Whither Working Class Movement?

  • Abhinav Sinha

Indian as well as the International working class movement is facing a grave crisis today. Now it is not a matter of contention that the power of capital has dominated the power of labour ever since the fall of the workers’ states that came into being in the first part of the 20th century and especially since the early-1970s. Nevertheless, capitalism itself has not been able to overcome its own crisis since the 1970s. Right since the economic crisis of 1973, World Capitalism has not witnessed a single phase of significant boom. But owing to the policies of Globalization, the Information Technology and Communication Revolution and the ideological, political and cultural onslaughts on the working class, which was already scattered and somewhat demoralized; the capitalist system, despite its tattered state, has succeeded in preventing any meaningful resistance from the working class and also in keeping it from being organized. The working class movement today is faced with a crisis as a result of the new strategies adopted by capital for breaking the resistance of labour at the international level in the era of Globalization and for maintaining the falling rate of profit to the level of survival and our purpose is to understand this crisis so that it can be overcome.

We can talk mainly about two aspects of this crisis. One aspect is subjective, which cannot be discussed at length here. This is the crisis constituted by a dogmatic outlook on the plane of program among the communist revolutionaries worldwide and particularly in the countries which were termed by Lenin as the ‘weak links’ of World Capitalism. In our opinion, the program of the New Democratic Revolution in the camp of communist revolutionaries worldwide has become a knot, or an albatross round the neck. It requires a critical rethinking with utmost seriousness. One of the consequences of this tendency is the fact that barring a few exceptions the communist revolutionary groups/parties have feeble presence in the industrial working class of India owing to its preoccupation with agrarian revolution. What makes this even more ironical is the focus of communist revolutionaries on the middle, upper-middle and rich peasantry, rather than the immensely huge class of agricultural labourers. Consequently, the 540 million strong Indian working class and 270 million strong agrarian semi-proletariat have been left at the mercy of Fascist corporatist and social democratic trade unions on the one hand and extremely reactionary electoral parties representing the rural bourgeoisie on the other.

The second aspect of the problem is the objective one, namely, the problem of understanding the changes in the modus-operandi of Imperialism, the changes in the composition of capital since the 1970s, the changes that have collectively been termed as Globalization. In the era of Globalization, together with the neo-liberal policies of privatization, deregulation, increasingly unhindered international flow of capital, decine of Fordism, emergence of a fragmented assembly line and flexible labour markets, emergence of a more-or-less integrated financial market, the increasing dominance of finance capital in an historically unprecedented way and with capital becoming more and more parasitic, unproductive and predatory; some important changes have occurred in the entire structure, composition, size and nature of the working class all over the world and particularly in the post-colonial and comparatively less-developed capitalist countries of the so-called ‘Third World’. Without understanding these changes we cannot talk of building a working class movement in the 21st century. These are the changes that are collectively termed as informalization, marginalization, feminization, peripheralization, etc. A gigantic unorganized and informal working class has come into being at the global level which is working in both organized as well as unorganized sector. Even the revolutionary Communist groups which are active in the working class also, in general, carry a variety of pre-conceived notions, prejudices and biased attitude towards this informal/unorganized worker population. They consider it as being backward, bereft of class-consciousness or lacking it, not properly/appropriately proletarian, etc. However, empirical studies do not support such notions. Without understanding the character, size and nature of this informal/unorganized working class we cannot even think about resurrecting the working class movement today.

Changes in the modus operandi of Global Capital

After the Great Depression and the Second World War the bosses of the World Capitalism had understood that if the entire economy is left at the mercy of the motion of ‘free market’ and the vagaries of finance capital and speculation, it would prove to be disastrous. John Maynard Keynes had already warned that if speculative capital is like a bubble in the stream of productive capital, it may be acceptable; but if the productive capital itself becomes a bubble in the stream of speculative capital, then the situation could grow out of control. To avoid this, Keynes prescribed the solution of the “Welfare” state and this prescription was implemented during the period from 1945 to 1973. In this period, capitalism was riding high on the post WW-II reconstruction projects and opportunities for productive investment were still there.

Fordism came into existence in the US in the decade of 1940s. Ford introduced a new form of production in his company. He stressed on three things in the entire production process so that production could be achieved at an increasingly bigger scale. Firstly, the maximum possible standardization of production; secondly,  the highly advanced division of labour which was executed by the dynamic assembly line; and finally, to minimize the role of skilled labour in the entire process of production. At the same time Ford also believed in the underconsumptionist logic that the crisis of the system would increase if the workers are not given sustainable and considerable wages. Besides others, these were some of the fundamental elements of Fordism, which had particular implications for the working class. Fordism remained the dominant regime of accumulation of the World Capitalism in the period broadly from 1945 to 1973. It could reduce the cost of production and maximize the margin of profit. The entire commodity was manufactured in a single factory and these factories used to be huge in size. Ford implemented this model successfully in his company and in the decade of 1940s it spread to the different parts of the capitalist world. The factory assumed such a massive form for the first time in the era of Fordism. Sometimes even 15 to 20 thousand workers used to work in a single factory. These workers were generally organized in powerful factory unions. The ‘Dominant Mode of Regulation’ of this era was the “Welfare State”. So long as it remained a “Welfare State”, the capitalist class was successful in avoiding big clashes between capital and labour; in other words, it was possible for the capitalist class to do so at that time. The process of capital accumulation was functioning more or less  satisfactorily and the capitalist world was witnessing one of the best periods of its prosperity. The capitalist state could afford to give some security to the working class in the form of Factory Laws at that time, though another role of these legislations was also to regulate the working class militancy. The labour markets in the entire world were not flexible and were regulated by labour laws. One of the reasons behind this was also the pressure of the organized labour movement. And the capitalist class was not so desperately compelled as to ignore this pressure and use repression to establish its absolutist rule.

In this era, the role of the nation-state was enforcing and direct. (Needless to say, the state is still there though its role has undergone a profound metamorphosis; yet it is absurd to talk about ‘retreat of the state’, etc) Most of the countries were implementing the protectionist policies keeping in mind the interests of their national capital. Even the post-colonial capitalist countries with diversified economy of substantial size like India, Egypt, Indonesia, etc were implementing the policies of public sector capitalism, import substitution, a limited welfarism, for a different set of reasons. The flow of capital, though present at the global level, existed along with protectionist regulation. The Dollar-Gold standard was present which used to ensure stability to this entire apparatus and was its symbol as well. This in itself was a Keynesian instrument. It was not possible for any single country to undertake monetary adjustments at its will. There was no economic crisis on the horizon and hence no national economy felt the need for a floating currency and the Dollar-Gold standard provided them with a stability which was essential for Keynesian ‘Welfare’ State.

However, this phase of prosperity came to an end soon. As soon as the next three decades passed, the capital accumulation had started reaching the stage of saturation. It was no longer possible to utilize the excess of capital within the framework of protectionist regulation of the nation-state. The crisis of over-production was once again looming large over capitalism. By the 1970s the rate of profit had stagnated throughout the capitalist world. Soon, the crisis reached its zenith. We know it as the Economic Crisis of 1973. Meanwhile, the capitalist world had to face another crisis. Due to the Arab-Israel conflict, the oil producing Arab countries imposed an oil embargo. It led to an oil crisis in 1973. Due to this reason, old friends of the US, including even Japan, started deserting it. Finally, the US foreign minister Henry Kissinger forced Israel to withdraw its troops from Sinai and Golan Heights. Arab countries lifted their Oil embargo. But by then the world capitalist crisis had deepened further. Along with increasing rate of inflation the rate of unemployment had also become uncontrollable. The simultaneous occurrence of the increase in the rate of inflation, decline in investment and increase in the rate of unemployment, was termed as stagflation by the economists. This was the characteristic feature of the recession of the 1970s. But the main reason behind all this was the excess of capital, over-production and the rate of profit going below the minimum level of survival. In order to deal with this crisis, initially United States of America tried to adopt some monetary measures but it was not possible while the Dollar-Gold standard was in force. Consequently, the USA detached itself from the Dollar-Gold standard and converted the dollar into a floating currency so that by changing the exchange rate and through devaluation of its currency, the crisis could be dealt with. But even this did not work. The situation had already grown too grave for such monetary measures. Other countries also started adopting the policy of floating currency but even they had to face failure. Due to the inflexible labour markets, i.e. due to the relative security of the working class arising out of the labour laws, it was not possible to increase the rate of exploitation and thereby maintain the rate of profit above the survival level. So long as the existing dominant regime of accumulation and dominant mode of regulation remained in force, any such attempt would have had to face a powerful organized resistance from the working class.

From the late-1970s and the early-1980s, the first experiments of the economic policies of Globalization and neo-liberalization commenced in the world. Some countries of Latin America and Mexico became the laboratories for the first experiments of the policies of the Structural Adjustment Program. In the beginning of the decade of 1990s the condition of the Indian economy also worsened, though India had not adopted the policies of Structural Adjustment till then. The monetary crisis that shook Indian economy was an expression of the reaching of the saturation point of capitalist development within the framework of Nehruvian public sector capitalism. Now it was no more possible for private capitalism to breath under the system of public sector. The task of getting rid of these policies was properly undertaken in 1991 when the Congress Government, under Narsimha Rao’s leadership and under the direction of finance minister and a neoliberal economist Manmohan Singh, a staunch supporter of the policies of World Bank-I.M.F., started to implement the New Economic Policies. Till then, the disastrous results of the policies of Structural Adjustment had become clearly apparent in Mexico, Argentina and some other Latin American countries and the risks of a totally unregulated economy had become sufficiently evident. Therefore, countries like India and China, while on the one hand, implemented the policies of Structural Adjustment, on the other, chose the path to remove the shackles of regulation in a long gradual process, rather than in one go. That is one of the reasons, apart from others, why India and China did not meet the fate of Mexico or other countries of Latin America.

With the increasing integration with the world economy, the tremors of the crisis anywhere in the world started to be felt in every corner. In 1997 the economies of the South-East Asian countries which had been termed as the ‘Asian Tigers’ started floundering due to monetary crisis. For dealing with this crisis, a new avenue of investment in the world market was required, which was for some time provided by the Dot-Com Bubble. Soon this bubble also busted and then for some time the situation was tried to be taken under control by creating a Housing Bubble. But every such surge of the speculation-driven finance capital was giving birth to even more serious crises. The same happened with the Housing Bubble. By 2005, even this got busted. The period of 2007 to 2009 was that of the most serious recession after the recession of 1930s. This recession originated from the financial markets of the USA where the trash of toxic debt had got accumulated and the US banks and the finance institutions spread it to the financial markets all over the world in the form of a special kind of bonds called Collateral Debt Obligation (C.D.O.). The result was a huge worldwide financial crisis. While the world capitalism was trying to overcome this crisis by giving stimulus packages, the Sovereign Debt Crisis began in Greece 2010 which then engulfed Portugal, Spain and other South European countries. Now we know that the present crisis is much deeper and much more structural than that of the 1930s.

In this era of Globalization, three important phenomena unfolded which are worthy of consideration for the working class movement. The first phenomenon was to make a flexible labour market by doing away with every kind of regulation of the labour markets through the policies of neo-liberal Globalization. It was meant to snatch away all such legal rights and legal security from the workers which had been providing them some security against the onslaught of capital ranging from recruitment to the working conditions and from minimum wages to the length of the workday. The second phenomenon was the end of Fordism at the global scale. With the sanction of open freedom for the free flow of capital at the global level it became easier for it to roam around the world for the exploitation of raw material and cheap labour. At the same time, it was difficult to properly implement the anti-labour policies so long as the Fordist large scale production was in force, the labour population was organized at large scale at the factory level and the policies of welfare and regulation were in place. It had become imperative to do away with the modus-operandi of the Fordism, both economically as well as politically. The third significant phenomenon was the revolution in the field of information technology and communication-transportation which took place in this era. It speeded up further the free flow of capital as compared to earlier periods. This revolution provided unprecedented momentum to the process of the Globalization of capital. It accelerated and simplified the movement of capital across national boundaries. The trans-national corporations (T.N.Cs), although were present even before the decade of the 1980s, but their worldwide dominance could be felt especially since the early-1980s. Now the capital could roam around without any barrier anywhere in the world in the search of cheap labour and cheap raw material. The Information Technology and phenomenal development of transport not only made it easy to break the Fordist production but also made it profitable. An additional and substantially bigger gain is that when the work is done in this manner, the capitalist is comparatively relieved from troubles of the unionism etc. as well.

These three changes have done large scale informalization of the entire productive economy in the entire world and particularly the relatively backward capitalist countries of the “Third World” in the last three decades. This working class population is much more vulnerable, readier to do work at lower wages and more unorganized. It enables the already crisis-ridden capital to increase its rate of profit a little bit. There are two aspects of the informalization of the economy. One is the informalization of the workers’ population, i.e., the increase in the share of contract, casual and daily-wage workers in formal as well as informal sector. The second is coming into being of a big informal sector, i.e., coming into being of such workshops, factories etc. on a large scale which are either so small that legally they do not even come under the factory legislations (in India factories with 10 labourers and an electricity connection or 20 labourers without electricity connection are not regulated by factory legislation) and therefore fall outside the purview of the state regulation; or such factories which though legally should come under the purview of the factory legislation, but they run illegally without licence and regulation and are exploiting the workers ignoring all the laws. 98 percent of workers in such informal industries works as casual, contract workers, whom we can call the ‘informal within the informal’.

When we say that integrated assembly line is becoming increasingly fragmented, it surely does not mean that the assembly line itself has vanished. It also does not mean that the production is carried out on a smaller scale. On the contrary, it means that the production is being carried out on an even larger scale. The large scale production is not measured by the size of the floor of the factory. The large scale production is measured by the magnitude of capital investment and the size of its production. It would amount to political and economic naivety to say that the production is now carried out on a smaller scale, merely because of the fact that the dominant form of accumulation has changed from the production on an integrated assembly line to the one on a fragmented global assembly line. The process of informalization of economy as well as the working class has been well-documented by governmental and non-governmental sources in India.

In 2006, the United Progressive Alliance government formed a ‘National Commission on the Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector’ under the chairmanship of prominent economist Arjun Sengupta, who recently passed away. This Commission distinguished between the informal sector and informal working class and it is necessary to understand this. Let us see as to how this commission defines these two concepts: “The informal sector consists of all unincorporated private enterprises owned by individuals or households engaged in the same and production of goods and services operated on a proprietary or partnership basis and with less than ten workers.” (Chapter 2, NCEUS, Report on Definitional and Statistical Issues Relating to the Informal Economy, Government of India, December 2008, New Delhi)

This Commission lays particular emphasis on the fact that today even in the formal sector, more than two-third of the workers’ population has been converted into informal workers, the main reason for which is the process of contractualization and casualization. This Commission defines the informal working class as follows: “Unorganized/informal workers consist of those working in the informal sector or households, excluding regular workers with social security benefits provided by the employers and the workers in the formal sector without any employment and social security benefits provided by the employers.” (ibid.)  It is clear that the informal working class not only consists of the labour population working in the informal sector, but it also includes the population working in the formal sector which has become the victim of contractualization, casualization and work on daily wages. It goes without saying that the immense majority of these informal workers is unorganized. There is a separate definition of the unorganized working population which was given by the National Labour Commission of 1969 which is as follows: “those who are unable to organize themselves in order to achieve a common aim.” Among the scholars who have worked on the informal sector and informal working class in India, Barbara Harris-White and Nandini Gooptu and Jan Breman are considered distinguished. Barbara Harris-White and Nandini Gooptu have given the definition of the informalization as follows:  “‘Organized sector labour’ means workers on regular wages or salaries, in registered firms and with access to the state social security system and its framework of labour law. The rest — 93% of the labour force — works in what is known as the ‘unorganized’ or ‘informal’ economy. Unorganized firms are supposed to be small. In fact they may have substantial work-force, occasionally numbering hundreds, but where workers are put deliberately on casual contracts.” (Page 89, Mapping India’s World of Unorganized Labour, Working Classes, Global Realities, Socialist Register,2001) Jan Breman argues that the emergence of such an informal economy was quite natural in the Indian capitalist development or, for that matter, in the type of development which took place in all countries which became independent between 1950 and 1980. This was not a backward, pre-modern, primitive working class. The internal mobility within this entire class was so high that it could be considered a worker in a factory, as well as a street side vendor, pedlar, rickshaw-puller and a farm labourer! Because often they use to do all these works in a single year! In such a scenario, to call him backward or primordial is a prejudice. Also, it is not as if he is not skilled. In fact, he is multi-skilled. Prominent labour historian Prabhu Mahapatra writes that the origin of the informal sector could be seen even in the colonial capitalist system. Mahapatra finds it incorrect to consider the informal sector as beyond regulation. According to him the informality of both the class and the sector has been regulated right from the beginning. True, this regulation is not imposed through clear and direct laws. Marx too has shown that capitalism has always required the informal sector and it regulates it through means other than laws. Hence informalization is not something which has arisen out of some kind of aberration of the capitalist system. It has always remained an integral part of the modus-operandi of the capital. Informality can be considered as the lack of formal regulation but not lack of regulation itself. (see Marx, the chapter pertaining to the factory laws in Capital, Volume-I).(page 29-46, Making of the Coolie: Legal construction of Labour relations in colonial India and in the Caribbean, Labour in the Public Arena , V.V. Giri National Labour institute, Noida 2004)

Why is it that the informal working class today has become an important and a central question for the Indian working class movement? The plain and clear answer to this question is this: it constitutes 93 percent of the total working class population!According to the restrictive definition of the Indian government, the total working class population today is about 458 million about a decade ago. If we consider its rate of growth as constant, then today, this population should be more than 560 million. It does not include the poor and marginal peasant population. More than 93 percent of this population consists of the informal/unorganized workers’ population working in the informal sector. Remaining 7 percent population works in the formal sector, three-fourth of which are the contract, daily wage or casual labourers, and even when they are permanent, they are not organized in any union in most of the cases. Even of the 3 percent that is organized in unions, the majority has become disenchanted from the revisionist and fascist trade union bureaucracy. The still remaining does not even consider themselves as workers. To a large extent this remaining section can be counted as part of what Lenin called labour aristocracy. It is not without reason that recently the fascist Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) has become the biggest trade union surpassing CITU. It alludes to the important changes which the structure and nature of this 3 percent labour population has undergone. Jan Breman writes somewhere: “In the landscape of labour, industrial workers in the organized sector of the economy form a privileged and protected enclave. …In addition to their secure employment status, they constitute an ‘aristocracy’ with a high social profile and a reasonably comfortable lifestyle”. (page 407, The study of industrial labour in post-colonial India — The informal sector: A concluding review, The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour, Sage Publications, 1999). Anyway, let’s return to the principal issue. In all, 97 percent workers belong to the informal/unorganized working class (including both, in the formal as well as the informal sectors). Barbara Harris-White and Nandini Gooptu inform us that the 7 percent formal labour population earns around 34 percent of the total wages while the 93 percent informal/unorganized labour population only manage to get 66 percent share. Part of the labour population of the unorganized sector works at their homes. A considerably large part this labour population is the one which works at its home with family labour, as a part of the fragmented assembly line. However, this population does not belong to the so-called ‘Chayanovian space’ and should be considered as wage labour. The labourers working at home are included in the ‘self-employed’ population in the government statistics which is illusory and misleading. Moreover, it relieves the State of its responsibilities. This category has been invented for this very purpose. These so called ‘self-employed’ workers constitute 56 percent of the total workers’ population. The share of the casual labourers in the total working class population is 29 percent. (All the above statistics are from this source: Barbara Harris-White and Nandini Gooptu, Mapping India’s World of Unorganized Labour, Working classes, Global Realities, Socialist Register, 2001). 60 percent of the Gross National Product of the country, 68 percent of the Total Income, 60 percent of Total Savings, 31 percent of the Total Agricultural Export and 41 percent of the Total Industrial Export comes from informal sector (India’s Socially Regulated Economy, Barbara Harris-White, Critical Quest, New Delhi, 2007). Currently only 17.3 percent of the total industrial production is being carried out by the formal workers’ population, while the informal workers’ population is responsible for 82.7 percent of industrial production. In 1990 among all the manufacturing units, 52 percent were such in which less than 50 labourers used to work. It is noteworthy that the real process of informalization actually began in 1990. Now one can easily simulate the present condition.

The above statistics are sufficient to make it clear that the sheer size of the informal/unorganized working class population is such, that to ignore it, you have to be a blind person. This question stands as one of the principal questions on the agenda of the entire working class movement today as to how this huge population, which has been termed by the famous Marxist writer Mike Davis as “the fastest growing and the most unprecedented social class on earth” (Planet of Slums, Verso, 2006), can be organized? What are the challenges of organizing them?

The first characteristic of the informal working class which comes to our attention is its being geographically scattered in terms of the workplace. So far as the factory floor is concerned, this population is in the process of being dispersed. We have already explained the reason for this process of dispersion. At the national level the number of big factories has declined considerably. If we leave aside the core sector, almost entire industrial activity is going into the informal sector. Even in the big factories which are still existing and in the industrial centres in which some big factories are being set up (although it is not a common trend), a large proportion of the working population (leaving aside the technicians and foremen) is employed on the basis of daily-wages or contract or they work as casual labourers. The most important characteristic of this population is that it is extremely mobile. Even among the workers who work on contract, daily wages or work as casual labourer in the bigger factories, the tendency of sticking to a single factory diminishes to a large extent. Therefore, it becomes a challenging task to form a powerful trade union in these factories. The reason is the extremely high internal mobility of the target population. Today, for the workers working in a big factory, it is most likely that 50 percent among them would be replaced in the next six months. And one organizes individuals, and not the numbers, in the unions. Thus, may be the number of the workers working in a factory remains the same or may even increase, but its profile is changed. Jan Breman, in one of his famous and widely acclaimed work has termed this volatile labour population as Footloose labour. It was because of this reason that Jan Breman also called them as wage hunters and gatherers which is quite an appropriate term for an informal worker. The high workplace mobility of this labourer makes it extremely difficult to find them and mobilize-organize them at their workplace. This labourer is normally a multi-skilled labourer who would generally have worked in the industries ranging from primitive to advanced, done the so called ‘self-employed’ work, worked at his home with the family labour, also done the works like rickshaw-pulling, street-side vending or have worked as pedlar. And, often he/she has done all of these works within a single year and may be has also worked as agricultural labourer for three months in the countryside.

This informal working class is extremely radical which faces the State and capital right from streets to the home and the work place. There is no lack of class consciousness in it. And from the decade of the 1980s, the kind of policies which are being adopted by the World Capitalism due to its crisis, has produced a huge informal working class in the last thirty years or so, which unlike “surplus” labour population of earlier periods does not suffer from unskilled, backward, peasant or primitive consciousness; on the contrary, this class is radical, modern and equipped with proletarian consciousness. This class is compelled to live in the abject poverty and this very factor is the source of its being radical. Quoting from Mike Davis, Bernstein contends that this is hitherto the fastest growing part of the proletariat, which is huge and brimming with possibilities.

A variety of studies on the informal sector inform us that in the labourers working in the informal sector, there is considerable class consciousness which is, in many ways, more advanced than that in the labour population working in the organized sector.

To sum up, the emergence of the informal working class is not an aberration of the capitalist development, but a rule; Secondly, this working class is not backward. These are the prejudices created by the trade-unionism which was born in the Fordist era of integrated assembly line and mass production. There is a need to get rid of the prejudices that the informal/unorganized working class possesses backward, primitive, peasant, pre-modern or non-industrial consciousness. Thirdly, today’s informal working class is, in general, more radical than those 7 percent workers who are working in the formal/organized sector; it is anti-capitalist from its very nature; it is relatively freer from the economism, anarcho-syndicalism and revisionism spread by the revisionist trade unions; this working class owing to its mobility is also relatively free from the tendencies of occupational narrow-mindedness and it does not consider any single factory owner as its enemy, instead recognizes, and in quite practical terms so, entire class of the factory owners as its enemy. Its politicization is in some respect easier, but there is no denying the fact that understanding this logic would be a bit difficult for those whose mind has been ossified within the old trade unionist economistic ways and means. Besides, this class is not only directly confronted with the capitalist class, but everyday from home to streets and to the work place it is also directly confronted with the Government which acts as the managing committee of the capitalist class. This class does not hold any kind of legal illusion regarding the police, bureaucracy, judiciary and the leaders of the bourgeois parties. All these organs of the bourgeois system are exposed on a daily basis in front of this class in the most brutal ways.

Moreover, due to the dispersal of the working class on the factory floor and the basis of work place, an immediate pessimism and hopelessness has crept into the psyche of this class and it is finding itself helpless in many ways. The reason for this is that it is not able to think beyond the old forms of resistance by itself and feels that the very ground of carrying out meaningful resistance has been snatched away from under its feet. But new forms of the resistance of the working class have emerged in many workers’ struggles, especially in the Chattisgarh labour movement, the movement of unorganized workers of Delhi in 1988 and recently in the Almond Workers’ movement in Delhi, steel workers’ movement of Delhi, textile workers of Ludhiana. Apart from that, this informal working class is tremendously mobile. The informal/unorganized workers generally do many kinds of works for small durations in a single year due to the lack of job security and thus they become skilled in many trades. It is noteworthy that the presence of the traditional trade unions is relatively negligible among the informal working class. In fact, the presence of any type of political force is sparse among them. And wherever some trade unions are raising some issues of these workers, they are not very important for them and in most of the cases the traditional trade unions utilize the numerical strength of these workers for strengthening their own movements and demonstrations whose main purpose is to fight for the economic demands of mainly organized workers’ population. In such a scenario, there is, in general, a situation of political vacuum prevailing among this informal workers’ population.

On the basis of the above-mentioned some important characteristics, we can embark upon a discussion of the new strategies of organizing the informal/unorganized working class.

 

Organizing the Unorganized

The biggest challenge in organizing the informal/unorganized working population is the identification of the location of such an organization. The old locations for organizing the working class struggle used to be the factories or the work place in most of the cases. In today’s time, as we have seen above, capital has scattered the 93 percent portion of the working class in terms of the work place. We had mentioned about those statistics which reveal that about 80 percent of all manufacturing units of the country employ less than 50 labourers. Even in the remaining 20 percent manufacturing units which employ more than 50 labourers, most of the workers now work as ad-hoc, casual, daily wagers or contract workers.  Under such a circumstance, the work force profile of the factory is getting increasingly volatile. Consequently, the task of organizing the workers by making factory-based trade unions is getting extremely difficult. Even if such unions are somehow organized, their power is limited in most of the cases. With the labour laws becoming more and more flexible, their power has declined even further. In most of the factory struggles taking place in last two decades, the working class has faced defeat in more cases than earlier. In many cases (like during the Gorakhpur workers’ movement), even though the across-factory strong organization succeeded in bringing the State agencies to their knees, but the issues on which the labour movement began, remained more or less unsolved. In many cases, the factories whose issues were at the centre of the struggle either got closed down or the factory-owners closed them for some time and then restarted the production with an entirely new work force. Many a times such factory-owners shifted the factory from the old location to a new location with a new work force. But even in this escapist attitude it is the profit of the capital which prevails; the forces of labour certainly get political victory but struggle on the demands which have been raised do not move beyond a certain point.  And we are talking about the best possible situation which was witnessed in the Gorakhpurlabour movement. In most of the cases, even this has not proved to be possible and with the full-fledged help of the administration, the factory-owners adopt repressive and arbitrary attitude towards the workers and even manage to succeed to a large extent. Prabhu Mahapatra in his above-mentioned study has stated that in the last two decades there has been a tremendous decline in the number of petitions filed in the labour courts from the side of trade unions. Other statistics also corroborate this fact. Hence, it has now become an apparent reality that along with Globalization and informalization, the graph of factory-based struggles has generally gone down as compared to the earlier period. In Gurgaon, only recently the factory-workers carried out a huge movement which shook the entire administration. But even that was not a movement organized on factory-centred issues, instead, it was an area-wide upsurge of the factory workers. When we say that the graph of the factory-based struggle has gone down, it in no way means that the factory workers are now sitting idle, have become less radical, are not fighting, ‘have become deprived of their infallible weapon of stalling the production’ etc. We only mean (neither more, nor less) that in the new times of today the old forms and strategies of the factory-workers are no longer that much effective. It is a fact independent of our will and to see this one just needs to have a look at the petitions filed in the last two decades regarding the factory-disputes or the related matters. The facts themselves narrate their own story.

In such a situation should we become hopeless or pessimistic? We assert certainly not! Definitely not! Through the correct scientific method and analysis we can convert this negative into a positive. In today’s changed circumstances we would have to go towards the bastis (working class neighbourhoods) from the factory gates and again return towards the factory gates. Before discussing this issue, we would like to indicate towards an important characteristic of the dynamics of the capitalist development in the era of Globalization. We have seen as to how the capital has disorganized the labour population at the level of the factory or work place in view of its economic and political interests. It is a fact which no one can deny today. Owing to one’s emotional hangover with the factory floor struggles one can present millions of facts and scores of example in which he/she can state that at such and such locations a huge factory is being set up even in today’s time. We would just like to tell them that surely big factories are being set up and being run at many places even today. But we would like to draw their attention to two facts. Firstly, it is not a general trend today and it needs to be determined with the data of the national level. The average size of the manufacturing units has continually decreased. Secondly, even if it is not so, the size of the factory is immaterial. The determining factor which we are talking about is not the size of the factory; that is just a corroborative fact through which we support our main argument. Even if we leave it for a moment, the main issue is informalization of the labour even within the big factories which is making the possibility of workers’ struggle at work place increasingly lesser. It is a fact today that in the last two decades the capital has continually disorganized the working class at the work place. But at the same time we would like to allude towards a second phenomenon which holds a lot of possibilities for us.

The modern capitalist development and particularly the one unfolding in the era of Globalization can never disorganize the working class at its place of residence. The model of the urban development which is inalienably attached with this model of capitalist development is bringing about the geographical concentration of the workers’ neighbourhoods on a huge scale, which is unprecedented. There are numerous Marxist/non-Marxist intellectuals like Mike Davis, Amitabh Kundu etc. who while studying the capitalist urbanization have drawn our attention towards the hitherto most expansive growth of slums and huge shanty towns. The characteristic of today’s capitalist development and urbanization is that, while it is dispersing the workers at the factory level, on the basis of the neighbourhood it is concentrating them more and more. It is not at all possible for the State to scatter the working class population on the residential basis in the entire urban landscape. It would in no way be acceptable to the social props and “sovereign consumer” of capitalism that a “brown crowd” roams around the streets of its cities and makes their “beautiful living context” as ugly. Hence, a huge structure of workers’ slum settlements can be seen around every big industrial, urban and commercial centre today. These centres are surrounded by such slum settlements and the vast turbulent ocean of workers. The labour population goes to the work from these areas and returns at the same place. This entire working population is extremely multi-faceted, multi-occupational, multi-skilled, multi-ethnic, multi-caste and multi-regional in character.

These working class neighbourhoods are extraordinary source of possibilities for the working class movement. If the ways and means of organizing these workers in their neighbourhoods can be devised, it can prove to be a way of breaking out of today’s cul de sac. Clearly any such organization of the workers would forge a more extensive class unity. Therefore the need of the hour is to build such neighbourhood-based and occupational trade unions which will organize workers employed in different trades and also unemployed workers. Such neighbourhood-based or occupational unions can organize the factory-based struggles in a new form. Besides, they will be able to struggle on the issues which will enhance the process of politicization of workers in an unprecedented way and which will be able to organize the workers as a class against the onslaught of capital in a much more effective way. Neighbourhood-based and occupational unions are two sides of the same coin. Workers of some area might organize themselves in a neighbourhood-based union, while, at the same time, being members of their respective occupational trade unions. Here neighbourhood-based unions and occupational trade unions are not two different types of bodies. Whether we see the occupational trade union or the neighbourhood-based union depends on the location of our sight, and also on the particular strategy and tactics that we have in our mind at that time. Whereas, on the one hand, the neighbourhood-based union assumes importance in defending the economic interests of the working class and in organizing it as a class against the onslaught of capital, on the other, the occupational trade unions hold the immense possibility in the future to bring to halt an entire sector, which can destablize the whole capitalist system. Neighbourhood-based trade unions can accomplish the task of bringing the capitalist class to its knees on its demands in much lesser time-span by organizing an areawide strike in an industrial area. On the other hand, an occupational trade union can organize a citywide, statewide, countrywide or even worldwide strike of a sector and bring it to standstill.

Through such unions struggle on facory-based issues also can be organized effectively. Let me illustrate this fact through an example. Suppose there is an industrial area consisting of a large number of small and medium-sized factories. Generally, the workers employed in such an industrial area live in the vicinity in slums. Now, suppose a factory-owner fires 5 workers from his factory in an unjustified manner, which employs 80 to 100 workers. The factory union struggles against this act of the factory-owner. If this struggle remains limited within the boundaries of the factory, most probably,the factory union will lose; either there will be a compromise in which the owners will be gainers, or not a single fired worker will be taken back. Now, imagine there is a neighbourhood-based union of workers in that area. This issue comes in the notice of this union and it demands the restoration of the fired workers from the factory-owner. When the owner refuses to accept this demand, the union begins an united and organized struggle of the workers of the entire industrial area and halts production in the entire area. In such a case, the organized force of labour will create a crisis for capital. Other factory-owners of the area will pressurise that factory-owner, in whose factory the dispute has arisen, to negotiate a way out and compromise with the workers. In the presence of such a neighbourhood-based union, it will become very difficult for the factory-owner to arrange new workers in sufficient numbers. Besides, since the basis of membership of such neighbourhood-based union will be residing in that area and not working in some factory, the unemployed workers of the area also will be a part of membership of the union. In such a scenario, it will be very difficult for any factory-owner to resolve the crisis in time. The presence of such a powerful neighbourhood-based union will make it possible to perform the task of picketing in the whole area in a militant way, which is not possible for a factory union of small or medium-sized factory, because they will easily be overpowered by the private hired goons of the factory-owners. However, any number of goons, howsoever large, will not be sufficient to subdue the force of a huge neighbourhood-based union. Therefore, most likely, the factory-owners will be obliged to conform to the demands of the union. We have two examples of such experiments in front of us.

The first experiment is the famous Seven Days’ Strike of 1988 of the unorganized workers of Delhi. To know about this struggle you can see the commendable research paper of Indrani Majumdar that is based on the study of this struggle. (Unorganized Workers’ Strike in Delhi, 1988, Labour in the Public Arena: Representation and Marginality, V.V.Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA, 2004). In this paper, Indrani Majumdar has described in detail the whole process of organization of the strike, the new strategies of picketing and the ways in which the workers ran propaganda campaign. The workers did not go to factory for picketing, because this strike was organized on the basis of entire area and it would have been a waste to go to factory-gates for picketing. Therefore the picketing teams guarded opening points of all streets, alleys and roads of all industrial areas from where the workers passed. The workers ran this strike successfully till seven days and succeeded in bringing the government to its knees on most of the contentious issues.

Second example is of the Almond workers’ strike of Delhi in which thousands of workers ran a strike for 16 days in the Karawal Nagar area. This strike ended in a compromise and wages were not increased to the extent, and all the facilities were not provided, that the union had been demanding. However, despite a partial victory, a great experiment of neighbourhood-based union was carried out during this strike. During the strike, workers of nearly 70 almond workshops led a militant struggle against the almond workshop owners and 80 percent of the Karawal Nagar Almond industry had been brought to a halt. Due to some unavoidable factors, the strike was somewhat weakened during the last two days. The major reason for this was the rumour-spreading by the agents of the almond workshop owners. This strike was first of its kind for the almond workers and they did not have the experience of dealing with most of the possible situations and the workers as well as the Union leadership lacked expertise in organizing the myriad kinds of activities of a neighbourhood-based union efficiently; this led to some avoidable mistakes and lapses. Despite all this, this strike proved this fact beyond doubt that a neighbourhood-based union can paralyze an industry in an entire area. During this strike, prices of almond doubled in the dry fruit market of Delhi and this attracted the attention of national newspapers as well as national and international websites. The striking workers even took on the Police and all threats of repression failed to push them into retreat. Especially the women workers fought with indomitable courage and strength during the strike. You can refer to the report published in the January, 2010 issue of ‘Nai Samajwadi Kranti ka Udghoshak Bigul’ to understand the mixed experiences of the strike.

Apart from these, such experiments are under progress in many countries around the world and we are not the only one to think in this direction. To know more about experiments of neighbourhood-based unions and movements in other countries, see the article of Fatima Ulku Selćuk for Monthly Review (Dressing the Wound: Organizing Informal Sector Workers, May 2005,Monthly Review).

Indeed, the neighbourhood-based and occupational unions give us the opportunity to organize factory-based struggles in an even better way; however, at the same time, they also enable us to organize and politicize the workers on such issues and in such ways, that a factory-based union cannot provide. The unions organized on the basis of neighbourhood can struggle for a number of rights that are not necessarily linked to the factory, but they are very important for the working class and these demands are essentially and mainly, more political. For example, the question of housing; the right of easily available, accessible and cheap medical facilities; the right of the children of workers to education; the demand of various basic amenities in the working class neighbourhoods, such as, drinking water, electricity, sanitation system, creche for woman workers, etc. These are such demands of the working class that appear to be more like the civil rights of the workers in essence. Some comrades have this strange perception that these issues are ‘N.G.O. brand’ issues or ‘reformist’ issues! If we turn a tragic condition into a norm, then what we get is a condition of appalling irony. In other words, if today N.G.Os and voluntary organizations have snatched away the issues of such rights of the working class and are relieving the state of its burdens by raising these issues in a typical reformist fashion, and putting forward pretentious solutions of these problems through the reformist instruments of “co-operative” and self-help groups, then what we are faced with is a tragedy. These are the demands that should be raised by the revolutionary trade unions of the working class. There are a number of benefits of organizing struggle on these issues. In comparison to any economic demand, the working class population can be politicized in a much more extensive and intensive way through the struggle on these demands. These demands are quintessentially political in nature and put the entire capitalist system into the docks. These assert the claim of the working class on the citizen identity and through this act of assertion, help in exposing the reality of the capitalist ‘civil society’ in front of the working class. These unmask the whole capitalist state and society in the eyes of the working class. The process of revolutionary organization and struggle on such demands will dig the grave of N.G.O. reformism, that is contaminating the working class politics like poison. These demands will make the working class politically more conscious and powerful in every possible way. Lenin in his famous work ‘Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Stage of Democratic Revolution’ has clearly pointed out that the proletariat should never give up its claim on the civil identity. Lenin has written that bourgeois democracy is the space in which the proletariat can practice its politics in the most extensive and intensive manner. The working class should never give up its claim on the democratic and civil rights, howsoever less, given by the bourgeois democracy in the wait of some future ‘concrete class struggle.’ That is what the bourgeoisie wants. Legally the worker is a citizen equipped with all civil and democratic rights, but in reality he/she is a secondary citizen in every practical sense. In such a scenario, if the worker himself/herself accepts this informal reality as the formal one, then it will prove to be literally suicidal.

Secondly, the civil rights for which the working class movement will struggle will have a clearly apparent class consciousness. Needless to say, these will not be petty bourgeois civil rights issues like the demand for justice for Priyadarshini Mattoo or Jessica Lal. The civil rights issues raised by us will be related to material, biological, and cultural reproduction of the workers. This thing also is not something for which we can claim novelty. If we study the charter of demands of the Chartist Movement, we will find that the damands that have been mistaken by some comrades as merely “civil rights” form a considerable part of that charter. Indeed, most of the large and political movements of the proletariat in the 19th century Europe and America had, as its main force, the working class which is called unorganized working class today and these movements had raised these so-called “civil issues” in a quite significant way. But due to the lack of a historical view and in the confusing haze created by the N.G.O. politics, some comrades have misunderstood the very demands as being reformist N.G.O. brand civil issues. If this misunderstanding is not rectified we will pay dearly for it in the future.

Before we move ahead, it is imperative to refute one more misleading perception. There is this extremely economistic and vulgar perception that by raising these demands we will shift the location of struggle from the site of production to that of consumption. Comrades plagued with this bizarre understanding forget this fundamental teaching of Marxism that in capitalist society labour power itself becomes a commodity and the location of reproduction of this commodity is the residential areas and colonies of workers. The working class will struggle for the necessary preconditions of reproduction of its life by raising these so-called “civil rights issues” like drinking water, housing, health, education etc. This will not shift the location of struggle from the site of production to “the site of consumption.” If such vulgar economistic perceptions persist, then the working class will not be left with anything else but issues of wages and allowances.

We would like to conclude this issue by arguing that we will have to organize neighbourhood-based and occupational trade unions of the working class. This in no way prohibits the possibility of organizing factory-based trade unions. We must build factory-based trade unions, wherever possible. However, even in the cases where we succeed in organizing factory-based trade unions, we will be obliged to build neighbourhood-based and occupational trade unions. Lest, through factory-based unions only, we will not be able to organize the working class as a class against the onslaught of capital in an effective manner. Occupational and neighbourhood-based unions can organize the workers on the economic and non-economic demands of much more political character, besides, obviously, the concrete economic and factory-based demands of the working class.

Indeed, the task of devising newer forms of working class struggle and resistance in the era of Globalization and informalization is quite challenging. To meet this challenge we will have to get rid of economistic, anarchist and dogmatic views of every breed; we will have to understand the changes in the modus-operendi of capitalism and also the changes in the structure and nature of the working class; we will have to decipher the novel strategies of capital against labour; without performing these tasks, we cannot innovate novel forms and strategies of working class resistance in a creative manner. Until we do not commit ourselves to this task, we cannot move towards the direction of solution of that crisis of the working class movement, that we had mentioned in the very beginning. Today an extremely important aspect of the task of making a rupture from this stagnation that is facing the working class movement of our country as well as that of the entire world, is to evolve and innovate new forms of working class resistance in the era of Globalization. And we are not the only ones to believe this.

(Presented to comrades in Australia)

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