Despite the economic gains India has made over the last 30 years, it’s important to note that its story, while impressive, is no glittering fairy tale. Although the country has made extraordinary progress, the notion that India is anywhere close to establishing even a fledgling “middle-class” is wildly farfetched. The reality of India is that poverty and misery continue to haunt the sub-continent. The reality is that 400 million Indians are illiterate, that universal rural electrification (promised to be in place by 1990) is still out of reach, that infant mortality rates and child malnutrition are alarming problems and that nonunion factory workers are still being exploited. Indeed, as more international pressure is brought to bear on Indian companies, more liberties are being taken with the industrial work force.
As for union workers, the case can be made that – cultural differences aside – India’s labor unions are almost identical in temperament and outlook to what American unions were 100 years ago. The Indian economy is robust, companies are expanding, manufacturing jobs are plentiful and entrepreneurial confidence is sky high – just as it was in the US a century ago. And just as it was in America a century ago, Indian unions are learning that, prosperity and rosy predictions notwithstanding, they have to fight and claw for every last nickel.
On November 5, a 45-day strike by 3,000 workers at Rico Automotive Industries in Haryana, a state in northern India, adjacent to Punjab (where I once lived), was called off by the AITUC (All-India Trade Union Congress). A settlement between Rico, AITUC and the Haryana state government was reached just hours before thousands of workers at other plants in what is called the “Gurgaon-Manesar corridor” were expected to hit the bricks in a sympathy strike in support of Rico workers. With the sprawling Gurgaon-Manesar corridor representing the heart of the country’s immense and rapidly growing automobile and motorcycle manufacturing sector, Haryana state has become the locus of union activism. Given their prodigious numbers, economic leverage and willingness to take on management, workers in the G-M corridor have the potential to become India’s UAW (United Auto Workers). The planned sympathy strike was a healthy sign of union solidarity – again, very reminiscent of what used to happen in the US prior to passage, in 1947, of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, outlawed jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes and secondary boycotts. Another healthy sign was the October 23 demonstration, where nearly 100,000 workers at 60-odd manufacturing plants in the G-M corridor walked off their jobs in a one-day protest of the murder of a Rico striker, a 25-year-old man allegedly killed by company assassins. One hundred thousand workers walking off their jobs! What an astounding show of solidarity!
Of course, as happens in contract negotiations, there were varying opinions and theories as to how effective the strike was. While Rico management and the Congress Party-led state government of Haryana boasted that they had not acceded to any “unreasonable” union demands, AITUC leadership depicted the strike as a success and the final offer as a victory for the union. While many strikers were pleased to be able to return to work, others were disappointed their union hadn’t held out for more. Among the issues not settled to their satisfaction were: a significant GWI (general wage increase), amnesty for miscreant strikers, further restrictions on the use of outside contractors and a unit clarification of AITUC’s status as bargaining representative. But “satisfactory” or not, the efficacy of a 45-day strike should not be minimized. Give the union credit for pulling it off. Forty-five days is a formidable strike, a respectable strike – whether it takes place in Haryana, India or Detroit, Michigan. In truth, shutdowns that last longer than two months risk evolving into mini-sieges; and sieges, no matter how “valid,” tend to warp everyone’s perspective. Rather than cast the strike as a life-or-death proposition, a prudent union (like AITUC) will stay out for a “meaningful” period of time, but no longer. Work stoppages are supposed to be tactical moves, not exercises in martyrdom. When it’s time to go back to work, you lick your wounds and go back to work…. and live to fight another day. Also, it’s not as if there wasn’t sufficient drama before the Rico strike was called off. Besides the one-day walkout in October and the planned sympathy strike on November 4, the day before the strike ended, Gurudas Dasgupta, the general-secretary of AITUC, was arrested by Haryana state police as he was set to address striking workers. His speech was to be the centerpiece of a fiery pep rally. Although Dasgupta remained in custody for only a few hours (upon being released, he was forced to leave the G-M corridor), his arrest is indicative of the volatility of the Haryana labor scene. Again, what happened with the Rico Automotive people evoked memories of what used to happen right here in the US during organized labor’s remarkable ascendancy. Yet, despite the vitality of the Indian labor movement there are ominous clouds on the horizon. While America’s early 20th century unions were able to take their cow to market – battling with management, politicians, special interests, goon squads, traitors, their own “weak sisters” – in the relative seclusion of an autonomous US economy, the Indians have no such luxury.
India is already a world player. Companies in Asia, the US, Europe and Australia all have vested interests in what happens in India, and, accordingly, will apply enormous pressure to protect those interests. Haryana’s vital G-M corridor is regularly tracked by Wall Street; India’s AITUC is on the computer screens of security companies around the world; and just as Harry Bridges was harassed by US feds during the 1930s and ’40s, Gurudas Dasgupta is clearly already in the Congress Party’s crosshairs.
Not to paint too grim a picture, but it’s only a matter of time before joint government-corporate interests seek to neutralize India’s unions. The stakes are simply too high. To international corporations relying on Indian output, the notion of a burgeoning, indigenous labor movement being allowed to freely test its strength is simply too dangerous. These joint interests will get the dirty job done through bribes and political maneuvers. Although it took government-corporate collusion many decades to finally tame America’s unions, with globalization having accelerated the process, these noble Indian unions could be reduced to puppet status within a few years. And that would be tragic.