‘Unity, Democracy, Militancy’: New Trade Union Initiative Launched In India

When President Bush arrived in India in early March, he was greeted by hundreds of thousands of protesters. Fortunately, when I arrived in India a few days later, I received a much warmer welcome.

As a representative of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), I was greeted by trade unionists who had come together for the founding conference and convention of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI).

The UE got to know the NTUI through the struggle of General Electric (GE) workers in India. Although India is half a world away from our union headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when the NTUI invited the UE and FAT (the UE’s sister union in Mexico, which also represents GE workers) to participate in their founding convention, we decided that it was important to participate.

FACING CHALLENGES

The NTUI faces an enormous challenge. India is approximately one-third the size of the U.S. with a population of over one billion people--more than three times the size of our population. Hindi is the first language of 30 percent of the population, while English is also widely spoken, but there are 14 other official languages. Most people from one area of India have no common language to communicate with someone from another area.

Politically the challenges are also tremendous: There are six major national parties, along with a variety of national and regional parties of varying sizes and strengths. India’s trade union federations have historically aligned with political parties. As the political parties divided, so did the trade union movement, leaving one right wing, one nationalist, one social democratic, and three left wing federations.

Indian law incorporates strong protections for the rights of workers, but gives unions limited access to the workplace. This is one of the reasons that the trade union movement has generally relied on its political connections, a practice that become less effective over time due both to divisions within the trade union movement and globalization.

As India became more open to corporate globalization, the impact of the neo-liberal economic agenda became increasingly evident. While in the U.S. we hear a lot about Indian call centers and the outsourcing of technologically skilled jobs, these workers represent a tiny percentage of the Indian labor force. Privatization, de-regulation, down-sizing, and outsourcing have generated massive unemployment, with the vast percentage of Indian workers employed in agriculture or the informal sector.

LOW WAGE HAVEN

Outsourcing has been even greater in public enterprises, and perhaps the most shocking thing we learned was that the dalits, or members of the lowest caste, upon losing their jobs in the public sector are unable to find work in the private sector as no employers will hire them.

Not surprisingly, the traditional labor movement is strongest in the declining public sector and what was national industry, much of which has been forced out of business or bought up by transnational corporations.

Unless an upsurge in organizing counters the debilitating effects of corporate globalization, multinationals will continue to view India as a new low wage haven where they can afford to pay workers, in many cases, less than a dollar a day, bringing wages down for everybody.

The NTUI is an attempt to provide a response that is both political and organizational. The heart of their program is unity, and instead of confronting the other federations, their policy is to push for consensus, and only where it is not possible to strike out on their own.

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The founding resolution of the NTUI, which becomes the preamble to their new constitution provides: “The strength of the working class movement is built on solidarity, respect and democratic ethos amongst workers, their organisations and concern for the well-being of all humanity. In the context of political and organisational fragmentation, this means, for us, unity of the trade union movement on the basis of independence from government, employers and political parties.”

The second resolution establishes a committee “to initiate bilateral discussions and negotiations with all progressive national trade union centers with the objective of building trade union unity.”

BOTTOM LINE OF ORGANIZING

The new constitution provides a flexible mechanism to promote democratic decision-making in a context in which a variety of political tendencies will undoubtedly vie to promote adoption of their positions. Consequently, any matter of a political nature may be raised by 1/4 of the members present in any of the decision-making bodies, but can only be decided by a 3/4 majority. Nevertheless, forums “to provide for the autonomous development of policy focus, campaign and mobilisation on specific issues or positions that are consistent with the aims and objectives of the NTUI” may be initiated by ten percent of the general council.

The third resolution addresses the deficiency of a purely political response to globalization, concluding: “The focus and gravity of labour’s opposition has to shift away from being limited to a parliamentary engagement with government. Asserting rights in a democracy requires that not just representatives of people, but people themselves in direct relationship to the forces of capital have to build a sustained and in-depth opposition, in every factory and every field, in every industry and every sector, and at the national level.”

That is really the bottom line. The NTUI must be able to organize, as unity alone will not be sufficient. And it cannot limit itself to the seven percent of workers in the organized sector, given the extent of subcontracting and unemployment, increasing working hours, and even the return of slavery in some instances.

Yet the beginning seems auspicious. The new leadership reported that approximately 200 unions have affiliated from many different parts of the country. They are of various sizes, and range from unions in industrial plants owned by well known corporations such as Siemens and General Electric, to unions of workers from the informal sector, from agriculture, construction, mining, and even those workers considered “volunteers” with government anti-poverty programs.

DIVERSE MEMBERSHIP

Together, the NTUI estimates that they represent some 500,000 workers. However, this does not include the unions that have not yet completed their internal processes of affiliation, which will most likely increase these figures by many hundreds of thousands.

Nor does it include the associated organizations that also have the right to join the NTUI, although with more limited voting rights. The NTUI constitution provides that, “Any organisation or alliance of working people, other than trade unions, which has a concern for labour and supports/complements trade union movement and subscribes to the general aims and policies of the NTUI may become an associate member.”

Among those present at the founding congress were representatives of indigenous organizations and dalits. The breadth of the NTUI’s vision was also evident in international organizations present: ranging from prominent trade unions such as the CGT from France to unions from Turkey and Sri Lanka; from Jobs with Justice in the U.S. to the Committee of Asian Women.

The NTUI slogan is “Unity, Democracy, Militancy.” The challenges they face and the serious and creative way in which they have begun to address them should serve as an inspiration to all of us.