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Class in Industrial Disputes: Case Studies from Bangalore

The decline of the political significance of industrial conflicts is not quite a result of the structural changes in management-labour relations (as commonly thought) in these times of globalisation. It is more a consequence of the lack of an appropriate agency and politics among the working classes, despite their increasing incompatibilities with globalising capitalism. A set of case studies of manufacturing industries in Bangalore illustrates this point.


Class in Industrial Disputes: Case Studies from Bangalore

Supriya RoyChowdhury

The decline of the political significance of industrial conflicts is not quite a result of the structural changes in management-labour relations (as commonly thought) in these times of globalisation. It is more a consequence of the lack of an appropriate agency and politics among the working classes, despite their increasing incompatibilities with globalising capitalism. A set of case studies of manufacturing industries in Bangalore illustrates this point.

Supriya RoyChowdhury ( is with the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore.

he decline of labour activism has been noted as a global phenomenon in the current era. One important reason for this decline has been said to be the change in the structure of labour: first, new labour practices – outsourcing, contract work – have meant that large numbers of workers are no longer available concentrated in single locations, fordist, assembly-line production centres. Secondly, as manufacturing units become capital-intensive, and high technology driven, large numbers of semi-skilled or unskilled labour are replaced by a small, skilled workforce, frequently with highly specialised, individualised functions, individual, rather than collective pay scales and benefits: all of this takes away the teeth of collective action within the factory in particular and in the workforce in general. Thus, in terms of social scale, the classical management-labour conflict may no longer be significant. Finally, as is well known, there has occurred a rapid extension of the informal sector, large numbers of the urban underclass are self-employed, or employed in relatively small enterprises where working conditions are unregulated, wages are not determined by statutory norms, and security of tenure is absent. Such work characterises the nature of employment both in manufacturing as well as in the service sector. Given the unorganised nature, then, of this large workforce in the informal sector, industrial disputes have few overt or political manifestations. It is in this sense that industrial conflict is no longer seen to be a key to understanding political or social dynamics.

1 The Relevance of Industrial Conflict

Have industrial conflicts disappeared? If not, what are the modalities through which they appear, and what is conveyed by the dynamics of industrial conflicts as they appear today? I suggest in this paper that the decline of the political significance of industrial conflicts is less a result of the structural changes in management-labour relations, as is commonly thought, and more the result of the politics of labour. The nature of industrial relations reveals in fact that disputes within industry continue to to be defined by classical management/capital-labour conflicts. Thus while labour practices may have changed to some extent in the directions indicated above, industrial disputes continue to occur around issues which have historically defined management- labour conflicts: over wages, hours of work, production targets and so on, which are underpinned by the deeply structural relations of capitalist production where the margin of profit is determined by the extraction of surplus value. It is not so much that the structure of labour has changed so as to preclude labour politics; rather, in the current context, changes in employment practices wrought by globalisation and technological advancements coexist with the enduring character of the labour-capital opposition in capitalist production. Thus we have a set of industrial relations, which are apparently different from the classical labour-capital conflict, but a deeper examination would reveal that industrial relations indeed continue to be defined by the capital/management-labour opposition.

Lack of Appropriate Agency

If industrial relations, then, do not translate into industrial conflicts, and are of declining social and political significance, we may well be looking at a situation where the incompatibilities of (globalising) capitalism with the interests of the working classes have not generated an appropriate agency and politics. But precisely for these reasons it may be all the more important to turn our attention to the kind of conflicts, contradictions and tensions that in fact characterise the industrial scenario. This may in fact enable us to look at the gaps between the spaces in which industrial conflicts are occurring, and the dynamics of their articulation in the political arena.

Bangalore is a city that typifies rapid industrial transformation in a globalising context. While a large public sector marked the city’s development from the 1950s up until the 1980s, the city has seen the decline of this elaborate structure [Rajeev and DasGupta 2003] and its gradual replacement with a pattern of industrial development driven by private capital, both domestic and international. This development has been symbolised by technologically cutting edge sectors such as information technology (IT) and biotechnology (BT), large multinational presence in areas such as automobiles, on the one hand, and labour-intensive, export-oriented sectors such as ready-made garments, on the other, where a rapidly expanding number of domestic firms produce for international retailers.

What has been the impact of this development on industrial relations? The highly skilled and highly paid employees of the so-called knowledge industry – IT and BT – are removed from the world of unionisation. In these sectors human resource development has replaced industrial relations. The city’s industrial workers continue to be employed in the older industrial firms, public as well as private – a legacy of Bangalore’s older phase of development – in new multinational companies, in the rapidly expanding export zones, as well as in the small-scale industry sector. In these sectors, employment practices span a range, but the absence of unionised activism, collective bargaining processes, is a shared feature in different spheres of employment. Thus, within the formal sector itself, a certain re-writing of employment relations has taken place as a non-permanent (contractual) workforce exists alongside the steadily shrinking permanent workforce [RoyChowdhury 2005a]. Similarly, for the large numbers who work in the small-scale industries sector, the rapid decline of small enterprises, resulting in thousands of closures and loss of jobs, has happened in a context where there has been little recourse to union activities to ensure payment of compensation, social security and so on [Gayathri 2002]. Finally, to take the example of the newly emerging export zones,

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Bangalore’s nearly five lakh women workers employed in the ready-made garment sector work in a context where unionisation is not permitted by employers [RoyChowdhury 2005b].

Given this range, the city offers a meaningful context in which to address the questions raised at the outset in this paper: what are the specific modalities through which industrial conflicts are articulated, and what is the impact of these modalities, on the scale and significance of industrial conflicts? Section 2 below fleshes out the argument outlined above that the politics of industrial disputes, rather than the structure of labour, provides a clue to understanding the declining significance of industrial conflicts, both in the formal and informal sectors. Section 3 provides a brief overview of case studies of industrial disputes in five large private sector companies in Bangalore; Section 4 attempts to place the issue of trade union power in the context of the history of trade union activism in the city; Section 5, in conclusion touches upon certain theoretical dimensions of the questions raised earlier in the paper.

2 The Modalities of Industrial Conflicts

The spaces in which industrial disputes occur span the emerging export zones as well as older industrial establishments. In the ready-made garments (RMG) sector, a large majority of firms in Bangalore produce almost exclusively for export. The relationship between global capital and domestic producers in the rapidly growing RMG sector is determined by the availability of relatively cheap, non-unionised labour. The wage structure in this sector is underpinned by the logic of a global production process that seeks to use this availability. In Bangalore, the majority of workers in this industry are women. The economic logic of the industry is in fact anchored in the low wages and other forms of labour’s over-use or ill-use that is rampant in the industry. The powerlessness of women workers in this sector arises from this structural issue – a low wage situation.

However, this basic structural issue of labour-management conflict does not surface within the framework of industrial disputes in this sector. Thus labour-management conflicts arise in this sector not in the classical sense of collective bargaining or strikes for higher wages or better working conditions, but typically, spontaneous expressions of outrage and protest against managements’ coercive or abusive actions. Union activity is confined to activism outside the factory gates. The struggle for better wages and working conditions is pitched at the level of international retailers rather than local manufacturers. Industrial disputes in this sector therefore rarely reflect the structural roots of the management-labour conflict, which is the opposition between international capital and domestic labour.

The RMG sector highlights certain dynamics in a relatively new sector, where employers have been able to prevent the formation or activation of unions within factory gates. Workers issues in this sector until recently were addressed by NGOs; recent union activities, initiated by outsiders, rather than by workers, have been confined to activities outside the factory. The methods of struggle in this sector are marked less by traditional methods of workers’ collective action, such as strikes, sit-ins, dharnas, and more in the form of lobbying with multinational companies, which are buyers of the goods manufactured by this sector. The RMG sector, therefore – marked by the newness of fledgling unionisation, non-traditional methods of activism, and the seeming apathy of governments towards regulation of wages and working conditions – falls in the gray area between the formal and the informal sectors. This political-institutional framework has set definite limits to union activism in this sector.

Historically Unionised

When we look at the so-called formal manufacturing sector, the political-institutional constraints to union activities are highlighted even further. The cases of industrial disputes reviewed below involve firms in the formal manufacturing sector. The disputes were over issues such as conditions of work, productivity levels, wage increase, possible retrenchment and lay-offs, the legitimacy of strike as a mechanism of grievance expression, and the status of ‘badli’ (casual) workers. These issues, relate to typical capital-labour conflicts, and at the same time obviously emerge from new currents in the broader political economy – a shifting policy scenario and changing economic structures – which affect labour closely. While this sector has historically been unionised, the industrial disputes reviewed here suggest a pattern of declining bargaining leverage of labour vis-a-vis manage ment. In situations of conflict, worker morale is low, the government’s position ranges from neutral to unsympathetic, and managements are able to tilt the balance in their own favour. What is highlighted is that workers and unions have very little political resources with which to influence government decisions.

The question of political resources is a function of the connectedness (or otherwise) of workers’ issues to two levels. The first level relates to the links between trade unions and political parties. The turn towards economic liberalisation and private sector-driven development has led to a certain loss of interest in the working class, and in worker-related issues, as far as political parties – across the left/centre-left spectrum – are concerned. This has to an extent led to the disappearance of a political/ ideological anchoring for workers’ movements.

Secondly, within the organised working class, there is now a trend towards independent, firm-based unions, not connected to central trade union federations. Even where unions are associated with the mainstream trade unions, these are seen to be concerned exclusively with firm level issues, which typically arise within the factory or the shop floor, and not on broader issues related to industrial wages, conditions of work, and so on. They thus typically embody a specific problem-solving orientation, rather than an ideological or political agenda. Firm level issues are taken up on an ad hoc basis, as and when they come up, lacking the conceptual/political anchoring from which these local issues might have been connected with broader policy issues.

The case studies presented below highlight this emerging trend wherein industrial disputes are isolated from the mainstream of political and policy context, both in terms of the conceptualisation of the issues and in terms of the dispute occurring as a stand-alone event, unconnected to, and having little impact upon related issues and constituencies. Thus, while the issues generating industrial disputes are about the structural opposition between the interests of labour and capital, the dynamics of the disputes is not articulated within this broader framework.

3 Industrial Disputes in Bangalore: 1998-2003

This section reviews industrial disputes in five large-scale units in different sectors of manufacturing. These companies are: Larsen and Toubro, Guest Keen Williams, WIDIA India, Kirloskar Electric and Binny Textiles. The first three are multinational companies, while the latter two are Indian firms. In the first three companies, industrial conflict manifested itself in the form of strike. In the last two, worker-management conflict was referred to the labour commissioner’s office and thereafter to the labour tribunal, for adjudication. The selected enterprises provide a variation in products, in ownership and in the modalities of conflict.

Larsen and Toubro Komatsu1

Larsen and Toubro is an old and established engineering company, the head office being located in Mumbai. The annual turnover of the company is over Rs 250 crore. The Bangalore unit, set up in 1975, began a collaboration with Komatsu of Japan in 1997. The Bangalore unit has witnessed three major strikes, the first in 1994, lasting 120 days, the second in 1997, lasting 99 days, and more recently in 2001-02, lasting 87 days. Here the focus is on the 1997 and 2001-02 strikes as these took place over related issues.

A fresh wage agreement had been signed in 1995 providing for a wage increase as well as an increase in the productivity target. However, following the settlement, a large number of workers felt that the new productivity target was too harsh. Worker discontent over new productivity targets began to be expressed increasingly. As a result of an agitation, the management dismissed four workmen and 13 were suspended. At this time, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was replaced by Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) after the union elections. CITU adopted a more aggressive style of functioning, and the matter of suspensions became a sharply focused issue in management-labour conflicts. A strike was announced and continued for 99 days. The government of Karnataka finally banned the strike and referred the suspensions to the Labour Tribunal. Subsequently, in 1998, the tribunal ordered that the suspended employees should be reinstated. But management took the matter to the high court, where the case is still pending while the 13 employees remain suspended.

Given the impasse over the issue of suspensions, the relationship between the management and the CITU-led union became extremely bitter. In the meantime, a new charter of demands for wage increase had been placed. But the management refused to negotiate a wage rise, unless there was a 50 per cent rise in productivity. Workers were not prepared for the productivity increase. As negotiations failed, a strike was declared (July-December 2001). After several hearings, the government banned the strike, and workers returned to work.

With the return of the AITUC, union-management relations became smoother, and workers agreed to a rise in the production target. In December 2002, a new settlement was reached with 40 per cent rise in productivity. It is important to note the following two points: first, the suspension orders – which had, in fact, been the central issue on the earlier strike – remained unrevoked. Secondly, the dispute was settled to the advantage of the management, and with the mediation of AITUC which in a way played into the hands of the management by not demanding the reinstatement of the suspended workers, and by agreeing to a substantial increase in the productivity target.

In the perception of many workers, the advent of Komatsu led to a marked change in the company’s approach towards labour. There emerged a clearly stated stand on the need to reduce the workforce. In August 2002 a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) was announced. Between 2002 and 2003, 250 workers had taken the VRS. However, the implementation of the VRS is itself taking place in the backdrop of a serious contestation between management, workers and the unions. The CITU, although in principle opposed to VRS, had laid down the condition that the minimum package should be Rs 7 lakh and that for skilled workers it should be Rs 12 lakh. The AITUC, on the other hand, decided to go along with the management’s proposal of two and a half months basic pay plus dearness allowance (DA) for every completed year of service, with a maximum limit of Rs 5.5 lakh. While the CITU’s claims regarding VRS have been ignored, this was possible because of the split in the workforce between the two unions, although a large number of workers are in fact extremely dissatisfied with the terms and conditions of the VRS that is being offered.

This discontent comes to the surface particularly in the discourse of workers who owe their allegiance to the CITU-led union. Many feel that a strategy of subtle coercion was adopted in order to force employees to opt for the VRS; a large number of workers said that a general environment of intimidation has been created, wherein any kind of union activism is potentially punishable. In this context of intimidation, the VRS is being sought to be further implemented by a combination of force and persuasion. Behind the apparent calm that now appears in the industrial relations (IR) climate in Larsen and Toubro, and the relative ease with which the latest dispute was settled, there is, thus, a subnarrative of incipient and undirected labour discontent.

Kirloskar Electric Company2

Kirloskar has manufactured AC motors, AC generators, DC motors, traction motor transformers for 53 years. There are a total of 1,300 employees, of which 720 are blue-collar workers. From 1997-98, the company experienced a serious downturn in the market and in profits. From 1998-99 to 2000-01, there was a 30 per cent net drop in sales. The company’s losses rose from Rs 27 crore in 1998-99, to Rs 72 crore in 2000-01. In a written memo randum submitted to the government of Karnataka (dated June 25, 2001) the company stated that there is accumulation of stock to the tune of Rs 500 lakh. Under the circumstances the only option was to reduce fixed expenses. In the above memo randum, the management of Kirloskar sought permission to lay off 460 employees in Shop 2 of their establishment. The

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management stated that because of increased competition, declining sales and orders, the company was facing a financial crisis, marked by unsold stocks, inability to buy raw materials and to provide work.3

The Kirloskar Employees Association, independent, but with strong links to the CITU, contended before the labour commissioner that the management intended to get the same work done by outside subcontractors and the management had also floated another company for manufacturing motors and generators. The government of Karnataka took a decision to refuse permission for the layoff. This decision was taken for the following reasons : the company had failed to provide any evidence of piled up stocks or of declining orders, although they had made claims on both. The company was using the services of 19 contractors. Additionally, the company had set up another company in the name of Dinky Toyo Power Systems and had been shifting both machines and managerial personnel to that company. In view of these considerations the government considered that the layoffs could not be justified.4

In many aspects this was seen as a verdict that went in favour of the union. However, this case needs to be seen in the context of the Kirloskar company’s broader restructuring efforts in the recent past and their impact upon workers. The blue-collar strength has been brought down from 2,158 in 1998 to 720 at the present time through VRS, and by a sustained policy of not filling up superannuated positions. The proposed layoffs were in a way a continuation of this policy of systematic downsizing. The company has sold off eight acres to a consumer goods retail store called METRO for Rs 250 crore. The immediate plan is to sell off the present land and premises of the company and to relocate to a location in Bangalore rural. This will in many ways address the problem of labour cost, as a large number of employees will take the VRS rather than relocate themselves, and labour cost would be much lower in the rural areas than it is in a prime location in the city. The broader implications of Kirloskar’s restructuring are discussed in Section 4.

WIDIA India5

WIDIA India was established by the TVS group, with a German collaborator, for the production of machine tools in 1964. In 2002, the company’s Bangalore unit was completely taken over by an American company (Kenne Metal Inc). The new management, almost immediately after taking over, introduced a VRS scheme and between September 2002 and December 2003, the workforce was reduced from 855 to 600.

The present case study is of a strike which was called by the WIDIA India Employees Association on January 21, 2004. The dispute between workers and management was over the manner of sharing of improved profits in recent years. According to Section 36 of a MOU signed in January 2003, there would be a performance review for the fiscal year ending June 2003, and improvements made in profitability would be accordingly translated in terms of additional payment to the workers. According to the union, there had been a quantum improvement in profits by Rs 1,93,00,000. As such, one-third of this, that is, Rs 64,33,333 was due to be paid to the Bangalore plant employees. The management, on the other hand, used the percentage of the wage cost of the Bangalore plant employees to the total personnel cost of the company as a basis to determine the share of the Bangalore plant employees. The amount which the management came up with was Rs 26,22,870.

A strike was called on January 2, 2004, which led to increasing bitterness in employee-management relations. At the inception of the strike, the management made it clear that at any point of time the workmen in continuous operations should not strike. Ultimately, however, they joined the strike on January 18, 2004. A suspension order was taken on account of physical violence between two union office bearers. The union decided to refer this matter to the labour commissioner’s office for adjudication.

In the eyes of the management the strike was necessarily an illegal instrument of action. In a letter dated January 17, 2004, the management communicated the matter to the union in the following terms: “You have threatened that workmen in continuous process would join the strike on January 4, 2004 and January 10, 2004. You are aware that there exists a settlement under which the workmen have agreed that workmen in continuous operations and in essential services would not strike work even when other workmen strike”. The strike was thus deemed illegal as per the terms of the Certified Standing Orders of the company. “Management will make permanent and alternate arrangements resulting in equally permanent elimination of these jobs in workmen category”.6

The posture of the management, which was essentially to refuse to negotiate with the workers unless they called off the strike highlighted that traditional means of collective bargaining are being rejected by management. This, in itself, is a serious challenge to the democratic rights of workers. In this particular case, not only were the workers compelled to call off the strike, but their major demands of revocation of the suspension order and reviewing the payments on increased profits remained unfulfilled

Guest Keen Williams7

Guest Keen Williams (gKw) has two divisions located in Bangalore, Sankey Electrical Stampings Divisions and Head Treated Product Division. The unit had earlier employed 1,300 workmen. Over time, many manufacturers of electrical motors started in-house production units for electrical stampings to meet their requirements. Several small units have also sprung up, cutting GKW’s market. The Bangalore unit has downsized, by terminating the services of 245 workmen.

In 1997-98, the company incurred a loss of Rs 30 crore. This brought accumulated losses to Rs 100 crore, and the net worth of the company became negative. The Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) was approached at this time.

A wage settlement expired in September 1997, and fresh demands were placed in October 1997. On the intervention of the labour commissioner’s office, an interim settlement was signed in March 1999. As per the settlement, the management was required to pay Rs 500 per month as special incentive, subject to a final judgment. However, in the following months, management-union relations deteriorated sharply. The GKW Nowkara Sangha, the only union in the company, perceived this period as one where management, instead of going in for negotiations for a future settlement, increasingly resorted to strategies of worker victimisation.

In May 1999, the management cut wages and stopped paying the interim relief of Rs 500 per month, on grounds that the workers had violated the terms of the March settlement. The union decided to go on an indefinite strike from July 1999. The management made several attempts to break the strike, but finally filed an application before the government seeking permission for closure of the Bangalore plant under section 25-0 of the Industrial Disputes (ID) Act, 1947. The government rejected the application, and gave an order (dated December 17, 1999) to the effect that wages as well as the interim allowance must be paid. The government prohibited the strike on January 13, 2000. The strike was called off on January 17, 2000.

However, by a strange twist, when the workers reported for work at the company gate on that day, the management had locked the gate. Workers were exempted from work until further notice. The workers had not been paid since May 1999, contrary to orders passed by the government. Thus the management had violated the orders of the government under section 25-0 of the ID Act. The union approached the labour commissioner with a request for recovery of wages. The labour commissioner ordered payment of arrears to workers. In response, the management filed a writ petition before the high court challenging the labour commissioner’s order. The high court granted a stay on this order.

The management stated that their reason for seeking closure was that the strike had led to the loss of the customer base, and as such, the company was unable to provide work any longer as there were no orders. The union maintained, firstly, that workers were fully within their rights to resort to a strike, and at the same time, it was emphasised that the strike had been called off as soon as the government had prohibited the strike. As such, the workers, according to the union presentation, were entirely on the right side of law.

Secondly, the union maintained that the management’s decision regarding refusal to provide work amounts to an illegal closure. If indeed this cannot be termed closure, then it has to be termed lock-out or layoff. At present, the BIFR report is awaited, and as such there has been no resolution of the workers being dismissed from work and of their pending wage payment.

Binny Textiles8

Binny Textiles has been a part of the general decline that has struck many firms in the textile sector. Incurring losses of several crores, the company has been declared “sick” by the BIFR. While the production of cotton textiles is no longer financially feasible, the company is attempting to stay afloat by shifting its operations to spinning and other related activities.

The general secretary, Binny Karmikara Sangha, stated in their application (December 11, 1999) to the labour commissioner’s office that the management of Binny Ltd have declared an illegal layoff of 35 badli workmen with effect from March 1998 on account of scarcity of raw materials. The company employs more than 100 workmen and therefore falls within the framework of the ID Act, making it mandatory to seek the government’s permission for the layoff. Hence their action is a violation of section 25-M of the ID Act. Accordingly the workers are entitled to all the benefits they would have enjoyed had they not been laid off. Thus they claimed the wages for the period from May 1998 to January 1999, as well as layoff compensations for the 35 badli workmen.

The management, on the other hand, claimed that the company was in a bad shape; the failure to provide employment because of financial reasons cannot be deemed to mean a layoff. Moreover, badli workers cannot demand work as a matter of right. Badli workers are given work as and when work is available, or when permanent workers are unavailable. The management also held that the concerned badli workmen had been employed in carding, and cotton weaving. These departments had been closed down in April 1998 on the grounds of non-viability. Therefore, in order to reduce the workforce, a settlement had been reached in August 1998 on the reduction of workforce through a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS). Under this scheme, 619 permanent workers had opted for VRS.

When the matter came up before the labour commissioner’s office, the commissioner expressed the opinion that the company management had not produced the balance sheets and other documents to prove the existence of a financial crisis. It was also pointed out that a VRS had been introduced for the benefit of regular workers. Thus it appeared that the management were attempting to retrench only badli workers without paying them severance compensation. The attempt to get rid of badli workers could therefore be termed as a layoff. As no permission was taken from the government for this layoff, this was an infringement of section 25-A of the ID Act.

Secondly, the government further held that the right to demand work by badli workers must be seen in the context of the evolution of the badli system and of the legal framework surrounding it. Under section 25-C of the ID Act, a badli worker who completes 240 days of service on an average in the preceding 12 months would cease to be a badli. He or she will acquire the status of a permanent worker, to the extent of being able to claim layoff benefits on par with permanent workers.

The case was heard on April 10 and 24, 2003. The management held that whether or not a worker had completed 240 days of service should be decided by the labour court. The court, however, held that the management had not submitted the muster roll. On April 21, 2003, the government ordered that the claims of the badli workers were justified and that the amount should be recovered by the deputy commissioner, Bangalore urban, as land revenue arrears, and paid to the workers. However, the order has not been implemented until now.

4 Industrial Conflicts and Trade Union Power

The industrial disputes reviewed above show a certain pattern. First, the issue or issues over which a strike is declared, or disputes that takes place, are invariably firm or company specific. Secondly, a remarkable pattern in each of the case studies is that the focus issue in a given industrial dispute was perceived as a

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problem that was specific to the company and could be resolved within that framework. What did not take place was the anchoring of a worker-related issue, or an industrial dispute, in the wider context of economic policy.

For example, in the case of Binny Textiles, the dispute was over the compensation due to badli workers. The desire of the management to get rid of badli workers without payment of compensation fits into the logic of the present economic framework where there is a clear bias towards casualising the workforce in order to reduce employers’ commitment to workers. A large number of contract workers in Karnataka are similarly affected by the absence of job security, absence of compensation or other social security provisions.9 However, union leaders articulated the problem as specific to the firm, limited in space and time, and was unable to forge broader networks with similarly placed workers, affected by similar issues.

In the dispute at GKW, the company had already been running at heavy losses for several years; a strike created a situation which led to the closure of the company, and the loss of workers’ livelihood. The rough edge of the question posed by situations such as the one in GKW is not whether the state should take over companies in order to preserve employment; it is, rather, that in a situation of rapid restructuring, what should be the state’s responsibility towards workers in terms of indirect income (social security, public health, education and so on)? Unfortunately, trade unions, which are struggling for wage increases or similar issues, have not addressed themselves, the broader question of worker welfare in a “marketising” economy where some amount of dislocation is inevitable.

In the case of Kirloskar, the attempt of the company to retrench a few 100 workers was thwarted. However, the dispute at Kirloskar must be seen in the context of the larger programme of restructuring that the company was undertaking at the time, and through which substantial downsizing had already occurred. The company’s plans for physical relocation from the heart of Bangalore to a semi-rural location10 raise several issues in this context. The selling of land owned by private companies in order to bail themselves out of financial crises has typically been a contentious issue of industrial relations.11 In most cases, such companies had been closed, spelling great hardship for workers. At the same time, the selling of land generated huge profits to owners who were not under any obligation to use this for reinvestment into the company or for worker compensation. In the case of Kirloskar, however, the selling of the property in which the company is currently located, is proceeding without any major challenge from the workforce. Secondly, Kirloskar has begun its restructuring effort by selling a portion of its land to a foreign trading company, the Metro. The agitation against Metro has emerged mainly from local traders, couched in an anti-liberalisation position against multinationals perceived as threatening the interests of Indian business and trade.

The selling off of Kirloskar land to Metro can in fact be seen as a situation where the admission of the multinational into an urban space embodies a direct threat not only to local traders but also to thousands of workers who had earlier earned their livelihoods within that space. The feeling amongst a large section of the workers is that this is a process of indirect layoff, as most workers would not be willing to move from their nearby homes to a far-off place of work, where the company would relocate. Finally, one of the major factors in relocation appears to be the possibility of using lower wages in rural or semi-rural locations. All of these point to the consideration that the process of restructuring in Kirloskar is part of certain tendencies in the larger political economy, whether it is the advent of multinationals into the urban land market, or the casualisation of labour.

However, the union’s representations to the government remained confined to the narrow question of the possible retrenchment of 464 workers. There was virtually no attempt to link this issue substantively to the broader economic policy environment wherein selling off of land to multinationals and casualisation of labour are occurring as part of the larger process of restructuring.

Confined to the Firm

The struggle of industrial workers is now mostly framed within the paradigm of firm-based activities, oriented towards resolution of issues confined to the firm. What is absent is both a movement-like character to the activities of trade unions, and a broad class-based character to workers’ struggles. Additionally, there is a disconnect from central trade union organisations and from political parties. The character of the trade union movement, as outlined above, to an extent underlies the absence of class activism in workers’ struggles.

A certain amount of opaqueness to industrial workers’ perspectives, which are limited to purely economic and firm-based issues, is not entirely puzzling. In fact, economism – focus on immediate economic gains, rather than on long-term, class-related, movemental issues – is widely prevalent, and is acknowledged both in the socialist literature and within the tradition of the trade union movement. Nevertheless, the present context is one where the process of industrial restructuring has systematically borne negative consequences for workers. Thus an obvious question here would be, what factors account for the inability of trade unions to place the interests of their constitutencies within a broader political/policy paradigm?

A more specific question here of course is that of the ineffectiveness of union activities, which is highlighted in the industrial disputes reviewed in this paper. The question of course is, to what



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Banking and Financial Policy: An Independent View –Rajaram Dasgupta, M Thomas Paul
How Do We Assess Monetary Policy Stance?
Characterisation of a Narrative Monetary Measure for India –Indranil Bhattacharyya, Partha Ray
Indian Banks’ Diminishing Appetite for Government Securities: A Change of Diet? –Amadou Sy
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extent is this a new phenomenon? Trade unionism in Karnataka has not been associated with the kind of militancy that has characterised union activities in places like West Bengal and Kerala, where the backbone of union activism was shaped by their close alliance with leftist parties. While the CITU (affiliated to the CPI-M) has had some presence in Karnataka, the defiant edge of working class politics has been more or less absent here.12 Janaki Nair’s work has documented, for example, that given the predominance of the public sector in Bangalore, the city’s workforce has been more middle class than proletarian in nature, physically removed from the city (located in self-contained public sector campus/colony environments), and its defining culture has been enhanced consumption rather than working class movements [Nair 2005].

Unionism in the private sector has been shaped by this broader character of unionism in the city. Further, in recent times, the dominance of information technology (IT) and information technology enabling services (ITES), on the one hand, and that of export-oriented zones (discussed above) on the other, have meant the relative absence of unionism in sectors of industrial development that have marked Bangalore’s rise as a zone of economic growth

Remarkable Past

On the other hand, the invisible profile of public sector workers and the predominantly non-unionised nature of the private sector could be seen as a partial story. Indeed there have been moments in the history of workers in the city, which depart significantly from the image of the invisible worker. Thus the 1980s saw two remarkable strikes in Bangalore [Subramanian 1980, 1997]. The first was a strike which involved central public sector workers over an issue of wage parity between Bharat Heavy Electricals (BHEL) and the other central public sector undertakings (PSUs). Waged over several months, involving some 80,000 workers in five PSUs, and resulting in stoppage of work for over two months, this was the longest public sector strike in India. While the objectives over which the strike was fought remained unachieved, the strike attempted to go beyond the company gates by building area solidarity committees, which were the communication link between workers and leaders. The strike also extended itself into a general Bangalore bandh with the backing of other trade unions. Thus a broader engagement, in terms of issues, numbers and movemental scope, was possible.

During 1979-80, workers at the German-owned MICO factory in Bangalore held an 88-day strike to protest against increasing workload. The strike achieved little of the objectives that it had set for itself. However, the dynamics of the strike had many features of a full-blown workers’ movement. The agitation within the MICO factory in Bangalore led to the formation of the MICO Employees Association (a union of MICO workers across the country), which held a one-day token strike in support of the Bangalore MICO workers. Within Bangalore, the strike generated a solidarity meeting of major trade unions in the city. When the government of Karnataka finally banned the strike, this brought forth an enormous avalanche of protest and criticism from trade unions across the spectrum. The strike, therefore, reflected, as

Economic & Political Weekly

may 31, 2008

well as contributed to the creation of, a certain level of working class solidarity.

This dimension would be completely lost in the character of industrial disputes in the years to come, some instances of which have been reviewed above. In the late 1990s, and the 2000-04 period which has been examined, industrial disputes arose which reflected deep-rooted structural contradictions between management-worker interests and embitterment of relations. However, these disputes appeared to occur in relative vacuum, led by trade unions, which were only tenuously connected, and in some cases not connected, to the mainstream trade unions. The form of these protests was that of isolated events which evoked little or no response from the larger body of industrial workers. The invisibility of the workforce is much more pronounced in these cases of industrial disputes, than in the earlier period in which the PSU strike and the MICO strike occurred.

5 Conclusions

The gray area here is the question, that if indeed there is an absence of a broad-based class resistance, is it because of the peculiar nature of politics, or is politics itself determined by a deeper structurality. In other words, can we indeed meaningfully talk about the absence of class struggle if indeed there is no context to talking about it? Is there an absence of class conflict? Or, alternately, is this a situation where there is a class struggle without classes [Edwards 2000]. In other words, is there an objective situation of conflict, without classes, the working class in particular, being actually aware of, or functioning within the framework of class conflict. Can we talk of an antagonistic relationship even when the opposed classes are themselves not using that language of opposition or antagonism? Thus one response, typically, has been to reiterate that working class consciousness is not something that is “there”, ready to spring up at an appropriate moment. It is necessarily contingent on the politics of the given moment [Chandravarkar 1999]. The debate thus essentially falls into two sets of questions: First, is there, indeed, a structural basis to class conflict? And second, what is the role of politics in shaping class conflict?

Much of this debate has revolved around locating what might be the objective, or structural, foundations of a class conflict. Contemporary Marxists have sought to refine, for example, the concept of surplus value by talking about rents [Castells 1978; Edwards 2000]; or, to locate the power of capital in its control over the labour contract [Giddens 1984]. While the interpretations vary, the question that has driven these responses appears to be the search for a theory of exploitation – appropriate to the changing dynamics of contemporary capitalism – which could provide the foundations for a refurbished theory of class conflict. Indeed there can be little doubt that problematising exploitation and class conflict in the current context would require conceptual and theoretical tools more refined than that given in classical Marxist theory. Today, global finance capital presents to the working class a largely invisible and ill-defined form of power. At the same time, the incorporation of the working classes into mainstream capitalist society and culture occurs through advancing technologies of communication, the spread of consumerism and so on. In that sense, certainly the objective additionally, subtle shifts in the state’s position vis-a-vis labour. basis of exploi tation as also the face of class conflict is more In an economic climate demanding greater attention to profits amorphous than it was during earlier phases of industrialisation than to employee welfare, the state’s approach to labour in where manufacturing capital met labour face to face on the shop industrial disputes is no longer one of guaranteed support. As floor. one official in the labour department expressed it “the govern

ment is now, at best, a neutral onlooker; the outcome of an Fundamental Opposition of Interests industrial dispute therefore depends on the relative power of Having said this, however, perhaps it should also be pointed out management and labour. In most cases, the power of managethat the changing nature of capitalism represents only shifts in ment is determined by the fact that they now have access to colours, angles and appearances of conflict, not in the funda-contract labour, outsourcing and so on”.13 Finally, mainstream mental opposition of interests. The manifestation of that opposi-trade unions continue to speak for a shrinking formal sector tion is indeed different. The outrage in the US at the emerging workforce, while the large and disparate informal sector is scale of business process outsourcing, which is costing the sought to be represented and organised by a large number of American public several thousands of jobs is of course different new unions/NGOs/civil society organisations. In remaining from the shop floor-located capital-labour conflict. But the focused on the formal sector, mainstream unions have distanced fundamental opposition is still between a profit-driven, now themselves from the issues that affect the workforce as a whole, globalising capital and domestic job seekers. while the amorphous character of unionisation in the informal

While the modalities and the protagonists have changed, the sector lacks the political anchoring and resources which the long conflict of interests inherent to a capitalist system of production established trade union movement might have given it. is fairly clear. Similarly, in the cases reviewed above, industrial The question here then may be as much, or perhaps more so, disputes arise over issues that represent capital-labour conflicts. one of an appropriate politics as of reframing a new theory of As the contrast with strikes in the 1980s, outlined above, would exploitation. It is only through a broader definition of the indicate, working class politics is in many ways different from working class and a more energised politics than is available at the sharply polarised capital-labour antagonism of previous the present moment that a more broad-based awareness would decades. A working populace that is numerically weakened be possible of the conflicts of interests that characterise emergthrough ongoing policies of workforce reduction marked the ing forms of capitalism in the present era. To this extent, then, industrial disputes reviewed here. There have been wide-what needs to be underlined is, first, that the objective condiranging efforts by management not only to replace regular tions of conflict and exploitation between capital and labour employees with a casualised workforce, but also to recast the remain, although the modalities have changed. And second, institutions of industrial relations such that traditional forms of labour activism could perhaps be re-energised through a collective bargaining are no longer available or appropriate even rereading of the new structures of conflict and what could be a to workers within the formal sector. There have occurred, possible politics there of.


1 Information on this case study was collected from Hallemane, assistant general manager, personnel, Larsen and Toubro Komatsu, Sabbaiah and Hanumantha Rao, union office bearers, K R Narayan, general secretary L & T Komatsu Press note dt August 7, 2001.

2 Information on this case was collected from documents (quoted below) provided by the Kirloskar Employees Association, and the Commissioner of Labour’s Office, Karmikara Bhavan, interviews with Naik, general manager, human resource development, Kirloskar Electric Company, Subramani, general secretary, Kirloskar Employees Association.

3 Proceedings of the Commissioner of Labour and Authority under Section 25-M of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 (dt September 14, 2001).

4 E Venkataiah, commissioner of labour in proceedings of the commissioner of labour and authority, under Section 25-M of the ID Act, 1947.

5 Information on this case was collected from the office of the labour commissioner, government of Karnataka, as well as from office bearers of WIDIA India Employees Association.

6 This letter was made available by the office of the assistant labour commissioner, government of Karnataka.

7 Information was collected from the office of the labour commissioner, GoK. 8 Information on this case was collected from the

office of the labour commissioner, GoK. 9 See Meenakshi Rajeev and Supriya RoyChowdhury, 2004. 10 It should be noted that the entire relocation/ restructuring plan of Kirloskar is anchored in the selling of acres of land that the company owns in a prime location in the city. In terms of land, the company’s assets are 52 acres in Malleswaram (valued at Rs 116 crore). Eleven acres in Peenya (Rs 8 crore) (both in Bangalore) and four in Pune (Rs 2 crore) [CMIE 2003]. 11 This has been particularly true in the case of closed textile mills. 12 Interview with V J K Nair, president, CITU, Karnataka, on September 30, 2004. 13 Interview with Sanjiv Kumar, commissioner of labour, GoK, on October 11, 2004.


Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (2003): Monthly Review of the Karnataka Economy, May.

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Castells, Manuel (1978): City, Class and Power, MacMillan Press, London.

Edwards, Paul (2000): ‘Late Twentieth Century Workplace Relations’ in Fiona Divine et al (eds), Renewing Class Analysis, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Gayatri, K (2002): ‘Genuineness of the Capital Investment Subsidy: A Study of Bangalore Division’, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore (mimeo).

Giddens, A (1984): The Constitution of Society: Outline of a Theory of Structuration, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Nair, Janaki (2005): Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Rajeev, Meenakshi and Paromita DasGupta (2003): ‘Karnataka Public Enterprises Reform Programme (2000-03)’, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore and World Bank, New Delhi (mimeo).

Rajeev Meenakshi and Supriya RoyChowdhury (2004): ‘Contract Labour in Karnataka’s Manufacturing Industries’, ISEC and Sir Ratan Tata Trust Project, Bangalore.

RoyChowdhury, Supriya (2005a): ‘Labour and Disjointed Critiques’ in Jos Mooji (ed), The Politics of Economic Reforms, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

– (2005b): ‘Labour Activism and Women in the Unorganised Sector: Garment Export Industry in Bangalore’, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XL, Nos 22 and 23, May 28-June 4.

Subramanian (1980): ‘The MICO Strike: A Retrospective’, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 15, No 22.

– (1997): ‘Bangalore Public Sector Strike: A Critical Appraisal, 1980-81’, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 32, Nos 15 and 16.

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