ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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‘Old’ and ‘New’ Trade Union Activism

Organising Women Informal Workers in Tamil Nadu

Drawing on primary research on trade unions that mobilise women workers in the informal sector in Tamil Nadu, the possibilities for diverse union strategies to emerge, sustain themselves over time, and even win contingent victories in particular contexts are enquired into. Ethnographic accounts of union struggles highlight when trade unions resort to workplace-based activism for wages and when they prioritise agendas such as skill-enhancement, “development,” or workers’ welfare rights. What conjuncture of local contexts and circumstances enables one and which makes the other necessary? A discussion on three case studies shows how both “old” and “new” forms of collective organising co-constitute trade union activism involving women labouring in precarious livelihoods in the informal sector.

The fieldwork for this paper was conducted as part of two research projects. Fieldwork among women appalam workers was conducted as part of an Indian Council of Social Science Research-sponsored research project on “Changing Contours of State Welfarism and Emerging Citizenship.” Interviews with leading organisers of construction workers’ and informal workers’ unions were conducted as part of a study on “Feminist Analysis of Social and Solidarity Economy Practices,” funded by the French Institute of Pondicherry and the Swiss Network of International Studies. The author thanks Archanaa Seker for her enthusiastic fieldwork assistance.

The status of women workers labouring in the informal sector has been a matter of concern to scholars and activist organisers of labour movements since studies commissioned by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the 1970s showed that “women of the working poor” populated the lower rungs of the informal sector (Banerjee 1981; Everett and Savara 1987; Grown and Sebstad 1989; Moser and Young 1981). This concern has led to a growing research interest in the organising strategies and organisational forms of workers’ organisations and trade unions that unionise, build capacities and defend livelihoods of both waged and self-employed women informal workers (Carr et al 1996; Hill 2010; Kabeer et al 2013; Rao 2001; Sinha 2001; Thara 2016). This article contributes to the literature by drawing on primary research in Tamil Nadu to show how trade unions deploy strategies that encompass both workplace-centred battles over wages on the one hand, and what is generally referred to as “development” or the skill-building of informal workers, the formation of cooperatives and so on, on the other hand, without prioritising “struggle” at the expense of “development” or vice versa. In doing this, the article shows how “old” and “new” forms of collective organising co-constitute trade union activism involving women labouring in insecure and precarious livelihoods in the informal sector.

An organisation such as India’s pioneering Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which began (in the 1970s) to mobilise hitherto unorganised masses of women working as head-loaders, rag pickers, home-based tailors and vegetable vendors, claims to work on two fronts: the trade union that represents struggle and “fights” on behalf of women workers, and the cooperative that represents development and “builds” (Jhabvala 1994 qtd in Kabeer 2010: 274). Researchers note that new forms of union activism among informal workers, especially women workers, have, by and large, differed in marked ways from established, older forms of unionism targeting (mostly male) industrial workers (Kabeer 2010: 261–300). It is argued that traditional forms of unionism, that were based on relatively stable employer–employee relations and workplace-based activism, have proved ineffective in the era of neo-liberal capitalism characterised by radical shifts in labour–capital relations, the growing informalisation of the labour force, and swift relocation of globally mobile capital in the face of threats. Old weapons of the labour movement such as the power of numbers derived from the mass concentration of workers, the use of closed shop and recourse to strikes, pickets and demonstrations have been replaced by less confrontational modes of organising.

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Updated On : 23rd Dec, 2019
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