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The Labor Empire Strikes Back: A Massive Strike in India Foreshadows a Global Labor Movement

An electric fan factory, Varanasi Benares India

Across the world’s major democracies, right wing ethno-nationalism is on the rise. Reactionary politics have assumed different forms in different places: In Brazil, it is privatization-driven neoliberalism pushed by President Michel Temer; in India, the Hindutva nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi; in Turkey, the neo-Ottomanism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; and in the West, the general xenophobia of populists such as US President Donald Trump and Hungarian President Viktor Orban.

Though different in many ways, each of these reactionary strands is an unmistakable reaction to globalization, which appears to be the axis of 21st century politics. And while the anti-globalization right has gained notoriety in its victories with Brexit and Trump’s election, an anti-globalization left has also come to prominence and is attempting to unite workers against both ethno-nationalism and neoliberalism. Last year, India experienced the largest strike in the country’s history, demonstrating the strength and organization of this fledging movement, while at the same time revealing the internal contradictions imperiling its success.

On September 2, 2016, 150 million Indian workers, 30 percent of the Indian labor force, participated in a general strike to demand higher wages and protest the international investment encouraged by the right wing administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Cities and major industrial centers such as the automobile manufacturing belt in southern New Delhi were shut down. The strike’s opposition to the Modi administration was clear: It was aimed at protesting “the [Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP)] proposed reforms to labor laws, which would exclude a huge number of workplaces from government regulation and would further heighten job insecurity.” The unions affiliated with the strike were officially linked to center-left and left parties such as the Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India (CPI(M)). The groups were comprised of a more diverse and grassroots base than a typical union movement, suggesting that workers are growing disillusioned with established left-wing politics.

Perhaps the most significant break with conventional worker organizing came in the form of the sidelining of major labor unions. The New Delhi manufacturing zone was an area where the strike was strongest, despite the establishment unions having little presence there. Further, the logistical planning for the strike was carried out by smaller, worker-organized unions such as the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, which managed to bridge an often-present gap between permanent and contracted workers.

Additionally, the strike’s decentralized organization departed from three traditional attributes of Indian unionism. First is the party-union hierarchy: Unions were founded by the major political parties and have historically been run to serve their electoral interests. When dealing with strikes, the major parties have always prioritized campaigning and fundraising over the spontaneity of working-class anger. The grassroots nature of the strike is thus distinct, and accordingly more potent. Without strict direction from a political party, the voices of the workers themselves were the driving force of the strike.

Second, while unions tend to let the state mediate between labor and business, this time they negotiated for themselves. As University of Delhi political scientist Achin Vinaik explains, “The system laid down for resolution of trade union issues encourages anything but class struggle methods. It puts a premium on third-party intervention by the state which, time and again, plays a decisive role.” But this strike was different, with protest directed against the state itself, rather than against the policies of corporations. Even in light of negotiations between the government and participating unions, angry working-class union members opted for “class struggle methods” over settling for mere concessions.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is that the strike united permanent and informal workers. In India, about 90 percent of the workforce is informal, meaning that their employment is either temporary, contract work, or self-employment. From rickshaw drivers to laborers in manufacturing, these workers work without long-term contracts and often fear termination on the whims of their employers.

With this divide in classes of labor, an unhealthy dynamic has evolved: Unions, to protect their members’ jobs and not harm employers, will encourage discrimination against informal workers, convincing employers to hire only formal, unionized workers. In many cases, this partiality has led to distaste for unions among the massive sector of informal laborers. But the smaller Indian unions behind the strike strove to counter this dynamic, with protests and riots beginning in 2012 surrounding corporate crackdowns on unionization. When permanent and temporary workers became aware of their common interests as exploited laborers in the globalized economy, they saw reason to work together. Pawan Kumar, a worker at a unionized Maruti Suzuki plant, told the Hindustan Times in March, “the biggest legacy of 2012 is that we forged an understanding between permanent and temporary workers.” The 2016 strike is a testament to the perpetuation of this understanding, and has opened the door to unionization and political activism for an often excluded sector of the workforce.

Globalization seems to be a strong impetus for the discontent that drove the strike. According to Jacobin writer Thomas Crowley, “the importance of…the informal sector has only increased in the age of globalization, liberalization, and privatization.” One might be tempted to believe that large, organized production best fits the needs of modern globalized trade, because this is indeed the case in countries like China. But in India, where the weakening of unions has helped quell resistance to the influx of international capital, globalization has pressured employers to disassemble the workforce. This serves to break up the formal sector into contracted and temporary workers, all in an effort to thwart unionization. The Modi government’s recent attempt to remove legal protections from the formal 10 percent of the workforce is indicative of this trend. The strike, with its goal of uniting the informal and formal workforces, constituted a common struggle against the division usually present in formal, unionized strikes.

But here also lies the deepest problem with the strike: While the anti-establishment left played a big role in organizing, the ten major unions and their respective political parties still reaped much of the benefits. We find in this national problem the universal problem of the anti-globalization radical left. Workers are increasingly mobilizing against neoliberal policy and the right-wing governments that are implementing it. Yet these workers have yet to move beyond the center-left political machines that receive their votes but do little to make big changes in labor policy. As long as power still flows through well-established institutions, the direct concerns of labor will be relegated to the back burner, with the slow political process obfuscating immediate demands for radical workplace changes.

In India, worker protests and action most often benefit the Congress Party or the CPI(M), instead of the workers themselves. This illustrates a major predicament for labor in India: It is at war with both the BJP—the largest political party worldwide—and the Congress Party—the mainstay of the Indian left and an institution tied deeply to the foundation of the country’s democracy. Workers will have to wrest influence from both of these institutions to have any hope of an upheaval in labor policy. Given the scope of this challenge, a workers movement posing a true challenge to globalization might seem like a pipedream. But if the size and momentum of worker movements can be channeled into governmental change, progress is just over the horizon.