People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 09

March 03, 2013




New Crescendo of Indian Working Class Struggle


A K Padmanabhan


THE 48 hours countrywide general strike on February 20 and 21 has been historic and also unprecedented on many counts. With the participation of about 12 crore workers, it has surpassed the expectations of even the central trade unions and national federations which had called for the action to protest against the unjust and anti-people policies of the ruling classes. Trade unions have from day one been resisting these policies which are being implemented from 1991, but the practical experience of their disastrous impact on the livelihoods of the working people in our country made all the central trade unions and national federations to come on a joint platform on the basis of an agreed charter of demands. As is now well known, this charter included issues related not only to workers but to all the toiling people in the country. Some of the policy issues raised are related to the overall economic policies implemented in the country. This led more and more regional or state level trade unions and also thousands of independent plant, office or sectoral level unions to join hands.




The campaign undertaken all over the country was unprecedented. The conventions, meetings and rallies joined by top level leaders of the unions, the handbills, booklets, posters and wall writings etc made a huge impact. The unity at the leadership level percolated down to the workplace level to a considerable extent and the united campaigns created a powerful impact upon workers. This resulted in a large number of non-unionised workers also joining the strike. Added to these were the new additions of unions on the second day, which was the result of the sweep of strike on the first day.


The strike encompassed almost all sectors – organized, unorganized, public sector and private sector. The only exception as a sector was the railways. Even, the functioning of Airports in many states had been affected with a section of the huge number of contract workers joining their brethren working elsewhere.


Employees in the banks, insurance and other financial sector institutions, oil and petroleum units, road transport (both public and private), in postal, telecom, defence production and other sectors, in ports and docks, coal mines, steel plants, electricity boards and in central power utilities like NTPC and also atomic power stations joined in this huge action of the working people.


Private and public sector manufacturing units including units of the multinationals (MNCs) even in the special economic zones, saw the regular as well as contract workers joining the strike. Among the MNCs and private manufacturing units, many witnessed participation in a general strike or even a strike for the first time. Notable was the entire industrial belt of Gurgaon joining the strike on second day. Workers from 70 industrial units, producing mainly automobiles and components, like Maruti, Hero, Honda and Ricco, joined the action. More than a lakh was the participation in this belt. Some employers, sensing the mood of workers, declared a holiday on February 21 to pre-empt a strike being recorded. Central and state government employees, university, college and school teachers participated in large numbers, despite the threat of serious repercussions in some states.


Unorganised sector workers in all the states participated en masse in the struggle. So also was the participation of militant women workers under various schemes of the government, like the Anganwadi, ASHA, mid-day meal workers and others. The participation of schemes workers and also other rural based workers helped to take the struggle down to remote villages.


The campaigns and the resultant support among the people and traders resulted in bandhs in various states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala.


Millions of workers, peasants, agricultural workers and others participated in demonstrations, rallies, rasta rokos and rail rokos in various centres across the country.


As the call of the strike reached down to various urban and rural centres in all the states, these rallies and demonstrations had had a wider impact upon the common masses.




As the country approached the dates of the strike, the government too could not but feel its impact. Though this was the 15th countrywide general strike since 1991, there was never an intervention at the ministerial level. Union labour minister, Mallikarjun Kharge, invited all the central trade unions for a discussion on February 13, just one week before the strike. But he only told the leaders that some initiatives on labour law amendments, minimum pension in EPF etc were pending with other ministries and the PMO and that he would discuss the proceedings of the meeting with the prime minister later that evening. Naturally, the meeting concluded with the trade unions declaring that “What we want is a settlement and the government should come forward to deliver.”


On the 17th night, the prime minister issued a press statement calling upon the trade unions to drop the action and announced a four member group of senior cabinet members under defence minister, A K Antony, to hold discussions. The fact that the prime minister communicated with the central trade unions only through a press statement is notable; one wonders if this would have been his attitude in case of corporate houses or MNCs. The meeting at 8 p m on February 18, just 28 hours before the strike was to begin, also failed as the government had nothing more to say than what it said on the 13th. The defence minister agreed that the meeting was a delayed one but wanted the trade unions to have faith in the government to solve the issues and asked them to drop the strike action.


These discussions helped again to point out how callous the government was on the issues facing the workers, and had not been serious about many decisions of the Indian Labour Conferences in the last few years.


There were also threats of severe action being if workers joined the strike. The State Bank of India and Reserve Bank of India are on record having issued individual letters threatening serious actions. Many others passed on oral directions. The West Bengal chief minister threatened of dire consequences. However, even in such circumstances, the working class of India went into this historic action, taking up the cause of all the workers and other toiling masses. Various organisations of peasants, agricultural workers and small traders, too, extended solidarity and staged actions; some of them concurrently raised their own demands also.


This largest and longest ever united action of working class in India also witnessed severe physical attacks on workers and employees on the days of strike. The killing of Comrade Narendra Singh, a state transport leader of AITUC in Ambala (Haryana), through a bus being run over him, is highly condemnable. In Ms Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal, Trinamul goons chopped off the ear of a state government employee inside his office, for participating in strike. There were lathicharges, large scale arrests and foisted cases in many states.




All this, however, does not mean that everything went on as it should have been. There were weaknesses and failures also. Some of the unions, which should have participated in this historic action, failed and many of these were not failures of workers but of the leaders. In some cases, leaders betrayed the movement at the last moment. One such case was the leadership of the Mumbai transport workers who, in the name of a cabinet sub-committee being formed (!?), withdrew the strike on the 19th night.


The sweep of this historic struggle was noted by the international working class movement. International trade union organisations like the WFTU, ITUC and central trade unions in countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus and South Africa sent messages of solidarity. A notable happening on the first day of the strike in India was the massive united general strike in Greece against the so called austerity measures.


George Mavrikos, general secretary of the WFTU, in a message to the CITU said: “The successful two-day strike has been an important lesson for the international working class and a loud message to the Indian government.”


While addressing the media in the evening hours on the second day, central trade union leaders referred to this “loud message” to the government of India. In one voice, they expressed the hope that the government will take note of the message given by the Indian working class and take necessary actions to settle their demands. The leaders also cautioned the government that this two-day strike was only the conclusion of the present phase of agitation and that the unions would be working out the future course of action if their demands were not met.


Notwithstanding the offensive coming from the authorities, ruling classes, employers’ organisations and a big section of media, against the struggle of our working people, a message has well gone far and wide.


United on the basis of a charter of immediate demands, the working people have successfully cautioned the government that the present set of policies, based on neo-liberal diktats, cannot be allowed to continue. It is a united voice for change in policies. Our endeavour will be to further strengthen this unity, build up a massive popular movement and safeguard the interests of the huge majority of Indians. This is the goalpost towards which the working class will march in the coming days.