980.
The speed of increase in inequality has also grown. Less than one percent of people control more than 50 per cent of world’s wealth and as claimed, the new industrial revolution called as the 4th industrial revolution is likely to do away with 50 per cent of the existing jobs. No doubt, new jobs are created but they require skill and experience, which most people lack and hence are compelled to do jobs which ILO has defined as precarious and low paid jobs.
New relationship between workmen and owner is evolving as seen in the case of Uber, Ola, Amazon, Swiggy, Zomato, etc. The new economy based on self-employment, dominant service sector and increasing contract labour or employment through an agency or third person is a big challenge to trade unions. The government also is now recruiting people for schemes and refuses to recognize scheme workers as government servants and by paying paltry amount as honorarium deprives scheme workers from getting justice through labour laws. Anganwadi, mid-day meal workers and Asha workers and others are classic examples. AITUC is trying to build a movement of those scheme workers. Other trade unions are also active in mobilizing them. In fact, in most states, their mobilization in joint trade union movement is very significant and important.
Trade unions have realised the challenge of the new situation and hence since 1984, there is a cautious effort at national level to form joint trade union struggles. Strikes of coal employees, bank employees, United Forum of Bank Employees and Officers have been a very important development. Even scheme workers have conducted important joint struggles at the state level.
However, at factory level due to the tactics of employing trainees, NEEM workers, casual and contract workers along with management cadre (JMC) for production and employing modern machines. The number of permanent unionised workmen is reduced and impact of strike or stoppage of work by unions is made ineffective.
AI, robotics and computer control machines have made many jobs redundant and workers skill are made useless. Control of production activities, which a few years ago were under unions’ influence are now under management control.
There is now an attempt to increase the working hours of workmen. When new technology with increase in productivity could easily give way to reduce working hours and better working conditions to workmen. But profit-motive prevents such changes.
Rise in unemployment demands reduction in working hours to employ more people. But a sustained movement like one, which was conducted for eight hours working day is needed to implement the demand. In a few developed countries, there is a movement to demand increase in minimum wages. As in the US where minimum15 dollars an hour is the demand, the issue becomes an important one in general election.
We in India do make demand but have failed to make it an important issue in elections. The vision of society and trade unions in early 20th century was to demand permanency, rise in wages and social security through jobs. But as this vision is fading, we need to evolve a new strategy. We need to demand social security like pensions, health facilities, affordable housing and conveyance to all.
We need to mobilize workers for these demands. A strategy to attract thousands of so-called self-employed and unorganised working people is the need of the hour along with traditional methods of struggles. Vision of most people working as employed workmen in corporates and getting unionised and through their strength compelling government and corporates to improve wages and social security is now a distant dream! a new organisation of society with more self-employed, unorganized working people with precarious low paid jobs with no social security seems to be the emerging scenario and trade unions need to have a new strategy of organisation and new demands are needed to face the future for a better human life. (IPA Service)