Indian trade unions and the biggest wave of strikes in history

17 December, 2020

Struggles have been increasing in India since early this year. Combativeness has been on the rise for the past two years, but the covid pandemic and the government’s response to the virus have been driving the struggles. Following the general trend around the world, the Indian government has prioritized attempts to save a declining economy over saving lives and meeting needs. It has deployed a whole series of legal changes that further undermined peasants and workers. The result: a surge of struggle in the south of the country that trade unions have failed to contain.

Rise of struggles in India

Striking coal miners in India

In May, the government reopened the country after an express lockdown against covid and announced its quantum leap plan to attract domestic and foreign investors, initiating the privatization of state enterprises, including mining companies. The atmosphere was beginning to heat up, and five unions declared a big mining strike in the state-owned companies. The strike mobilized up to 200,000 workers for two days. The unions refused to extend it further even though the companies had already begun to sanction the strikers. During the weeks and months that followed, they issued isolated calls for action against sanctions and against privatization. This first set of strikes was more of a symbolic blow on the table than a real strike extended over time, so that the workers’ objectives were not met.

ASHA workers on strike

But the miners were not the only ones affected by the government’s rush. The workers in the ASHA system (an acronym of accredited social health activist in English, which in Hindi also means hope), who work in maintaining community health for a meagre salary, refused to continue waiting for their arrears to arrive after months of not receiving a salary. They went on strike. These workers, all of them women, had eradicated polio and managed to lower the childbirth mortality rate in India’s poorest neighborhoods and were earning 30 dollars or less per month. When the government hastily lifted the lockdown, they were tasked with tracking covid cases in the slums. They suffered from violence and anger from the neighbors, for whom a positive covid test meant ostracism and the impossibility of being able to engage in informal work in order to survive. The first to go on strike this year were the ASHA workers in Karnataka, who were already owed 12 months of unpaid wages in January.

In July the whole pandemic situation and the government’s cynicism were becoming unbearable. The Karnataka Minister of Health came to congratulate the heroic mission of the same ASHA to whom he did not pay their salaries. 600,000 workers from all over the country joined the Karnataka strikers following a union call. To make matters worse, the government continued to openly despise the ASHA and refused to acknowledge them as wage workers. It simply declared them to be voluntareers, which left their relatives without any coverage in case of death by covid. From August to November, ASHA strikes have been breaking out all over the country and it does not seem likely that they will stop soon.

Striking Anganwadi workers

This already massive movement was joined by the rural day care workers of the Anganwadi system, on strike across the country this summer and autumn.

Trade union strategies: nationalism and inconsequential mobilization

November General Strike.

Unions felt the growing tension. Their strategy was to try to channel it into a nationalist terrain or to liberate it in a controlled manner through sector-wide strikes with no long-term consequences.

Following the first strategy, several unions called for a strike in 21 ordnance factories in the midst of the escalating conflict between India and China. But they were not calling for stopping the war, they were calling for a patriotic strike against the privatization of the factories to save the Indian military capacity in the future. In this nonsense, all trade unions, of all ideological denominations, from those who claim to be communists to those of the far right associated with the government, took part. A grotesque spectacle whose only goal was to avoid the slightest reaction from the workers in a pre-war situation.

The second strategy was followed by the ten unions that organized a large national strike this November.

The peasantry comes into play

In India, the peasantry is still mostly linked to subsistence family farming. Unlike in Europe, the vast majority of peasants do not employ workers. Their class situation is linked to land ownership, but in the immediate term and unlike European farmers, their interests do not directly clash with those of the workers: they have no employees to starve in order to increase profits.

The peasantry has been another victim of the crisis of Indian capital. Its situation had been dramatically worsening even before the outbreak of the pandemic. And it has been mobilizing since very early on. 400 trade unions and peasant associations organized two big peasant strikes, in reality big marches towards the capitals of the Indian states.

What no one expected was for these peasant processions to ignite the workers’ struggle wherever they passed by.

Unions lose control over workers in Bengaluru

Toyota workers in Bengaluru decide in assembly to disobey the union and government and resume their strike.

However, that is what happened in the metropolitan area of Bengaluru, the capital of the southern state of Karnataka and a model of Indian modernization based on industries owned by foreign capital, local technology companies, software developers’ farms and call centers that attend the consumer’s phones and technical services of the big brands in all the Anglo-Saxon countries.

It didn’t start suddenly. The fight had been simmering for a month in some plants such as Toyota Kirloskar in Bidadi, on the southwestern outskirts of Bengaluru. Toyota’s reorganization to cope with the shift to the electric car and the Indian government’s plans to make the country more attractive to foreign investment came together at the Bidadi plant, making it clear that their aim was to rapidly increase the exploitation of workers. Car production was to be increased by 25% without increasing staff or wages.

When workers sent a union representative to file their grievances about the increased workload, the representative was immediately fired. The result: the outbreak of the strike in early November. Toyota responded immediately to the strike by locking down the plant. The workers continued the strike after the plant reopened and spent a week standing up to the company. However, on November 17 the union met with the Karnataka government and they agreed to outlaw both the lock-out and the strike. Karnataka’s Deputy Prime Minister, Ashwath Narayan, made clear the government’s priorities

Highlighting the favorable climate for workers and investment in the state [of Karnataka], he questioned management and the unions about the message we are sending with the strike and lockout. The deputy prime minister said the whole world was looking at India as an alternative to China, and countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were eager to settle in Karnataka, and in such a situation strike and lockout talks should not take place.

The workers disobeyed the orders of the government and the union, the same union whose cadre had been fired. They are still on strike today, under the same trade union.

Magna Cosma workers in Chennai with LTUC (Maoist) union flags

Just a few days earlier, a strike had broken out at the Magna Cosma auto plant in Chennai, the capital of the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. In this strike, the workers had tried to create a new union in order to separate themselves from the company’s main union – one of those who later called for a general strike throughout the country – which had been working too blatantly for the company. The workers formed a new union and affiliated it to one of the Indian Maoist parties, hoping that it would help them get out of the quagmire. However, the union did everything it could to bury the strike and the conflict was resolved without any progress.

Peasants’ march

Against this background and in the middle of a covid wave, the peasant strike march arrived in Bengaluru last Thursday. The Karnataka transport workers had already lost about fifty colleagues to covid and have many more sick. They are asking to be considered state workers with minimum wages and insurance, as well as compensation for the dead and sick from covid.

However, the unions refused to call the strike. On Thursday, the peasant strike crosses the city and heads for Karnataka’s parliament. Peasants and their organizations are demonstrating against the government’s new agrarian reform plan, designed to promote an even greater concentration of agrarian property in a few hands and big capital, forcing the expulsion of large numbers of peasants from their lands. All types of peasants are gathered in the march, but there are mostly small peasants without salaried workers and day laborers.

Workers from Karnataka’s four state-owned transport companies joined the farmers and began a march to parliament under the banner of the state transport workers’ association. They were met by state forces and hundreds were arrested.

The next day, the four state-run transportation companies went on strike. The workers, distrustful of the unions, asked the peasant march for help in representing and defending their list of 10 demands to the Karnataka government. The government threatened to run private buses and started negotiating with the unions. The four companies employ 120,000 workers and, to provide some sense of scale, the NEKRTC company only ran 410 buses of about 4,600 on Friday.

The unions announced that they had called off the strike, but the workers ignored them. The BJP nationalist government had at first seemed more or less happy to consider that turning transport workers into civil servants would broaden their voter base, but began to fear the consequences. It did not want to have to give civil servant status and salary to the rest of the workers left in limbo like the ASHAs. After three days of strike and almost total transport blockade, the government ended up accepting 9 of the 10 petitions from the workers, a success for the workers and a humiliation for the unions that had done everything possible to avoid the strike.

But this was not the only thing that happened in Bengaluru this past weekend. In an industrial park in the northeast of the city, workers from a Taiwanese owned company that manufactures components for Apple and others exploded in protest against the company’s management. They did not have the support of any union. Similar to the situation at the Toyota plant in Bidadi, the workers’ shifts have lengthened from 8 to 12 hours and the pace has increased. But in addition, they have not been paid for months. On Saturday morning, while the transport strike was at its peak, the workers tried to talk to management one last time. When management rejected the complaints about back wages, 2,000 workers rose up and destroyed the offices and the two managers’ cars. The international press, which did not even record the big transport strike, pretended that the workers had destroyed or even burned down the plant when in fact they had broken the glass windows and overturned the tables in the personnel administration offices.

The struggles carry on

Today, Bengaluru is a little calmer, but the farmers’ strike has New Delhi surrounded and other strikes are breaking out across the country. The day before yesterday, a strike of 6,000 drivers from companies like Uber, Rapido or Ola in Assam, in the east of the country, broke out. The strike is independent of the association of transporters and trade unions. Delhi’s health care workers had been fighting and striking for months when the strike at the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) was declared illegal by the Delhi court on Monday. We will see how the workers respond.

Struggles keep erupting and often end up going backwards, but Indian workers have already made it clear that they will not let the unions hold them back when their lives and basic needs depend on the continuation of the struggles.