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Dynamics of General Strikes in India

The character of workers’ protests has significantly changed in the post-reform period thanks to the neo-liberal forces that have sought to weaken the collective institutions. However, the Central Trade Unions rely on general strikes to protest and demand changes. How effective is this form of agitation in present times?

The joint platform of Central Trade Unions comprising 10 unions conducted a general strike on 8 and 9 January 2019. Since 1991, the CTUs have conducted 18 countrywide work stoppages and multiple forms of protests like marches to Parliament, dharnas, demonstrations, etc, apart from concerted strikes at the industry level, like banks, insurance, etc, against the economic and labour policies of the central government.

These 10 unions are the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), All India United Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC), Trade Union Coordination Centre (TUCC), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Labour Progressive Federation (LPF) and the United Trade Union Congress (UTUC).

The macro protests have become frequent and also more inclusive. This is so in three senses, namely in mobilising workers from the unorganised sector like the domestic and anganwadi workers, and street vendors; widening the struggle agenda; and in locating workers’ protests at various sites of social dialogue forums like the Indian Labour Conference (ILC), Parliament, the streets, etc (Shyam Sundar 2015).

The two-day strike is reported to have a guesstimated participation of 200 million workers. It should be much less than that for three reasons. One, of the 90 million–100 million of claimed membership (Menon 2013), some 20% to 25% could belong to the deserting Central Trade Unions (CTUs). Two, higher outsourcing of work to non-unionised workers, for example, coal mines in Jharkhand (Choubey 2019), has reduced the parti­ci­pation of workers in erstwhile strike-prone sectors like coal. In a larger sense, the outsourcing and the increasing non-union workforce in the economy over the years should exclude more from participating in the general strike. Three, some state governments like those of Tamil Nadu (The News Minute 2019) and West Bengal have taken tough stances against the strike and reduced the strike participation of at least their government employees.

Cracks in Unity

When corporates like Ola and TaxiForSure or UltraTech Cement–Jaypee Group or Flipkart and Walmart are resorting to mergers and acquisitions in response to the heightened competition in the product market to enhance market power, the trade union movement is witnessing fissuring and fragmentation in two ways even in the post-reform period.

The INTUC (affiliated to the Congress party) and TUCC have been riven by factional wars and these have graver implications not only for them but also for the larger workers’ movement. A few trade unions like the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), National Federation of Indian Trade Unions (NFITU), and the breakaway factions of the TUCC and INTUC have walked out of the joint platform of Central Trade Unions. Three reasons could be attributed to the cracks in the trade unions’ unity. One, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in general ignored social dialogue forums but adopted a partisan policy of inviting only the BMS for consultations. The union would be offered some minor sops like the rise in the minimum wage or so to placate it and it would invariably pull out of the unity front. For example, the BMS did not parti­cipate in the 2 September 2016 general strike on the grounds that the government had assured a 42% hike in the minimum wage and bonus increase for 2014–15 and 2015–16 to central government employees based on revised norms. The other CTUs rejected this offer (Indian Express 2016). Two, the BMS, despite its political compulsions has been conducting agitations under its own banner angered by the reform politics of the NDA government (Economic Times 2018). The joint platform of CTUs also stopped inviting the BMS to its meetings and conventions (Jha 2018).

Three, the strike was seen to be overtly political for two reasons. It was sponsored by the labour wings of the political parties that constitute the opposition front to the NDA government and it has reportedly received Rahul Gandhi’s blessings. Further, Sanjeva Reddy, the leader of one of the two factions of the INTUC has openly declared that “We will ask workers to elect a progressive government at the centre, which will address the problems of workers” (Jayasekera 2019). This seemed to have irked the BMS and possibly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the RSS. In fact, the BMS has stridently criticised the current strike as “politically motivated.” The political angle of the proposed strike needs to be seen in the historic context. It is pertinent to note that in the post-reform period, 10 strikes have occurred during the Congress-led rule of 14 years while seven strikes have taken place during the BJP party-led coalition’s rule of 10 years. However, the strike under discussion assumes added significance as it occurred just before the forthcoming general elections and may inevitably assume political colour even if it is denied by the strike supporting unions.

As a result, the tensions between BMS and the other CTUs have worsened. In December 2018, the BMS along with the breakaway factions of the TUCC, INTUC and NFITU have formed what they call a “non-political” trade union front, called Confederation of Central Trade Unions (CONCENT). This move has led to a war of words between CONCENT and the joint platform of CTUs, constituents of which have described CONCENT as the strategy of the NDA govern­ment to divide the working class (CITU 2019). A recent EPW editorial (5 January 2019) rightly sees the inevitability of “politics” in the trade union movement. The flexibility-driven labour policies of the government dry up not only good jobs but create worst forms of vulnerabilities. These working-class issues need to be seen as a part of the “larger and graver political situation” in the country at present (EPW 2019).

There is no such animal as “non-political union” as trade unions have to use “political methods” to get legislations favouring workers passed (say for freedom of association and protest) (Flanders 1965). Marxian and Hindutva ideologies advocate politics to be inevitably infused with the labour movement for achieving their respective goals of class revolution or nationalist-cultural identity assertions. In India, the association between political parties and trade unions grounded on the “mutual gains” thesis has been historically strong. While the trade union movement has surely benefited from its association with political parties, political interests have often dominated the industrial interests of the trade unions and more worryingly split in political parties have led to corresponding splits in the trade unions and these have not strengthened the trade union movement. To be sure, during the post-reform period, thanks to the conflicts arising out of pro-capital policies pursued by the ruling parties and their labour wings, several rifts took place between them and they indicated gradual “dissociation” between political parties and their labour wings (Shyam Sundar 2009; Ramaswamy 1988). But, the rise of CONCENT, the entry and exit of CTUs in the protest movement at will and the complete absence of consolidation of the trade union movement at the regional level strongly suggest that divisive political unionism is still around, either openly or disguisedly.

Common Concerns and Agenda

Notwithstanding the cracks within the trade union and in the unity forums, the angst and anger in the length and breadth of the working class movement cannot be denied. Trade unions, irrespective of their professed association with some front or the other, are unarguably against the policies of the government and hold almost common protest charters.

At the outset, it is important to remember that workers in many parts of the world have been waging all kinds of struggles (even militant ones) to resist neo-liberal policies that not only take away their historic rights but also create new deprivations (Workers of the World 2016). The ongoing strikes have to be seen in this global perspective. However, in the Indian context, I identify five reasons for the many strikes in the past (Shyam Sundar and Sapkal 2017) and for the 18th strike now.

First, trade unions are quite angry that the government has continued to “ignore” their 12-point charter of demands that was presented long ago. On the other hand, the central government has, according to them, been “increasing its onslaught on the rights and livelihoods of the working people of the country. Both, the organised as well as the unorganised sectors are its victim” (Draft Declaration of the National Convention of Workers, 26 September 2018).

Second, the numbers of flexible categories of workers have increased and the concept of flexibility has widened not only to include conventional categories of workers like contract, temporary and casual workers, but also new categories like fixed-term employees, trainees (permanently temporary), learn-while-you-earn scheme workers (in Maharashtra) and workers employed under the National Employabi­lity Enhancement Mission (NEEM) scheme. The share of contract workers in the total number of workers (as a proxy for flexi-category workers) in the organised factory sector has risen from 12.26% in 1990–91 to 42.27% in 2013–14. Flexi-category employment by itself and its rising trend greatly weakens the bargaining power of regular workers as two kinds of workers (regular and non-regular) are pitted against one another, and hence labour flexibility constitutes an attack on labour rights. On the other hand, as the recent controversy on “jobs” has highlighted, the phenomenon of “jobless growth” continues despite the electoral promise by the BJP to create 25 crore new jobs over 10 years. Vyas (2019) notes that 11 million jobs were lost in 2018 and that the un­employment rate jumped to 7.4% in December 2018. The bleak labour market opportunities have been worsened by the NDA government’s insensitive strategies of demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) regime.

Third, the trade unions have been annoyed at the lack of any serious and effective consultation with them by the NDA government on the 12-point charter. The present NDA government has convened the ILC only once in July 2015 during an almost five-year rule, even though its record of social dialogue in its earlier avatar (1999–2004) was better. Social dialogue in India has not been serious and effective. The current NDA government’s “partisan politics” of holding talks only with the BMS has further intensified the anger of the other trade unions.

The trade unions have been caught napping by the reform politics of all the governments. The government gives the (false) impression that it is open to dialogue with trade unions. It thus holds cursory meetings with all of them and purposive meetings with the BMS. Thereby, it achieves its purpose of not actually consulting trade unions while keeping the union movement divided. It has also been introducing pro-employer reform measures through government notifications instead of through debates in Parliament (for example, fixed-term employment). On the other hand, the labour law reform mandate has been shifted to the state governments and several of them have introduced reforms to provide for labour flexibility and liberalise labour inspection (Shyam Sundar 2018).

Fourth, trade unions are concerned with the lack of concrete and positive welfare policies with regard to the unorganised sector workers. Nothing significant has been done for the welfare of these workers by any government since the passage of the utterly tepid Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government enacted in 2008, though there has been inconsequential talk of providing universal social security to these workers by the NDA government. Further, they are incensed by the callous handling of laws relating to the construction industry. Trade unions have had to constantly seek the intervention of the Supreme Court even for effective implementation of the laws relating to the construction workers like the constitution of statutory welfare boards for construction workers or for adequate spending of the huge cess amount collected for these workers (Shyam Sundar forthcoming).

Finally, it is quite concerned about the adverse economic consequences emanating from the policies adopted by the NDA government like the public distribution system, diesel price policy, mergers of public sector banks in the name of strengthening them (earlier the State Bank of India with its subsidiaries, and now Bank of Baroda with Dena Bank and Vijaya Bank), privatisation of railways and strategic public sector enterprises, including defence units, etc.

Some Questions

Even though the foregoing justifies the move by the joint platform of CTUs to go on strike on 8–9 January 2019 as well as the earlier strikes, some uneasy questions arise. Are the general strikes by trade unions effective weapons of protest against the government? The government was not unduly shaken by the earlier strikes as was evident in its failure to call for serious and persistent social dialogue or its continuation with pro-employer reform measures. To be sure, these agitations have stalled the reforms at the national level; but as we shall see shortly, trade unions have been duped.

When the reform initiatives have shifted to the regional and firm levels (Shyam Sundar 2018), and the national-level labour law reform initiatives are only a smokescreen, are not the CTUs wasting their energies by protesting for wrong causes and in the wrong spaces? United and massive strikes do not take place at the state level because the complex political formulations are not conducive to forging the kind of even issue-based alliances between the political unions that have been possible at the national level.

The general strikes will not and did not hit the headlines in the print media or earn prime-time slots in the electronic media. On the other hand, trade unions are not public relations experts and do not resort to high-profile lobbying in order to address this systemic indifference in a capitalistic system. The more pertinent issues such as workplace safety, gender issues, environmental issues (green jobs), etc, do not ever figure in their CoDs. As a result, their struggles do not enjoy much social and political legitimacy.

The segmentation of working-class movements into agrarian and non-agrarian is no longer tenable or even sensible. Farmers’ woes are increasingly and shockingly becoming graver and they are a vital segment of the working class. The agrarian distress will lead to low farm productivity which will lead to adverse terms of trade between agriculture and industry. The agrarian/rural distress issues will lead to “stress and push migration” of workers to urban areas, which will lead to “crowding in” of workers in the informal sector that will adversely affect the bargaining power of the formal sector workers among other adverse outcomes. Reform of the trade union movement in particular and forging a larger working-class movement in general is as much trade unions’ agenda as fighting neo-liberal policies of the government. Till such a juncture, it is strongly advisable for the trade unions to not think of “a general strike” as it would be “empirical rhetoric” and nothing else.


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Choubey, Praduman (2019): “Jharkhand Coal Mines Function Despite Trade Union Strike,” Telegraph, 9 January.

Economic Times (2018): “Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh Calls for Observing ‘Black Day’ on February 20,” 9 February.

EPW (2019): “Isn’t Unionising Workers a Political Project?,” Economic & Political Weekly, editorial, Vol 54, No 1.

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Vyas, Mahesh (2019): “11 Million Jobs Lost in 2018– One-third of Them by the Salaried Class,” Business Standard, 8 January.

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Updated On : 20th Oct, 2022
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