Background: The National Convention of Trade Unions held a convention at the call of Sponsoring Committee of Trade Unions in the second week of May, 2008. The Convention was attended by the leadership of Central Trade Unions namely the CITU, the AITUC, the HMS, the AICCTU, the AIUTUC, the UTUC and the TUCC. It was also attended by independent Federations/Associations of the employees of central government and state government establishments, banks, insurance telecom, defence production, airports and airlines, railways and pharmaceuticals, thus spanning workers in both the public and private sectors. This convention issued a call on 13th May 2008 for phased agitation leading to a countrywide General Strike on 20th August 2008. The strike call came as a culmination of the struggle of the working people in India faced with continuous price rise for well over months. It came as a part of the long struggle against widespread violation of labour rights with the active patronage of the administration for years if not decades now. It came as a response from workers in the unorganized sector to the Central government’s refusal to universalize social security for them. It came as a protest against the debt relief scheme for farmers announced in the Budget Speech by the Finance Minister which only promised relief from institutional debt while bulk of the agrarian distress culminating into suicide by farmers for well over five years now was a result of informal debt from money-lenders. The strike is based on a six-point charter of demands: 1. Take urgent step to contain price-rise through universalizing the public distribution system throughout the country to cater all essential commodities at controlled price through PDS and other measures. 2. Strict implementation of all labour laws particularly in respect of minimum wages, working hours, social security and safety and stringent action against all cases of violations; stop contractorisation and outsourcing. 3. Scope of the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Bill pending in Parliament should be expanded to cover all unorganized sector workers irrespective of BPL or APL category to ensure a national minimum social security benefit for them as per unanimous recommendation of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour with Central Govt Funding. 4. Farmers Loan Waiver Scheme to be extended to loans from private money lenders; nationalized banks to extend easy credit to peasants at lower interest rate. 5. Lift ban on recruitment in Govt services; remove the negative and discriminatory features in the recommendation of 6th Pay Commission and finalise the same for implementation in consultation with the employees organizations; expedite regularization and grant of pension to gramin dak-sevaks. 6. Expedite wage negotiation for the employees of Central PSUs including the contract workers without any conditionalities. The phased agitation to the build up of the strike has gained additional momentum from the support of a large number of mass organizations including the All India Kisan Sabha which has raised important issues. These are enactment and introduction of Central Legislation for agricultural workers and provide house- sites to all the needy & landless, imposing Quantitative- Restrictions on import of agricultural produces, increase in public investment in agricultural and stop reckless approval of SEZ, corporate and contract farming. While the Left Parties lent support to the UPA government in 2004 based on the commitments outlined in the Common Minimum Programme, the extra-parliamentary struggles of workers and peasants were of equal significance in this period. While the parliamentary support meant putting brakes on the ‘second generation reforms’ that was being pushed by the earlier NDA government, the Left democratic movement harbored no illusions about the class orientation of the Congress-led UPA combine and its penchant for the same set of neoliberal ‘reforms’. The mounting popular opposition to deregulation, corporate tax cuts, the dismantling of public and social services and agricultural price supports was manifest in the participation of more than 60 million workers in the general strike called by National Convention of Trade Unions on September 29, 2005. By the second year of the UPA government, it was clear that even though it was cautious in its approach for its own survival as a government and thus dependent on the Left, the neoliberal assault of the ruling classes on the rights of the working people had intensified. In 2006, the textiles ministry of the UPA government had convened a conference of the chief ministers, industry/labour ministers of the state governments, representatives of textile industry associations and central trade unions. The agenda included relaxation in the provisions of labour laws favouring the employers led by Sharad Pawar. The trade union movement vigorously resisted a series of such moves by the executive arms of the government. The intensification of the united struggle against disinvestments and privatisation, against the ban on recruitment, anti-worker labour law changes, outsourcing of work and promotion of contract labour, coupled with demands for employment generation as well as comprehensive legislative enactments for unorganised and agricultural sector workers culminated in another general strike on December 16, 2006. Another demonstration of the increasing commonality of the struggle of the working people and their agency was visible in the historic countrywide strike of unorganized sector workers on August 8, 2007 with solidarity demonstration by workers in the organized sector. These periodic countrywide strikes were culmination of day-to-day struggles and resistance of the working people in their fight against neoliberalism. The build-up of these struggles has been reflected in the widening of the resistance beyond the traditional Left strongholds of Tripura, Kerala and West bengal. Thus the first political significance of the August 20 strike lies in its integration of the resistance to a whole range of attacks that have been directed against the working class of India both in the organized and unorganized sectors in the period of neoliberal economic reforms. The peasant and workers’ fronts have come together to protest the whole range of social, political and economic attacks on their lives and livelihood.
Immediate Political Context: The UPA Government at the Centre for well over a year now, has demonstrated quite clearly that it is determined to push through a very defined agenda. The cabal around the technocratic Prime Minister and the Finance Minister are committed to a single point agenda – providing even more facilities to capital in the name of the free market. For them, it means not just providing economic sops to capital (tax exemptions, access to subsidized land, power and cheap loans and so on and so forth) and Machiavellian moves for opening up the economy according to the dictates of finance capital, but even more importantly to refrain from taking any measure that might upset the apple cart of neoliberalism. Thus when the majority of the people are acutely hit by continuous price rise over two quarters now if not more, the government says it cannot intervene to ensure supply of essential commodities at affordable prices through the Public Distribution System. It must be noted that the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA had promised universalization of the PDS. To add insult to injury, the UPA government and its leading spokespersons told the country that the nefarious Indo-US nuclear deal was part of a strategy with the ‘noble aim’ of providing universal energy security. A government that is predisposed to snatching every kind of security, be it food or livelihood in a country of 350 million ‘officially’ poor people and an equal number of unofficial poor people, this is indeed rich. For the working people and the middle classes, the irony of the situation could not have been anymore blatant. Just as the wholesale price index touched a thirteen-year high of 12.44 percent (which implies a much higher increase in over-the-counter prices) in June 2008, the Prime Minister and his friends made the Indo-US Nuclear Deal their single-point agenda. The developments around the deal are fresh in the memory of readers and there is no need to repeat either the sleaze and graft that the Trust Vote over the issue entailed or the absolute desperation to push through the Deal in the face of stiff resistance from the Left mainly, but also from significant sections of the establishment and the extreme right, albeit for different reasons. However, the withdrawal of the Left’s support to the UPA government is being interpreted by the government and significant sections of international and domestic monopoly capital as an opportunity to steam roll ‘pending economic reform’ that the Left had successfully stalled in the last four years. The government cleared a proposal to allow a majority stake to Marks and Spencer in single-brand retailing as soon as it became clear that the Left was going to withdraw support to the UPA government. Having ‘won’ the trust vote, it engineered another majority that stank of sleaze in the tripartite Central Board of Trustees of the Employees Provident Fund Organization by siding with corporate employers to hand over the entire corpus of employees provident fund to private mutual fund companies and thus exposing the only form of social security that workers have for their old age to speculation in the stock and money market. Just a week after the Trust Vote, moves were on to accelerate the listing and disinvestment of BSNL. The move towards disinvestments of profit-making PSUs, introducing changes in labour laws to facilitate ‘hire and fire’ along with curbing of trade union rights is high on the agenda. On the other hand, by refusing to call the Monsoon session of Parliament till the nuclear deal is completed, the government clearly demonstrates its obvious realization that it is actually a minority government in spite of its murky ‘win’ in the Trust Vote. Just as this implies that the UPA government will not be able to pursue any ‘reforms’ that need ratification by Parliament, it also means that it now has an excuse for not pursuing the bill for social security for workers in the unorganized sector. This is why the strike on August 20 bears a special political significance in not just holding up a ‘NO’ sign to the oppressive economic policies of the UPA government, but also to demonstrate the extent of anger and mistrust for a Prime Minister and a government that has defied even the minimum standards of political probity in its desperation to become a ‘strategic ally’ of US imperialism.
Hypocrisy of Anti-Strike Propaganda amidst Internationalist Solidarity: The bourgeois media while playing down the build-up to the general strike, has kept up its age-old anti-strike propaganda. For a media that is so keen to replicate the West in its prescriptions to workers in India, it might be well worth a reminder that France, Italy and Germany saw a series of strike waves by the end of 2007. All the strikes were directed against neoliberal policies of the respective states. And as for the dreamland of the Indian bourgeoisie, the United States of America saw a two-day national strike in September 2007 called by United Auto Workers as an instrument to fight for eroding social security. The World Federation of Trade Unions representing seventy million workers in 95 countries, has conveyed its support for the strike on August 20 on the issues of price rise, agrarian crisis, anti-labour legislation and privatisation of public sector units. It has clearly pointed out that all workers internationally are fighting the results of capitalist globalisation and imperialist aggression. Thus while the big bourgeoisie in India have to stoop to be subservient allies of imperialism, the working class shares an internationalist solidarity based on similar struggles and a common adversary. The usual bourgeois hypocrisy of mourning the loss of a day’s earning for workers in the unorganized sector in the event of a strike needs to be thoroughly exposed. The whole struggle of unorganized sector workers has been built up around the issue of social and economic security. Where are the tears for workers when after a hard day’s toil they cannot afford the minimum calorie requirement due to burgeoning food prices and the ravages of the ‘free market’ after the dismantling of the PDS in India? Have we heard a word of support from the ‘friend of the poor’ for universal social security for workers in the unorganized sector? Has a single bourgeois columnist picked up the pen to urge their idol of a prime –minister to amend the provisions of the bill on social security pending in Parliament to universalize meaningful social security provisions? Bourgeois assumptions also underestimate the agency of unorganized sector workers that has developed in the last few years. The strike on August 20 will be a step forward in demonstrating this agency.
Support the Strike on August 20: To remind those who lament the futility of strikes, it was an important weapon of the anti-colonial struggle for the working class. The industrial workers of Bombay offered the most heroic resistance, refusing to be daunted by lathi charges, beatings and indiscriminate firings. In response to such growing opposition, the British resorted to massive armed retaliation even calling in bombers from its Royal Air Force to bomb striking or protesting workers. These actions by Bombay's militant workers also had an impact on British businessmen in Bombay, who joined with Indian businessmen and the Bombay Chamber of Commerce in demanding immediate self-government for Indian on a dominion basis. In the post-independence period, the series of strikes in the build up to the food movement forced the government to move to design a system of food security and self-sufficiency, that has only been eroded in the post-1991 neoliberal trajectory. A series of strikes in the aftermath of chronic bank failures since the 1950s forced the bourgeoisie to opt for nationalization of banks as a solution to private sector ‘failure’. The Railway strike of 1974 though brutally repressed was a turning point in Indian politics with the emergence of the first challenge to Congress rule which could only be thwarted off for two years by imposition of the Emergency. Thus strikes have played an effective role in bringing about changes in the balance of political power at key moments in pre and post-independent India. The general strike on August 20 will be a landmark in the struggle of the workers and peasants of India against the Manmohan Singh government that is bent on proving its loyalty to the big bourgeoisie in India and its allegiance to international finance capital and by extension US imperialism. We need to rise to the occasion in doing our bit to make the strike successful.