THE year that has just gone by, was a tumultuous one with massive upsurges, struggles and movements in various parts of the world. The crisis in the capitalist economy has brought untold miseries to the working population due to continuous attacks on their hard won rights and on their livelihoods.
As the world welcomes the New Year 2012, all predictions are that the present crisis situation is bound to continue. None of the ‘pundits’ is expecting any improvement worldwide. On the contrary, many are the predictions of a gloomy future.
WORKING PEOPLE’S RESPONSE TO CRISIS
Working people all over the world have responded to these crises and attacks with massive strikes and struggles. Though the Arab Spring of the beginning of 2011 created hope for more positive changes, the experiences have been otherwise. Some negative forces have come to the fore in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, and popular struggles are continuing. Libya has seen collateral damages from inhuman attacks by the NATO forces for a regime change. Syria and Iran are the new targets of imperialism.
Greece saw as many as seven countrywide general strikes in 2011. The public workers’ strike in Great Britain on November 30 was a historic one, with the participation of more than two million workers. It was after almost 30 years that such a big action took place. There is no country in the developed world where workers and youth had not been in struggles during the year 2011.
The “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which began in September 2011, generated a new wave of protest actions in different parts of the word. This movement is significant as its target is the capitalist system itself. Though one cannot be sure of what its future will be, the impact that it has made upon the masses is of crucial importance.
The neo-liberal policies thrust upon the masses during the last 20 years have had disastrous impacts on all aspects of life and the resistance is growing.
In India too, people’s resistance to the neo-liberal agenda of the ruling classes, induced by imperialism, has been growing. The year 2011 saw the trade unions unitedly developing resistance that may embrace all sections of the working people. The massive March to Parliament on February 23 was the largest ever mobilisation of working people in the capital city. The demands which men and women raised in the streets of Delhi at that time, now echoes all over the country in different ways.
The platform of united actions has seen further strengthening. All the eleven central trade union organisations came together on September 7, 2011, and all the industrial federations have decided to support the call of the central trade union organisations.
The comprehensive charter of demands, which the central trade union organisations have put forward, contains important issues that are connected with the life of all the toiling sections in the country. Issues like price rise, public distribution system, employment, social security, privatisation, minimum wages, the system of exploitation of contract workers, implementation of labour laws and welfare measures and, above all, that of freedom of association and right to collective bargaining are all included in the trade unions’ charter.
After the massive and countrywide Jail Bharo agitation on November 8 on these demands, preparations call for the next phase of action has begun. Soon there is going to be a countrywide general strike on February 28, 2012.
GENERAL STRIKES IN PAST DECADES
The general strike scheduled to take place on February 28 will be the 14th countrywide strike after the government of India embarked on a neo-liberal agenda in the year 1991.
However, the trend of united struggle had already begun in the 1980s. India witnessed the first countrywide general strike after independence, on a common charter of demands of the masses in the country, on January 19, 1982.
With the workers and employees now preparing for the next strike on February 28, one is reminded of the first countrywide strike and its background.
There took place a massive convention of trade unions against price rise and anti-labour policies of the government in Mumbai on June 4, 1981. Leaders and cadre of eight central trade union organisations --- the CITU, AITUC, BMS, HMS, UTUC, UTUC(LS), TUCC and also a section of the INTUC --- and as many as 55 industrial federations participated in this convention led to the formation of the National Campaign Committee (NCC). Here, 3000 delegates who came from all over the country unanimously adopted a charter of demands that included demands pertaining to workers, peasants, agricultural workers and other sections of the toiling people in India.
It is important to note here that while that convention was organised by the trade unions, the charter of demands included demands like remunerative prices for agricultural produce, minimum wages for agricultural workers and a comprehensive national legislation for agricultural workers. Other demands related to the public distribution system, need based minimum wages, higher bonus, correction of the faulty consumer price index, recognition of trade unions through secret ballot, unhindered right to collective bargaining and withdrawal of black acts like the National Security Act (NSA).
The NCC called for a massive March to Parliament on November 23, 1981. The response to that call was historic and massive, with more than five lakh men and women marching to the Boat Club lawns in the capital.
By that time, the government at the centre had promulgated the Essential Services Maintenance Ordinance (ESMO) that aimed at penalising the workers who wanted to struggle against injustices meted out to them by employers and the government. The home ministry of the government of India, in a note on the said ordinance, observed that the industrial climate in the country continued to be characterised by a mainly political trade union movement. B T Ranadive, the then president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), countered this contention, saying that “The fictitious excuse of trade union rivalries is resurrected when all the central trade unions and federations stand untied to resist the government’s anti-labour policies and the Essential Services Ordinance.” Spontaneous strikes and struggles took place in various states against this ordinance.
B T Ranadive thus explained the significance of the massive participation in the November 23 rally: “The mighty demonstration of trade union and working class unity on November 23 constitutes an important event in the country’s trade union movement. Never before had workers and employees from so many industries and concerns, from all states and belonging to so many central trade union organisations and federations, participated in a common demonstration in the capital. The contingents came from all states, from the public and private sector, from railways and defence services, from central and state government organisations, from steel, coal, mining, jute, textile, engineering and other industries. They demonstrated against the anti-labour policies of the Indira (Gandhi) government. They protested against the ESMA and demanded its withdrawal. They raised their voice against high prices on behalf of the entire people and demanded supply of essential goods to the people at cheap prices through the public distribution system. The voice of the united working class was raised on behalf of the peasantry when the trade unions demanded remunerative prices for the peasants’ produce. It was raised on behalf of the monstrously exploited agricultural workers when they demanded a decent wage for agricultural labour. The new awakening among the trade unions was further marked by the participation of a big contingent of working women, carrying their trade union banners.”
It was this rally at the Boat Club that called for a countrywide general strike on January 19, 1982. It was resolved that the “only answer to the strike banning should be through a strike.”
A massive campaign all over the country, including state and industry level conventions, preceded the rally on November 23, 1981. Various sections of workers and employees --- loco men, LIC, GIC, PSU employees and others --- as well as peasants and agricultural workers in different parts of the country joined the struggle. Peasant organisations had already organised a big rally in Delhi on March 26, 1981.
In this background, the call for a strike created enthusiasm among all sections of the people. The organisations of peasants and agricultural workers came out in support of the strike and decided to participate in it.
The central and many state governments let loose severe repression on the workers. Thousands were arrested in the days preceding the strike. The strike was fully successful and historic, with the participation of workers from all sectors as well as of peasants and agricultural workers. It resulted in a virtual bandh in many states despite the brutal repression by the governments.
Ten people were killed in police firing on the day. In Tamilnadu, three agricultural workers were killed by the police while two were killed in Andhra Pradesh. More than 50,000 persons were sent to jail. The police and hired goons resorted to baton charges and other forms of attack in many centres.
Then began a round of attacks on the people’s livelihood by the government and the ruling classes, who had by that time reached a clandestine agreement with the International Monetary Fund. But then the workers, peasants and other sections of the people also began their resistance of these policies through militant protests.
B T Ranadive and P Ramamurti, the then president and general secretary respectively of the CITU, congratulated the millions of workers who have joined the strike braving barbarous repression and creating history in annals of the trade union movement in the country. An editorial in the February 1982 issue of The Working Class commented that the working class had “smashed political barriers and unitedly launched the strike action not merely on economic demands but on political demands as well – against price rise, anti-labour polices of the government, against Essential Services Maintenance Act and the National Security Act.” The editorial also noted that “the strike gave new dimensions to the working class movement in the country. Championing the cause of the peasantry, the agricultural labourers and the entire people, the working class hit at the basic policies of the government --- pro-feudal, pro-monopolist and pro-multinational --- against deficit-financing and inflation, which are responsible for the spiralling prices heaping miseries on the common people and eroding the very basis of the democratic process.”
A CITU general council meeting correctly noted that through united protests, and especially the January 19 strike, the trade unions were realising that they could combat the economic and political policies of the government only on the strength of their class unity. For, questions like rising prices, inflation, deficit financing, imports and exports policy, IMF loan or ESMA and NSA were not matters that could be remedied by a section of the working class alone. On these issues, the working class needed to face the government unitedly as a class.
TOWARDS FEBRUARY 28
If we have recalled here the experience of the first strike in 1982, it was to stress the point that the united efforts that had begun in 1982 and continued all through the years of neo-liberal offensive, have to be further strengthened now.
The call for the one-day general strike on February 28 has been given by all the eleven central trade unions and supported by all industrial federations.
A look at the charter of demands shows the continuity and the necessity to carry the struggle forward.
There is also on the horizon the possibility of much larger unity with various other sections. The countrywide strike by retail traders on December 1, 2011, against the government’s decision to allow 51 per cent FDI in the retail trade, is an important step in the struggle against the so called “second generation reforms.” It is to be noted that struggle and concerted political action has forced the government to place this particular decision in abeyance.
However, the government of India has enough demonstrated how much it is adamant to go ahead with the next phase of retrograde legislations in the attractive name of ‘reforms.’ These include the insurance, banking and pension sectors. This sets the stage for many more sectoral struggles and campaigns.
In this situation, we need to take the message of the general strike, the demands and the importance of unity of central trade union organisations and federations down to every factory, office and work place and also to the masses in general. This is a must in order to make the impending general strike, on the eve of the presentation of the union budget in parliament, a real warning to the UPA government against proceeding ahead with its anti-people policies.
The need of the day to carry forward the banner of united struggles with the urge to rebuff these policies. The need of the day is to make the proposed general strike a great success.
A K Padmanabhan People's Democray 1 January 2012