In Search of a New Approach


Labour organising does not attract attention of political parties any more. Even the marxist left finds no valid ground to debate over the historical role of working class movement. No doubt trade unions continue to have a strong appeal as an instrument in championing workmen’s rights despite massive de-unionisation. But there is ample reason to ask whether trade union movement will be able to survive the global onslaught in the coming days. For large parts of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa but also in south and Central America, this is no longer a question leading to an unequivocally affirmative answer. Trade union movement otherwise  strongly influenced by political parties in India is hardly equipped for the totally new challenges posed by the WTO and globalisation. In India the outlook for the trade union movement appears to be gloomy.


Labour and work formed, and still form, strategic variables as inputs in the various economic sectors. The cheapness  of labour was of strategic importance in the early stages, at the present stage its human capital formation calls for close state monitoring. The rights of workers and the level of their earnings are strictly dictated by macro-economic policy making in which there is little scope for organised labour but to play a ceremonial role at the national level. At the enterprise level, management labour relations are tightly defined by the dictates of competitiveness rather than direct social concern and responsibility for equity and workers’ rights.


In India trade unions developed as part of a largely colonial heritage of industrial relations legislation. In the absence of new strategies, dismal labour market conditions and gradual isolation from the


broader masses of society, compel virtually all brands of central trade unions to cling to past achievements. Given the rapid changes in industrial culture and labour laws, it is next to impossible to defend the old legacy simply by periodically agitating over sectoral interests. Even conservative World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) which has lost much of its shine after the sad demise of the soviet union, now considers the issues like environment, ecology, women’s movement integral to trade union activity. Natural resource depletion and environmental degradation are mainly the reasons of unbridled profit motives of the multinationals. But in India central trade unions practically give no importance to the issue of protection of nature.


Obsolete technologies apart, India now faces the danger of being swamped by destructive and polluting technologies. And all political parties, barring a few minor groups on the far left, encourge them all in the name of development and foreign investments.


Given the enormous problems faced by wage earners everywhere random violation of working rights and vulnerabilites of different kinds which are made more complex by globalism, trade union movement cannot move forward without designing totally new goals and action programmes that would address these issues and give new meaning and ideals to trade unionism. This is simply not happening in India otherwise central trade unions would have come forward to express solidarity with the ‘Save Narmada Campaigners’. Partial approaches cannot give hope of access to work and decent income for men and women in widely differing labour markets. What is urgently needed is a balanced multi-pronged strategy which again demands a high degree of political determination.