Labour Day Special: Are Trade Unions Relevant Today?
This is the question doing rounds in outfits representing labour interests, particularly in the un-organized sector these days. What is the role of trade unions in a new globalised, privatised and liberal socio-economic order that seems to have found popular acceptance in most emerging societies?
Long queues at the labour courts, with rising number of petitions each day suggest trade unions have lost the will to fight it out in the field with strikes or direct action. They now prefer to get engaged in protracted disputes settled by litigation committees or tribunals.
“The reality is that in the new so-called liberal economic order, the workers are totally at the mercy of the employers who can fire anyone at will. Job security is an out-dated concept. With most government departments these days outsourcing services, the bargaining power of unions has been drastically reduced,” says Abhinay Prasad, president of the Self-employed Workers and Vendors Association, of Agra. The problem is that the classical model of a trade union, is no longer workable in the present globalised and privatized scenario.
In a country populated by farmers and unorganized work force, the relevance of celebrating May Day remains highly questionable, adds a former trade union activist. “Who is fighting who? Trade unions as “schools of revolution” is an out dated concept. The leftists these days feel left out from all spheres of public discourse. They hardly have any contribution to make in a system where roles are not clearly defined and the economic classes not clearly segregated, as Marx would have wanted,” He added.
As the number of self-help employers is going up steadily, it becomes difficult to decide who is exploiting and who is being exploited. “But our fight is chiefly against the government agencies and the police who harass and often turn exploiters of vendors or petty shop keepers,” Abhinay Prasad adds.
"Trade unions everywhere are losing their revolutionary character and are seen degenerating into litigation committees, striking deals and bargains with managements. Their preoccupation is no longer waging a class struggle or sharpening the political consciousness of their members but winning small mercies from the establishment," says socialist commentator Paras Nath Choudhary.
Strikes are no longer in fashion. This is because trade unions leaders are now members of the management boards, with a responsibility to keep the wheels of industry running in their collective self interest, adds Ram Kishore, president of the Socialist Foundation. “These days we do not see any effort by the working class to wage a relentless struggle for restructuring society according to Marxist thinking. Karl Marx visualised that the working class would eventually become the vanguard of socialist revolution, with trade unions acting as the organising centres for uniting the forces of workers competing with one another and for giving them elementary class training. But today’s reality is vastly different, Kishore said.
Trade Union leaders no longer want to play a political role. The old model of a trade union always being in conflict with the establishment has changed. “Now there is close coordination and co-existence. This has put the ordinary worker in a permanent state of tension and uncertainty. The labour class can not afford to fight as alternatives are no longer available, due to shrinkage of the job market and the economy not really looking up.”
What is the role of a trade union in today's context? Candidly their role has vastly reduced and as political entities their contribution is minimal.
Today's grim reality is that as institutions of labour activism, they cannot challenge the system or even question the existence of a society based on a division of classes. The history of the trade union movement in India proves that the unions can never be a vehicle of advance towards socialism. They are tied to capitalism and therefore cannot transform or rebel against the given system.
Clearly, the trade union movement is at a crossroads. It has to redefine its agenda and its ideological parameters. Organising rallies to promote sectarian interests is one thing, but getting involved with a larger struggle to usher in socialism and leading the working class to dismantle the feudal-capitalist complex is quite another.