This statement of intent was endorsed by sixteen trade unions, from across the country at a meeting in New Delhi on 14 December 2001, while coming together as a national platform of non-partisan left democratic trade unions. It formed the basis for defining the principles, perspectives, policies and strategies for organising and uniting the working class at the time of founding the New Trade Union Initiative as a national trade union federation on 6 March 2006.
For A New Initiative
Globalisation and Labour
The present phase of globalisation has put tremendous pressure on the working class.
The global capital institutions, World Bank-IMF–WTO, are putting together a system that provides international capital access to the world market and the mobility to invest. It induces international competition, which enables the centralisation and concentration of capital. All this is being forged through political pressure from the imperialist states, at times backed by the military strength of the United States of America.
This emergent new global economic environment has been both conducive to and constitutive of the capability of MNCs for expansion and consolidation. It has linked the production systems of national economies, and thus segmented the labour market into a multi-tired production chain with progressively lower wages. In the process, the MNCs retain control over the global commodity chain, in particular, over the finished commodities for consumption in developed economies.
This pressure from the restructured production process and international competition affects different sections of the global working class to different degrees. At times, even the forms of the offensive are different. As a result, the class struggle has intensified due to this international competition. Both the recessionary trend surfacing in the world economy and the declining rate of profit suggest a longer phase of intensified class struggle.
In the globalised economy, the managers of capital translate this increased competition into management strategies for lowering wage cost per unit: first, through slimming measures like privatisation, closures, lay-offs, retrenchments, voluntary retirement schemes and sub-contracting; and second, through labour-intensifying incentive schemes, performance-linked wage systems and compulsory overtime. In all these management strategies, the key element is flexibility in the labour relationship.
Union Rights under Threat
At first, companies pursue these strategies by undermining the bargaining power of unions. Both the labour administration and the judiciary enable this process, chiefly by pursuing a policy of non-intervention in capital-capital disputes. And secondly, through the reinterpretation of law in a manner that is derogatory and restrictive in its reading of the powers and rights of workers and unions as provided by law. Unions respond in various ways, and invariably, as the pressure of capital reaches a threshold where even a restrictive reading of legal provisions provides protection against such company measures, the unions use this legal power to resist such measures.
From the vantage point of capital, the protection of the law and unions appear as rigidities affecting the operation of the labour market. And so, a pro-market ideology is unleashed to build a case for change in the political management of the capital-capital relationship. The labour law changes are initiated to minimise:
- the legal protection of employment and the conditions of work, and
- the legal rights and powers of unions to collectively bargain for wages, conditions of employment and work.
This generalised offensive of changing the legal relationship between capital and labour breach the common and widely prevalent trade union consciousness of organised labour. A general mood of opposition and awareness of the need for unity becomes prevalent among the workers. As experience deepens, slowly the will to resist begins to incubate and develop.
Trade unions are stable mass organisations of workers. Emerging as centres of resistance, the unions are built on values, ideals and the vision of a society in which the central role of labour in society is recognised. The discourse and the debate within the trade union movement revolve around the issues of workers’ rights, of eliminating exploitation, of providing justice to all, and ultimately of the reorganisation of the society solely on the basis of labour. The principal asset of the union is the capacity to mobilise its members for what it believes and to transform dominant structures, relationships and ideas.
This perspective attempts to focus on the resurgence of the trade union movement from the ongoing defensive struggle of the workers. For this, two aspects need to be addressed. First, there has to be an assessment of the weakness in the existing trade union movement, and second, a plan for an initiative to overcome the identified weakness. Both the assessment and the action plan need to evolve from the base of the trade union movement: the work-place-level organisation of unions, through a participatory process that is acceptable to all.
Focus to confront capital
The emergent struggle of the workers reveals that though the opposition to globalisation is international in scope, the resistance is taking place mainly at the workplace and at national levels. In a way, that is the normal response of workers. Plant-level union organisations confront the effect of globalisation at the workplace. And the changes in the political management of the labour-capital relationship in terms of changes in labour laws and their modes of administration are taking place at the national level.
Workers and unions have to evolve a response to capital’s offensive that has a built-in ability to be flexible at various operational levels: the international, national and workplace, according to the correlation of existing forces at each level. But this differentiated response has to be evolved from a position of strategic concern and focus to confront capital. It needs a period of adjustment to provide time to unite workers, and for this purpose to reorganise unions, in order to change the balance of force at each site of struggle against capital in defence of labour.
Reorganize for industrial-level bargaining
The learning of the defensive struggles of the last few years has been that the line of defence cannot be held within the framework of existing bargaining structures, but by militantly mobilising to change, reshape and restructure the bargaining framework itself in a manner that increases the bargaining strength of workers.
A majority of unions have been involved with firm-level bargaining and conducting defensive struggles within that bargaining framework. But in a competitive environment, global economic pressure emerges as ‘cost pressures’ to a firm and labour-market institutions propel the firm-level management to continuously search for short-term labour flexibility options to reduce cost.
Cost pressures can be contained and gradually reduced only at the industrial level. Unions have to frame a broad employment policy, specific to each industry and agree on a collective bargaining strategy to enforce that.
Promote Secularism, Social Justice and Human Rights
Civil and political rights are essential for sustaining labour rights. So democracy has to be defended at all costs. Moreover, the democratisation of society will increase the power of workers to shape the world they live in. It will ensure social and economic rights. So, defending democracy and supporting all initiatives to democratise society should be a major political objective of trade unions. But this task can be accomplished only through the political process. And the pre-condition for asserting within the political process is the social cohesion of trade unions. For this, the values of secularism, social justice and human dignity need to be accepted by unions and deepened within the labour movement.
Democratic opposition under capitalism
In a capitalist society, unions are always in opposition, fighting the government from outside. This ability, initiative and will to mobilise members is the essential character and strength of trade unions. Historical experiences have taught us that this freedom and will is susceptible to being undermined in single-party-dominated union organisations, even if such parties have left orientations. The electoral and governmental strategy of a political party does influence the union’s decisions, but should not undermine the union’s freedom and will to act independently as an opposition force. This new organising initiative is for repositioning the trade union movement in a proper political perspective that allows us to reclaim this freedom, will and the opposition space within a capitalist society.
Unite all sections of the working class
Today, unions are viewed as spokespersons of narrow concern. In a way, this is inevitable, with the narrow membership base of unions and unions being mandated by their members. But this perception needs to be reversed. Unions have to represent broader sections of society. By expanding the union base, the diversity of the work force gets reflected in the organisation and shape of the trade union movement.
The new organisational initiative will have to have a strategic orientation to use the strength, resources and capacity of the organised sector of the working class to organise those who find it difficult to self-organise, like contract workers, casual workers, house-hold workers, migrant workers, the self-employed and the rural and urban poor in a spirit of fraternity and equality. The trade union movement has to embrace the diversity of the working class in order to overcome its major weakness: fragmentation. It has to commit to struggle against all ideology, prejudice and practices that inhibit the social cohesion of the working class and to resist the fragmentation of the working class. New unionism should be based on the values of equality, respect and dignity to everyone, encompassing the diversity of working people. Our call is for expanding the base of the trade union movement, to go all out in organising the unorganised and to organise them militantly.
The wider recognition of women’s work, both paid and unpaid, and the increasing participation of these workers in the labour process require that the trade unions’ agenda, policies, strategies and struggle be shaped by a gender perspective. In our society, the gender inequality is so pervasive that every labour issue has a dimension of such inequality. As a result, women are pushed into a sphere of work, which has structural differences in term of wages and vulnerability in comparison to men. But adequate attention to this concern is lacking. And we need to address this with urgency and focus, not only for reasons of fairness and equity, but also for the purpose of expanding and deepening the trade union movement in the society. The new initiative will increase the participation of women in unions, ensure/ work towards greater representation for women in decision-making structures and allow unions to become instruments for shaping the lives of men and women at work, in the family and in society.
Broader concern for society
Unions pursue a common interest and share values with other social movements that arise in the struggle against oppression, deprivation and exploitation. Such objective basis for building strategic alliances with other movements of women, dalits, tribal and migrants as well as movements for a sustainable environment and human rights exist. These movements have organisational capacities and structures to complement and enhance the bargaining strength of workers and the ability to transform society in the direction that benefits workers in general.
The building of such social alliances implies moving into a new terrain, debating and clarifying issues with these new constituencies and building new structures and strategies to forge this alliance into a fighting force.
At the international level, the real job, and the most difficult one, is to build cross-border industrial and global company union alliances. In this phase of globalisation, effective internationalism rests on the ability of the working class to build alliances in order to intervene all along the supply network and the commodity chain of MNCs. The solidarity and the organising work should actually influence management decisions, defend victimised workers, ensure trade union rights and evolve feasible common demands for bargaining.
Democracy for uniting the working class
Another weakness of the trade union movement has been the lack of democracy in its functioning. The low commitment of leadership to a participatory process is translated into their low confidence in the strength of the union membership to resist and struggle.
Democracy has to become a major instrument for building the new federation, for building solidarity, for determining political and bargaining objectives and for deciding policies and strategies. The federation should instil an institutional mechanism that allows for multiple tendencies, including political ones, to openly express their views, debate and decide the direction of the federation in a democratic manner. In the policy-making bodies, adequate representation should be allowed to reflect the diversity of opinions and views. Moreover, the federation’s key strength should be a plant-level union organisation based on industrial coordination. All other organisational structures should be able to support this organisational focus. Federations are made by the unions and are created to serve and support the unions. To actualise this principle in the new federation, the workplace-level union organisation should have residuary powers in the federation and only such powers will be delegated to the higher industrial, regional and national structures as are agreed upon by unions through a democratic and transparent process.
Federation is for the unions
Federations are created and built by unions to address their needs and demands. They are higher organisational forms to enable unions to acquire the capability to shape and decide social goals. Such social goals can be both political and bargaining demands. And so, the federation should emerge from the real needs and concerns of the unions. In order to address these needs, unions delegate powers and resources to the federation to build capability and competency that all affiliated unions can share and use.
Historically, the union movement in India grew out of the national movement and so remained a creation of the political movement. If this had a positive side – that unions had a political perspective and support – it also acquired the negative aspect that political differentiation always led to union splits. The underlying assumption that all political differentiation necessarily requires union differentiation is neither theoretically nor historically valid. The union movement needs the learning space to acquire the capability to assess and decide which differences of values, visions, social goals and strategies may require trade union differentiation, and if so, when. Neither did the union movement aggressively claim this space nor did political parties unilaterally concede it.
Unity is the perspective
The general mood of the workers is for unity. The strength of any new organising effort has to build on this felt need of workers and lead to a larger organisational entity than that existed before. The proposal for a new federation of unions has to be based on organising principles that make it consistent with this viewpoint.
First, at the workplace, the principle of a single union will be strictly followed. A union under this initiative, if it is a majority union, will allow other unions at the workplace to merge with it or allow their members to join it, and in the first instance give the new union members proportionate representation in the decision- making committee at the work place. Thereafter, the union constitution, if required, will be amended to consolidate this unity and new officials of the union will be elected as per this constitution through a secret ballot election. In case the union is a minority one at the work place, it may merge itself with the majority union provided it accepts the principles of proportionate representation in the work-place decision-making body and secret-ballot elections.
Second, at the industrial level, the major focus of the initiative will be to build single industrial federations to facilitate industry-wide collective bargaining strategies. Following this focus, efforts will be directed to bring the majority of unions in a particular industry, irrespective of their affiliations or ideological orientations, into a participatory process to build such an industrial federation. In case either one or many such industrial federations under different Central Trade Unions exist, the policy will be to join the largest and most democratic industrial federation and make it an instrument for such consolidation.
Third, more than one-third of the unions are not affiliated to any central trade unions and so are unable to shape the national trade union movement. This initiative’s main concern is to build a national federation of all independent unions through a participatory process of the unions themselves. It does not strive to become either the largest or the dominant central trade union, but to acquire critical strength to be able to democratically engage with seriousness with other central unions on issues and agendas that the present situation demands.
Fourth, various efforts made among Central Trade Unions for unity and merger have resulted in failure. This reflects their inability to overcome their historical legacy and associated political sectarianism. This is also partly due to their underestimation of the historic need for the consolidation of the trade union movement and the deep urge for unity among the working class. Each Central Trade Union is strategising on the assumption that the other is disintegrating. In reality, no tradition vanishes automatically. So the real option is the merger of federations. This initiative will create the critical strength to trigger the process of unity. First, by putting the agenda of a merger, from the inception itself, in each Central Trade Union’s bipartite relationship with other central unions. Second, by proposing a confederation of all centre–left trade union federations and striving to build such a confederation with any federation that accepts such a proposal.
- Sarva Shramik Sangh
- All India Blue Star Employees Federation
- All India Council of Unilever Unions
- Kamani Employees’ Union
- Koyla Udyog Kamgar Sangathan
- Van Kamgar Sangathana
- Karnataka State Industrial and General Workers Union
- Tamil Manila Kattida Thozhilalar Sangam
- Penn Thozhilalar Sangam
- Bharatiya Shramik Sabha
- National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers
- Maruti Udyog Employees Union
- Chemical Mazdoor Panchayat
- L&T Kamgar Union
14 December 2001