Workers of the world can’t unite: May Day in neo-liberal times

mayday_rally_bengaluru

May Day Rally, Town Hall, Bengaluru. 2017.

Walking with workers on May Day morning was a humbling experience. Workers’ unions from various establishments across the state showed up for May Day rally at the Town Hall yesterday. I was also filling up the last of my field trips for masters’ thesis. So, this also comes from my field notes. The roads in all directions from Town Hall were a stream of red. While it was heartening to see workers showing up in such numbers, it was also distressing to see that a key driver of unionization among workers across jobs like marketing and distribution, automobile manufacturing, garment manufacturing, cleaning and garbage collection and a whole range of other miscellaneous ones, is the fact that they find their situations too precarious in the emerging economic context. The unions in this year’s May Day were not the traditional unions of pre-1990s which drew mainly from skilled, industrial workers in long term and secure jobs, who needed to fight primarily for wages.

This May Day was of the precariat – a category of workers in low wage jobs with no social security and job security. They are retained only on employment contracts and will never be valued by the employers as workers who are worth investing in, over long term. These workers are the former proletariat with an added precariousness to their lives owing to the jobs that they find themselves in. This is the precariat that Guy Standing refers to in his work – The Precariat: The Nww Dangerous Class.

In a 2014 paper – The Precariat and Class Struggle, he writes –

The world economy is in the midst of a Global Transformation that is producing a new global class structure. A new mass class is emerging – the precariat – characterised by chronic uncertainty and insecurity. Although the precariat is still a class-in-the-making, divided within itself, its elements are united in rejecting old mainstream political traditions.

It was the precariat in action yesterday at Town Hall. Nothing significant is likely to change in their lives if they continue to organize in manner and style of the old unions. The call for action isn’t simple anymore. Neither the workers of the world can unite nor will the tripartite of state – market – trade union will ever be respected as earlier. I was glad to be a part of the march filled with sloganeering, music and dance. However, here are my concerns because I know that the music and dance mood would hardly take time to turn into violent protests and lockouts in these times of arbitrary policy making by the state which tends to favour businesses:

  1. Workers of the world can’t unite anymore because the global solidarity that the traditional unions called for has been rendered unattainable by effects of globalization which relocates shop floors to cheap labour markets, thus depriving one group of workers and providing another with work. Case in point – Detroit’s death in the US and rise of Asian car manufacturing hubs. There is a reason why Volvo opened a large manufacturing unit outside Bengaluru and not in any of the pretty settings in Scandinavia. So how do workers feel for each other when they end up as losers and winners?
  2. Resurgence of radical nationalism seems evident in several parts of the world – India, US, Germany and France among major economies. Countries like Hungary have gone a little further with their attitude towards immigrants. This will prevent any transnational solidarity to emerge among workers.
  3. Complex state-business relationships in free-market economies have rendered the place of unions irrelevant, if the unions are still articulating their concerns and fights in the language of the 1960s. States will pander up to businesses which bring in investments. Workers are no longer indispensable, should be known wide and across the segment. Indian unions moreover do not seem to have taken lessons from the devastating 1982 textile mills strike led by Datta Samant. What was the end result? Why does this question upset union leaders? This famous strike with over 300,000 workers participating in it which assumed that workers would stand their ground (owing to the poor choice of their leader Samant) and the state would bend, wiped out textile industry from Mumbai!

Returning to Standing, only because it seems a useful analysis of the situation, suggests what might the transformation of the precariat’s situation need –

To become a transformative class, however, the precariat needs to move beyond the primitive rebel stage manifested in 2011 and become enough of a class-for-itself to be a power for change. This will involve a struggle for redistribution of the key assets needed for a good life in a good society in the twenty-first century –not the “means of production”, but socioeconomic security, control of time, quality space, knowledge (or education), financial knowledge and financial capital.

I find Standing’s views a reasonable direction that workers in the neo-liberal times need to reorient their thinking in. In my work, I have been studying the contract workers who sweep, collect garbage and clean the city for Bengaluru’s municipal corporation. These workers are referred to as porakarmika in Kannada. Their union was formed three years back and in my analysis I find that this is the only effective grievance redressal agency that they have to plead their demands to the corporation. There are over ten thousand registered members. Every time I participate in their protests for wage hikes and workplace conditions, I am struck by the lack of thought in their demand for regularization – that they should be made permanent employees. In these times, with neo-liberal thought and new institutional management having taken firm ideological root in the government imagination, there is no hope for contract system to be discontinued. The state will increasingly deliver more services through contractors. The workers and their leaders seem to have no idea about the impossibility of permanent work and abolishing contract system for public services. The political-economy context of this is perhaps not known or at times seems known but a refusal to acknowledge it prevails among the leaders.

On May Day 2016 post at MPP’s Lokniti blog – From Haymarket Square to Hosur Road: State of Workers in India in 3 Charts, I ended with the following –

The direction to move in is to think of how must the workers be armed (not in the weapons sense) to take on this shove from the current economic system which appears to be shortchanging them left, right and center.

I feel the same on May Day 2017 and this is likely to be my outlook for the workers in the next decade too. In the three charts that I shared on last year’s post, I’d say that te number of registered unions might start looking up soon. Case in point – Rakhi Sehgal’s National Trade Union Initiative formed in 2006 has grown from a membership of just 500 workers to nearly 11 lakh by 2011.

There are new labour leaders emerging in India who are making a serious dent by organizing workers and letting businesses know that it won’t be easy for them to feed the workers into the machines for cheap. I’ve known some of these leaders covered by India Today magazine several years back – Face of New Labour, and how they mean serious business.

In these times soaked with neo-liberal ideology, workers are essentially fighting commodification of vital social services like healthcare, education, insurance, work benefits etc. These must be specific sites of focus and targeting these sharply should be the unions’ work. It appears difficult at the moment, but not quite if unions’ recognize that they need to know the nuts and bolts of how the new economy works and that concepts of means of production and labour power has outrun their potential in these times.