22ND MAY ALL INDIA WORKERS’ PROTEST: WHITHER THE CENTRAL TRADE UNIONS, FROM HERE?

Shekhar //

Background and Perspective 

22nd May all India workers’ strike was called in a very different and grave situation. The call was given by ten Central Trade Unions, mostly dominated by mainstream left, and taken up by all other TUs and trade union platforms irrespective of their affiliation. It came when a few states, from UP and Gujarat to Rajasthan and et al, decreed suspension of almost all labor laws and imposition of 12-hour working day. However, it is no denying the fact that the dilution of labor laws was already being effected continuously in pieces and practice, even prior to pre-Covid time, and of late working class stood mostly disarmed in the face of continuous attacks since 1991 which is considered the year that marks the direct onset of neo-liberal policies in India. While the deepening of economic crisis got capitalists and their governments to launch attacks with even more vengeance, Covid-19 made the economic crisis further worse. It is therefore quite on expected lines that more attacks on working class are coming and something of the nature of an open class war has been let loose. The capitalist class and their lackeys are hell bent to turn the biggest ever global health crisis into ‘opportunity’ to suck the last drop of blood from the veins of the working class, particularly the migrant unorganized workers so that they could maintain their pace of maximization of profit during this crisis, too.  

When lock down was suddenly announced on 24th March evening in the wake Covid-19 pandemic, it resulted in instant job and livelihood losses for both migrant and local workers as well as for those on margins who anyhow managed to eke out their living. There can be no other arguments that migrants were worst hit. They have been thrown not only in economic distress, but, also in a state of complete apathy and estrangement. They found themselves also in isolation for they were far away from their families and dear ones by hundreds of kilometers. This made them bewildered and puzzled. On the other hand, no direct economic or any other relief was provided to such migrant or non-migrant workers. In one month, their economic condition depleted to such an extent that they became penniless. They remained either hungry or half-fed for many days since then and had no money left for journey. They were unable to pay house rent and faced evacuation on any day. Lastly, they had to request their village based family members, who had themselves lost their jobs and livelihood, to send some money even on loan at exorbitant interest rates so that they could remain alive and save a part of it for journey. This produced deep and widespread nostalgia among the migrants who were already longing to unite with them as soon as possible. They had lost their faith in governments. When they prepared to return, they were chased back and beaten instead of given help. It further eroded their confidence, got them stupefied and as a result threw them in chasm. This triggered their mass exodus on foot defying all orders, apathy and requests or announcements. It has turned out to be a reverse migration that no one ever thought of happening on such a gigantic scale. It brought before us the forgotten images of India’s partition. It led and is still leading us in the most cinematically creative way to directly live those experiences of partition that happened to occur 73 years ago from now. It suggests that a deep feeling of deception towards ‘democracy’, constitution and judiciary is fast penetrating into the minds of the poor. The general feeling is that however proud one may feel of ‘independence’, but, for the poor and the downtrodden no tangible change has occurred and arrived. Later, under the pressure of severe criticism from all quarters, even from the gullible and apathetic media, some Shramik Special trains were arranged for migrants’ return. However, this proved to be full of tragedy and not less fatal than the journey on foot. These trains are inordinately late, sometimes taking even 9 to 10 days, in reaching their destinations and in the meantime have taken the lives of kids, sick, fragile and old-aged due to acute hunger, excessive heat, too much exhaustion and drying throats.

Other sections of the people i.e. the village poor and the city poor dwellers mostly living in make-shift houses, whose economic life have been completely shattered by this Covid-led accentuation of crisis, were also not provided any substantive direct help. As a result, a very acute situation of hunger and deprivation caused by lack of unemployment is emerging among these populaces in villages as well as in cities.  

In the nutshell, the call of all India strike came at a time when hundreds of millions of migrant and non-migrant local workers as well as the village and the city poor were going through the worst ever tragedy of their life and were worst hit by unemployment, hunger, lack of basic necessities along with humiliation and police repression, all the direct consequences of Covid-19 induced lock downs and accentuation of an already persisting and deepening economic crisis. Coupled with this, the unparalleled government apathy is going to push their economic conditions to a very precarious level. Many bourgeois humanitarian activists are correctly expecting mass unrest unfolding into a widespread spontaneous revolt if these acute situations are not handled properly. In this sense, the stability of the government and the bourgeois state stands seriously threatened and some aspects of a revolutionary situation look fulfilled. However, the subjective conditions are still unprepared as revolutionary forces of working class are even today badly fragmented and disoriented.

Role of CTUs as viewed in this background

Did the striking unions tried to cash in on this splendid favorable situation with a view to mounting working class offensive? Are they looking forward, going beyond tokenism, to an era of revolutionary proletarian mass actions whose chances are being correctly expected to arrive? Have they seriously analyzed the depth of the post-Covid-19 economic crisis and rethought their role in order to usher in an era of working-class serious struggles to directly take on and overturn the bourgeois offensive? 

Just imagine! Two months have passed now. Still the migrant workers along with their families and dwellings are walking perilously on foot to return home from their workplaces braving untold hardships all along their journey. On the other hand, the Shramik Special Trains are carrying the workers to places other than their destinations thus letting the workers helplessly struggle to live for more days without food and water, thus forcing them to succumb to severe heat, hunger and thirst. This has sent waves of indignation to the whole country and spread commotion among the mass of the people living all over the country. A kind of desperation is setting in among those directly affected. Cracks are appearing in otherwise strong bourgeois-fascist rule.

Did the 22nd May striking unions truly address this acute situation threatening a widespread buildup of people’s anger? Could CTUs-led ground preparations and politics match with this level of desperation present among the masses? 

Up till now, more than six dozen of such deaths (in the Shramik Special Trains) have been reported by Railway Police Force. However, this figure is higher as reported by those who have survived these hazardous ‘Shramik Special’ journey. This has put on display nothing but open class hatred being let loose by an openly pro-corporate and pro-big capitalist government at the centre. Migrants are being punished for not heeding to Government order to stay back. They are being incarcerated for insisting to return home at all costs. Before this, we know, more than 667 workers have died in train and road accidents. Many of these died of depressions and mental agony, while they took to face hazards of walking hundreds of kilometers on foot. Many succumbed to police beating. 15 such deaths have been confirmed. At home, their economic conditions will be even worse. Soaring unemployment, hunger and poverty will kill them all if Government is not forced to act fast to give them direct economic relief and provide them with employment and other sources of earning their livelihood. And Governments can be made to act only by masses coming into actions on a wide scale as is being evident up till now. 

Are the striking Central Unions getting ready and prepared to give a proper call to such starving people for an organized mass action program? If not, will this kind of perpetual but aimless one-day workers’ strike, bereft of any proper revolutionary direction, be able to impact Government’s decisions and directions in anyway? These Trade Unions must come out of their assessment as to what impact the strike has brought to act on the Government. If not much impact is seen, they must come out with an announcement of the next stage of struggle. Will they do this?

The history and experience of such strikes tell us that there is going to be no tangible impact of this strike on Government decision making. The best possible impact could be that their leaders may be called or invited for a meeting with some minister to satisfy them. Can we, then, say that it has been proved completely fruitless? Irrespective of yes or no, the time is running out and we are still clueless in finding a real and workable strategy to come out of this mess. Unity of working-class organizations is correctly seen as the departure point. But even this is proving beyond our reach and possibility. Those having zeal and revolutionary fervor or politics are too small to embrace sizeable mass to immediately intervene, while those who are big and command sizeable mass base have no interventionist zeal, let alone revolutionary politics. They are still locked up in tokenism and are just not likely to shed off their rusted make up of mind.

Significance Of One-Day Strike

Any all India strike call, even if it is called for one day, is a big call, indeed. But without correct perspective, direction, and objective in mind, it is worthy of nothing. One-day all India strike may be considered just like a flag march of an army. In our case, it must be considered as a flag march of (the army of) the proletariat. Just like any army’s flag march, it must instill a sense of fear in the hearts of those opposed to the interests of the proletariat and those who are planning onslaught. To this end, one-day strike must be and is taken seriously as one of the important tools to get their demands fulfilled or get the adversary to retreat back and shun attack, even before going for the full-fledged strike and showdown of strength. That’s why all accept to act united whenever such a call is given. But it is also true that such one-day strikes don’t have a clear direction or a set of well-defined objectives backed up by a series of follow up struggles in the event of the governments turning a deaf ear. 

In short, one-day strike must be staged to directly warn the capitalists and the capitalist governments to retreat back and shun their attacks, and also threaten to launch a full-fledged war of strike if they don’t heed to workers’ demands. Naturally, what must follow after such strikes is an evaluation of impacts of such strikes as well as a careful assessment of its impacts on the morale of the workers and the public in general, and on the basis of the outcome of this exercise we must take up preparation for the next stage of the battle. This is how the purpose of one-day all India strike must be understood.

What is the history of such strikes? Have the CTUs been doing this exercise? Will the CTUs do this at least now, after 22nd May strike? These are the questions that are awaiting our urgent attention. Now, in the back drop of Covid-19 induced serious crisis threatening the very existence of the working class as such, the class-conscious workers, upon whose shoulders lies the responsibility of making such strikes successful must ponder over it seriously and force the movement to formulate and take up a correct and revolutionary direction.

What we have witnessed in the name of one-day or two-day strike for the last three decades? It is just the opposite. In short, while the capitalists have been launching wars upon wars on the working class to take back all victories won over more than a hundred years, workers under their leadership have limited themselves to just flag marches. Of late, even these have been becoming half-hearted and half-propelled. The Central Trade Unions (CTUs) are recognized by the government and arebusy in just anyhow stage managing their show of strength. They have lost their will to confront the regime beyond a point. Given their politics, it doesn’t surprise, either. They themselves accept that their politics is to work towards better management of Capitalist order rather than being a vehicle of overthrowing it. They don’t pursue a politics of restructuring the society so that peoples’ woes are permanently solved. They pursue a politics of just taxing and ceiling the capitalist enormous wealth. Their politics is to just fight for sending workers representatives to parliament so that some pro-worker policies are formulated and someanti-capital legislations be passed. Their politics is just that. It is therefore natural that the ‘flag march’ they normally stage and have been staging for years in the past is not the ‘flag march’ that it should have been.

In the times of serious crises such as this, such politics has no appeal. It has no base, either. Such trade union politics and practice had had a limit even in the past. Now the limit of that limit has also come. The old opportunist trade union politics has outlived and become completely outmoded with the advent of fascism which can’t be fought back on those past beaten paths of least resistance to capital. Anti-capital politics and practice of trade unions have got to be re-evolved now. It has taken the form of an outcry as is evident on the ground among the true fighters of the working class. Time is asking the working class to re-evolve into something that can lead the working class right through the storms, taking a plunge and steering out of it victoriously. Their own fighting ranks demand a far bigger offensive, but they keep avoiding by pretending one thing or the other, doing somersaults in one way and then in the other. That’s why CTUs have gradually become a shadow of their own former selves and other platforms are growing as alternatives. Will these alternative platforms be able to re-evolve and re-emerge the working-class movement with a clear-cut direction is a question whose answer is yet to come.

It can therefore be easily understood why such calls actually instill no fear in the hearts of the capitalists and the Government who continue their attacks ignoring these calls, as if they understand that these are false roars. It has turned into pure tokenism now and become a routine like affair. Whenever there is an attack, they write letters, and, at most, call one or two-day strike. It is just that. They will continue the same thing next time when there is another attack. This show goes on and on without evaluating the impacts of such strikes. It is just like any business as usual.

One may however resent to this, saying such an analysis hurts their morale. Then, what is being done in the name of these one-day token strikes for all these past years (which is most likely to continue in future, too) remains and will remain forever an un-resolvable question. The fact is that the meekly way they take these half-hearted calls to the ground and in the manner they completely limit themselves to repeating this, it is much the same as a goat’s bleating. We can see, for this reason, that the governments, whether UPA or Modi government has been taking them for granted. The result is as could be expected. The workers have been forced to give away their rights silently, forced to face all the brutalities meekly and die of hunger without fighting. It is no surprise that the workers are slowly becoming powerless slaves of capitals. All the castles and fortresses of the working class now stand captured and razed to dust. This, however, is changing now, thanks to these bitter offensives.       

Move On To Counter Offensive 

In spite of the weakness discussed about the mainstream working class trade union movement, the huge success of the 22nd May strike even in the conditions of lock down facing arrests under several laws including Epidemic laws, amply indicates that the working class is ready to take up a far more serious and bigger call if TUs or other platforms have courage and strength to come up with one and lead the workers while exhorting them from the front. The ground is already swelling. In this condition, even a meekly called strike carries great potentialities to become a real counter offensive, if serious interventions by real fighters are made from below. It is well said that ‘the strikes which arise out of the very nature of capitalist society, signify the beginning of the working-class struggle against that system of society.’

What does it mean? It means that workers even through their small organizations can move to mount counter offensive by rising to the crest of the mass unrest and depending upon the tradition of supreme sacrifice. Small workers organizations and trade unions that are working day and night among them are then bound to emerge as the vehicle of this counter offensive. There are other reasons, too. The rise of fascist forces to state power in India is forcing a re-alignment of truly fighting forces, while those rotten are bound to be sided with every real progress of the movement on the ground. This may erupt into a fierce struggle. With the manifold increase in the intensity of economic crisis and worsening of economic situations of working populace along with other intermediary classes and strata is producing cracks everywhere and sparks are appearing. Along with these sparks, rots are also forced to come out in the open and appear on the surface of the movement. A lot of spontaneity can also be palpably felt everywhere. This is increasing the chances of mass movement and at times upsurge of mass actions from below that will further force the re-alignment of fighting forces both on the top as well as on the ground. The ground reports coming from all over the country as also seen in the activities of alternative working class platforms such as MASA, it is sure that working class, which is already being extensively educated by the crisis and state repression, will be forced to rise to the occasion and take to revolutionary path. One thing is however given. Small but real working-class groups must be ready to unite or at least come to some kind of program-based coordination and become formidable fighters of the working class without making more delay. Without this, above hopes can’t be realized, at least not in adequate amounts, however pious our intentions may be.         

Today’s Lessons In The Light Of Lenin’s Teachings On Strikes

Under Capitalism, land, factories, implements, all belong to a small number of landed proprietors and capitalists. Under capitalism, the majority of the people of a country possess no property, or very little property. Therefore, they have to hire themselves out as workers to landowners and factory owners. They are ‘free’ and may choose not to hire out themselves, but in that condition, they will die of lack of food i.e. hunger. When hired out, they produce for their masters commodities (wares of this or that kind) which they sell on the market and fetch profit whose one part is re-invested in production again. It is not that the workers are not paid. Workers are paid, but only such a wage that provides a bare minimum subsistence for them and their families. Whatever the worker produces over and above this (his wages) goes to the owner as his profit in every cycle. In short, as Lenin says, under capitalism, ‘the people in their mass are the hired workers of others, they do not work for themselves but work for employers for wages.’

Factory owners and employers always try to reduce wages and prolong working hours. This is class eternity of the bourgeoisie and true for all of them. Increase in working hours gives them greater profit, that’s why they do it as profit is the quintessence of capitalism, without which it is worth nothing i.e. it even cannot exist. On the other hand, the workers try to get more wages in order to provide their families with sufficient food and other facilities just like others. For example, they also want to live in good homes. They also like to dress well as others. This leads to a constant struggle going on between employers and workers over wages and other benefits. Whereas the employer seeks the cheapest, the worker seeks the dearest, as Lenis says. Irrespective of which type of employers workers are hired to, they always bargain with them, fights with them over the wages either individually or united. It turns out to them that individually they are powerless. With this, they start uniting with their workmates. From here, they start getting unionized.

As the number of working people increases with the ruin of peasants who flee from the countryside to the town or the factories in search of a living. On the other hand, the factory owners or the landowners introduce machines. The development of capital and technology or machinery robs the workers of their jobs. Coupled with this ever-increasing number of unemployed, the number of people who usually hungry or half fed also goes on increasing. This drives wages down, lower and lower. Employers resort to wage cut. At a point of time, it becomes impossible for the workers to survive without fighting against this. On the other hand, in such a situation, if the unionized workers demand good wages or try to oppose a wage cut, the employer will pit un-unionized unemployed workers and youths against them. The owners indirectly tell the workers to get out on the strength of this huge number of unemployed mass of people. They (owners and governments) see there are plenty of unemployed and hungry people roaming in the cities and around their factory gates who would easily work for even lower wages. This is where a political struggle of the working class that calls upon the whole mass of the poor working people and youth, urban as well as rural, to get organized under one banner and revolt against capitalism becomes necessary. This is where a trade union movement for immediate demands for survival may turn into a mass political movement of all the downtrodden classes and strata against capitalism. It is here that a trade union movement merges with the anti-capitalist revolutionary movement, as it is here that the immediate demands are merged with the long term demands of the termination of capitalist system, the termination of capitalist mode of production itself.

This situation comes when a very serious crisis-laden situation hits the society and lead to all round destruction of the productive forces, particularly the working population. The present global economic crisis that has been further accentuated by Covid-19 is one such situation. At present, capitalism is out in its destruction mode and has precipitated a grave crisis threatening the whole working-class populace of its existence.   

When the factory owners amass huge fortunes, the small and petty bourgeois proprietors are also squeezed out. In such a situation, the workers become even more powerless in the face of the capitalist concentration and centralization and badly need political consciousness, in absence of which they cannot properly and successfully confront the capitalists. At such junctures, they need to know that the capitalists will force the majority of all sections of the society to swell their (proletariat’s) rank, and unless capitalists are overthrown and capitalist mode of production overturned to become socialized or socialist, their miseries can never be mitigated. The same consciousness is needed by those who are being constantly expropriated by capitalist competitions entrenched in the whole society, where big shark fishes swallow up smaller ones. In absence of a revolutionary consciousness, it becomes possible for the capitalist to divide and crush the workers and to drive them to death altogether. Workers movement here needs to be political, independent of economic struggles or otherwise i.e. intertwined with them, for only such a movement will impact and unite all those are being expropriated and are on the verge of being expropriated or further marginalized. Mere economic demands will give opportunity to the capitalist government to pit one section against the other, bringing them into the vortex of capitalist competition. And then each will be driven to be alone and also pitted against each other. Fascists are most adept in this art, we know. Hence, those already unionized and employed are forced to give away their hard-earned labor rights, too. Naturally, if workers don’t have the protection of any labor rights or laws, they cannot offer much resistance to the capitalists’ oppression on the basis of legality. This forces them to be ready to either revolt or be doomed.

It is not without any reason that today we can see an inordinately long working day, sometimes as long as 16-18 hours. We are witnessing children of 6 to 10 years, too, at work, overstraining themselves. We are face to face with a generation of hungry workers who are gradually dying from starvation and lack of proper nutrition and other basic necessities. The situation today, in the backdrop of Covid-19 pandemic, is even worse than under slavery or serfdom.  There was never seen such an oppression of the workers as terrible as that under today’s rotten capitalism when the workers are being treated as mere animals or insects. Whatever laws are remaining are being snatched at will. Today, there is seldom any law-abiding institution that can restrict the arbitrary actions of the employers and the government. For some of us, this is a very confusing situation. It may trigger uttermost level of depression in them as they see no hope of anything better out of this. This makes way for complete surrender. However, this is also where and when strikes are pregnant with revolutionary mass actions that may be turned against not just policies but also against the capitalist system, if the real fighters are ready to take charge on the basis of careful assessment and concrete analysis of the concrete situations.

Today, in order to stave off their reduction to such extremities, the workers have to launch stubborn and well guided struggles that combine immediate demands with the long term political demands aiming at the liberation of the working class as well as all other oppressed classes. Political workers’ strikes must be taken up now, well combined and tuned with economic ones. We must go for achieving victories on immediate demands as well as spreading the growing necessity of politics of overthrowing capitalist production system itself. Both have to be united as Lenin himself writes, ‘In all countries the wrath of the workers first took the form of isolated revolts… In all countries these isolated revolts gave rise to more or less peaceful strikes, on the one hand, and to the all-sided struggle of the working class for its emancipation, on the other.’

We therefore must have the fullest view of a strike. Lenin says, ‘there is no wealth that can be of benefit to the capitalists if they cannot find workers willing to apply their labor-power to the instruments and materials belonging to the capitalists and produce new wealth.” So if the workers refuse to submit to them and their dictates, they first of all cease to be powerless and secondly can make the capitalist submit to them and even kneel down before them. Such strikes always instill fear into the capitalists’ hearts because they begin to undermine their supremacy. On the other hand, working class brethren feel emboldened. By resorting to such strikes on the line of class struggle, working class can put all their wheels of profit to stand still. This sends chilling threat to the capitalists. Today’s time is such that we need such strikes.

The whole of the machine of the capitalist economy is set in motion by the worker and none else, who, from tilling land to building houses and machines as well as railways does everything to run the whole society. When workers refuse to work with having consciousness of class struggle, the entire machine will stop. So, as Lenin says, ‘every strike reminds the capitalists that it is the workers and not they who are the real masters.” It means the workers must more and more loudly proclaim their rights and also fight for these rights. Every strike reminds the workers of their position, too. It is only through such powerful strikes that the workers feel they must not be hopeless. They see that they are not alone. They also see the tremendous effect strikes produce on other poor sections of the whole society. In political strikes, workers become not only a collective force for themselves, but a collective leading force of the whole society whose majority are reeling under capitalist exploitation. A worker thinks not only about himself but also for the whole society comprising his workmates, his other brethren working somewhere else and also for those who are poor and being expropriated or about to be expropriated.

Engels said, ‘people who endure so much to bend one single bourgeois will be able to break the power of the whole bourgeoisie’. Here strikes become a ‘school of war’ as Lenin mentions. Lenin writes, ”every strike brings thoughts of socialism very forcibly to the worker’s mind, thoughts of the struggle of the entire working class for emancipation from the oppression of capital.”

So, real strikes are a necessary tool of emancipation of the working class. Strikes must be waged with proletarian resoluteness. Only then they become real strikes and serve as the above-mentioned tool of emancipation. Only such strikes show the workers that they can overthrow the capitalists from the driving seat of the society. Only such strikes teach the workers to think of ‘the struggle of the whole working class against the whole class of factory owners’ and also against the arbitrarily functioning government. That’s why such strikes are also called ‘a school of war’ against the capitalists and their government. Lenin writes – ‘It is a school where workers learn to make war on their enemies for the liberation of the whole people, of all who labor, from the yoke of government officials and from the yoke of capital.’

Lenin, however, says, ‘a school of war is, however, not war itself.’ It is wrong to think that union strikes alone can achieve a considerable improvement in their conditions or bring their emancipation. As Lenin has said ‘Strikes are one of the ways in which the working class struggles for its emancipation, but they are not the only way; and if the workers do not turn their attention to other means of conducting the struggle, they will slow down the growth and the successes of the working class.’

Such wrong ideas are prevalent even now among a few sections of the movement as a whole, at least in practice. But worst among these is this that workers or unions can achieve everything and force the governments to retreat back just by perpetuating one-day strikes on regular basis. It is ridiculous. This is tokenism and must go now, at least in such a severe crisis. 

In the last, we will have to understand that when the class-conscious workers become communists and learn revolutionary theories and actual dynamics of movement during a severe crisis, and strive for emancipation and thus try to unite their other class conscious comrades throughout the country in order to spread the idea of socialism among the workers, this leads them to the idea of necessity of building a true Party of the proletariat that struggles for the emancipation of the people as a whole from government oppression as well as for the emancipation of all working people from the yoke of capital. Only by rigorously completing these tasks, such a party can be built up that will teach the workers all the means and methods of struggle against their enemies. Only then will the working class be able to become an integral part of that great revolutionary movement that can and will overthrow capitalism once and forever, by uniting all – workers, toilers, laboring peasants, youth, women and all other oppressed people and sections under one banner and at the same time by training them in the great tradition of revolutionary ideology and politics. Only by being a part of and uniting in such a party will the workers be able to raise their banner of revolt against capitalism. Let us hope, their own direct bitter experience of the on-going crisis is teaching them no less effectively. Down with capitalism!

Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 2/ June ’20)

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