Founding Conference 2006: Report of the Founding Conference

Founding Conference of New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI)

New Delhi: 4-7 March 2006

Background

Several independent trade unions in the organised and unorganised sector came together under the banner of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) in the year 2001. NTUI has since been steadily developing its base, and made some significant progress towards accomplishing its goals of building a more effective trade union federation to meet the challenges of the offensive against the working class, under capitalist globalisation; and forming an organization that gives space for the co-existence of multiple progressive political tendencies. After extensive deliberation, NTUI decided to constitute itself formally into a federation and seek the status of a national trade union federation.

This was the context for the Founding Conference of the NTUI, held from 5th –6th March 2006 in New Delhi. The Conference was the occasion to debate on, and adopt the Constitution of NTUI. It was also a forum for the major left and democratic trade union federations from India and across the world to debate on issues vital to the trade union movement, and to working class politics. Towards this aim, a pre-conference international workshop titled ‘Global Offensive against Labour’ was also held on 4th March 2006 at New Delhi. The day after the Founding Conference, on 7th March, was a period for alliance building efforts.

The following is a summary chronological report of the proceedings and the significant decisions of the Founding Conference and the related events.

4th March 2006: International Conference on ‘Global Offensive on Labour’

The international conference had a number of speakers from India and abroad addressing the gathering of trade union delegates from various NTUI affiliates. Prominent trade unions from outside the country included CGT from France, UE and SEIU from USA, FAT from Mexico, Canadian Steel Workers from Mexico, and United Federation of Labour of Sri Lanka. Other international non-union workers’ organizations included ILC from France, Jobs with Justice from USA and Committee for Asian Women based at the Philippines. Indian organisations in addition to a large number of affiliate unions included CEC and Toxic Links from New Delhi, CIVIDEP and FEDINA from Bangalore among many others.

A common thread of the deliberations was de-industrialisation and deregulation of work processes as common manifestations of globalisation. This was repeatedly brought up in a number of presentations from different parts of the world. Another common aspect was the imperialistic nature of globalisation, with agencies like WTO furthering imperialist interests.

The multiple levels at which capital attempted to divide and weaken labour was brought out. This included labour in different countries, divided through outsourcing; division among labour on the basis of colour, race and caste; gender division of labour. The impact of the division of production and consumption internationally along the global supply chain was highlighted for sectors like ready-made garments and tea. It was also pointed out that international division of labour exported hazardous work included the dismantling of hazardous wastes to the third world. Some important experiences of solidarity between trade union movements across countries – in particular the close solidarity between UE of USA and FAT of Mexico – were highlighted as examples of the directions for global solidarity of labour.

The NTUI position sought to recognize the basic fault lines that divide labour in the global north with the global south. With the relocation of industries to areas of cheap labour, there is a definitive loss in jobs in the developed countries. But simultaneously it means the availability of cheaper products in the developed countries. With the decline in prices, real wages have increased in the north while they have remained stagnant or even declined in the global south. This can only be addressed by a global labour solidarity, which is however built on principles of mutual equality and respect.

5th March 2006: Opening Session of the Founding Conference

The NTUI Conference opening session was held on the morning of March 5, 2006, at Pearey Lal Bhavan at New Delhi. It was attended by around 650 delegates from some 200 unions. The largest contingents of delegates came from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka representing over 40 per cent of the delegates. The delegates represented unions from the engineering and electrical sector, petroleum, chemical, pharmaceutical and related industries, the ready-made garment industry, government employees, as also unorganised sector workers from the construction sector, fish workers, agriculture sector workers, forest workers.

Com. D. Thankappan welcomed the delegates reminding everyone of the historical moment of such a large number of hitherto unaffiliated trade unions having come together in their commitment to build a non-competing democratic trade union federation. Com. R. Kuchelar emphasized the need to build a trade union federation that was free from the direct control of a political party. Com. Anuradha Talwar addressed the emphasis of the creation of a trade union federation that from the very outset is committed to protecting and advancing the rights of workers in agriculture and the rest of the unorganised sector and women workers. Com. V. B. Cherian also shared the experience of unions controlled from outside the trade union organization.

Com. Yashwant V. Chavan delivered the founding address. The address highlighted the primary aspects of the NTUI constitution – autonomy of trade unions from political parties; building unity of workers and working class organizations; bridging unionisation in the formal and informal sector of employment. It traced the history of the trade union movement in India, from the undivided All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), to the first split when the INTUC was formed by the Indian National Congress that sought to shift the understanding of trade unionism from one of class struggle to class collaboration and then on to subsequent splits of the trade union movement on party political lines. Com. Chavan termed the creation of the NTUI as historic since it was the first time in the country’s trade union history that a national trade union centre was being created by grassroots unions and was a process not being driven by a particular political party or by actors from one political party. A copy of the founding address is enclosed.

Com. H. Mahadevan, Deputy General Secretary of the AITUC attended the Opening Session and brought a message of solidarity from the AITUC. He appreciated the idea of an initiative that has a core principle of unity of workers into a single union at plant level and a single federation at the industrial level. He expressed that there were ongoing discussions in both AITUC and WFTU to give organisational space within its structures to other trade union organisations towards actualising this principle and welcomed the positive step taken by the independent unions towards this unity.

The opening session continued on 6 March 2006. Fraternal delegates from CGT, France; UE, USA; FAT, Mexico; United Steel Workers, Canada; UFL, Sri Lanka; KESK, Turkey and Ganotrantrik Mazdoor Party (DWP), Bangladesh addressed the delegates. The CUT of Brazil and All Pakistan Trade Union Federation of Pakistan sent messages of solidarity. Delegates from non-trade union workers’ organizations International Liaison Committee, France, and Jobs with Justice, USA also addressed the session.

5th – 6th March 2006: Conference Workshops

In order to deepen the understanding of affiliate unions and the leadership of the NTUI on key issues of concern to the NTUI and to assist in drawing up its programme for the future and start the process of cementing the relationship with social organisations and build new alliances the following workshops were organised as part of the founding conference:

Workshop 1: International Conference: Global Labour Rights and Asian Labour:

Garment Campaign: Towards an Asian Coalition

NTUI and ILC of France jointly organized the workshop. It traced the efforts already made towards an Asian coalition for a floor wage in the garment sector. A working paper of NTUI on an Asian wage strategy in the garment sector was presented. It brought out the dimensions for such a coalition becoming possible. Discussions further examined the steps required towards building the coalition.

Workshop 2: Industry Conference: Engineering Industry

The workshop was well attended by representatives of unions in various segments of the engineering industry including automobiles and components, electricals, machinery manufacture and metals and steel. These sectors represent NTUI’s core strength in the private sector. Among the fraternal delegates, representatives of FAT from Mexico, United Electrical Workers from USA, United Federation of Labour from Sri Lanka and United Steelworkers from Toronto, Canada attended the conference.

The workshop aimed at presenting a broad overview of the industry in the light of the new economic regime as well as bringing forward individual firm level experiences of labour and their struggle. A macro view of the industry disaggregated to the 2-digit level according to the Annual Survey of Industries was presented. The presentation clearly illustrated that the industry typically suffers from two classical dualities – first, the more the industry got outward oriented, the greater was its growth dependent on imports and second, the growth of the industry created a small number of highly concentrated large top-end firms with an ever increasing number of fragile small firms.

The discussion of plant level experience brought out clearly that while collective agreements were still in operation in older plants in large new plants, and therefore notably in the growing MNC auto industry, union bashing is the key employer strategy. The discussions revealed the increasing pressure through intensification of work alongside the declining share of workers share of value added in production. Furthermore, outsourcing, contractualisation of work and the introduction of new management practices were altering the terms of collective bargaining, which therefore needed a fresh look.

The workshop drew up a bi-monthly timetable for coordination amongst unions that would be coordinated by the NTUI national office.

The workshop went into extra time and concluded at lunchtime on 6 March.

Workshop 3: Social Alliance for Organising Labour: Affirmative Action in Industry

Co-organised with the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights

The workshop addressed the need for the trade union movement to go beyond traditionally understood issues of workers in the workplace and to address fundamental concerns of social justice. It discussed how problems of labour could not be addressed in a holistic manner without addressing these issues.

The deliberations highlighted how low-paid jobs, like cleaning and sweeping, canteen work, gardening, loading-unloading and security, which are performed largely by Dalits, have been brought under the contract system, posing an immediate threat to the social security of these sections. This exclusion has occurred not directly on the basis of caste, but nevertheless amounts to marginalisation along caste lines.

The inadequacy of trade union response was brought up repeatedly. This was linked to the low participation of dalits in the organized sector of employment. The dalit system in India was also compared with racism internationally, to bring out the commonalities of the manner in which sections of the working class were sought to be excluded from the mainstream, with an adverse effect on the whole working class. The discussions highlighted the need for various movements of the working class, including the trade unions, dalit organizations and women’s movement to come together to fight against the state and capital.

This workshop was well attended by NTUI delegates as well as activists and leaders of the NCDHR opening up the possibility of a long-term collaboration between NTUI and NCDHR.

Workshop 4: Organising the Unorganised

Co-organised with the National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)

  1. Right to Livelihood and Common Property Rights
  2. EGA

The workshop highlighted the attack on common property rights in the context of globalisation. It examined the experience of different sections of the working class, in particular the forest people and fish workers, under globalisation, and the consequent deregulation by government on exploitation by capital of common property resources. The importance of bringing the struggles within a framework of collective bargaining was forcefully brought out. The workshop also brought up the issue of sex workers that have been hitherto ignored by trade unions. The importance of a trade union form for the struggles to become sustainable over a long term was also highlighted.

The workshop also took note of key steps to be taken by trade unions in the implementation and monitoring of the National Rural Employment Programme. Furthermore, the broader issue of the EGA needs to be looked at from the point of advancing the struggle for workers rights in rural areas.

Workshop 5: International Conference – Global Labour Rights and Asian Labour:

Global Experiences and Innovation in Organising

The workshop discussed organization experiences from various countries. Specific presentations were made from France, USA, Mexico and Bangladesh.

Two specific forms of exploitation of labour in the context of a global structuring of production were discussed – of workers from the global South as ‘guest’ workers in the North; and of outsourcing work from the North to the South. The need for global trade union solidarity in the context was highlighted. Two important principles for building global solidarity were spelt out – one, the requirement and form of solidarity should be principally driven to enable and sustain the solidarity of union movement at the grassroot level; and two, no solidarity should undermine the concept and the national process of organisation of workers and collective bargaining and their democratic capability to reorganise.

Workshop 6: Threats to Democracy: A Perspective from Labour

The workshop attempted to bring together different forms of attack on democracy and peoples’ rights in different contexts. They included experiences from Delhi, Kashmir, Orissa, Manipur, and Gujarat. All the presentations linked state policy and state repression as anti-people, and pro-capital. They also brought out the intensification of repression under globalisation.

The importance of the struggles for democracy for the trade union movement was highlighted.

First, the capacity of any society to allow and accommodate organisation of dissent is fundamental for a vibrant trade union movement. If the trade union movement did not support, sustain and expand this democratisation, their own right to organise and collective bargaining would be threatened. This is already evident in the attack on trade unions’ right to strike, within the country, and across the globe. The erosion of trade union rights is almost always preceded by, or at least linked to, emergence and domination of political trend that reverses this democratisation process by destroying the democratic capacity of the society.

Second, any threat to democracy and disruption of social life first affects workers and their livelihood. This also in the long run adversely affects their ability to stand up to capital and the state, and to bargain for more just terms of engagement with capital.

Third, threats to democracy are also threats to solidarity of the working class, for it opens up and deepens the inequality within the working class. It allows capital to weaken the strength of the working class movement. It helps the state to contain and destroy political dissent. The unions’ struggle for democratisation is essentially a struggle to win for newer sections of working class equal political and social rights within a national framework.

Workshop 7: Organising the Unorganised; Unorganised Sector Labour Bill and Social Security

Co-organised with National Centre for Labour (NCL)

The workshop discussed the Unorganised Sector Labour Bill that was before the Parliament for the past decade and a half. It discussed both the need for a coherent trade union position on the Bill, and a common strategy to fight for the Bill to become legislation.

The background of the long struggle waged by unions in the unorganised sector for regulation of work and social security was discussed. It was acknowledged that in regions where trade union movement was strong and militant, and focussed on this struggle, some gains had been possible. The case of the struggle of construction workers organised under TMKTS in Tamil Nadu leading to a comprehensive welfare bill in the state, not only for construction workers, but also for other sections of unorganised workers was highlighted. In the context the importance of renewing the struggle, and taking it beyond campaign and advocacy was underscored.

It was decided that unions present at the meeting should take the lead to meet all possible constituents in the unorganised sector, and prepare a comprehensive programme for carrying the struggle forward. A preparatory phase of three months was agreed for the purpose.

Workshop 8: Social Alliance for Organising Labour: Gender Inequality and Labour

Co-organised with the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO)

The workshop discussed issues regarding the aspirations of the female workforce in the country and its expectations from the trade union movement. Representatives from many women’s trade unions in the unorganised sector attended the workshop apart from many well-known woman trade union leaders from all over the country.

Some common issues affecting women workers across the world were discussed. A majority of women workers are not represented by unions. When it comes to the women work force, issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and violence at the workplace need to be addressed by trade unions. Apart from the bias of gender, race and caste bias work against women workers as well. The condition of black and coloured women is worse in the USA, as is the condition among women workers from dalits in India.

The importance of the trade union movement deliberating these issues within their own structures was also highlighted. This included a code of conduct within the union movement – “Can we allow sexual harassment or domestic violence to go on between members of the union?” This also included issues of leadership of the trade union movement. It was discussed that if the need arises, women can organize themselves separately first, and then join the larger structures of the movement. All women unions also work well, as the leadership of such unions remains with women, and these women also move into general leadership at a later stage.

During the workshop, attention was called to the fact that despite NTUI’s stance on creating enabling spaces for women within the trade union movement, very few men had bothered to attend this workshop.

6th March 2006: Closing Session of the Founding Conference

The Constitution of NTUI was presented to the delegates. The Constitution provides a flexible mechanism to promote democratic decision-making in a context in which a variety of political tendencies 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.

Com. Gautam Mody moved the resolution founding the NTUI along with the adoption of the constitution as agreed upon by the Preparatory Committee of the NTUI.

Com. M. A. Patil reminded the assembly of the key founding principal of the NTUI of uniting the trade union movement while moving the resolution on trade union unity empowering the NTUI leadership to take forward the dialogue for trade union unity with the other democratic and progressive trade union forces.

Com. V. Chandra moved the resolution committing NTUI to taking the trade union struggle forward in resisting and posing a challenge to the forces of imperialist globalisation.

Com. D. Thankappan had, along with committee of other senior leaders of NTUI, been assigned the task of holding wide discussions with constituents on the office bearers of the NTUI. Com. Thankappan explained the method followed by the committee in consulting all founding constituents based on which a consensus on the founding members of the Executive Council had been arrived at and then introduced the members of the council to the delegates.

The General Secretary of NTUI, Com. Ashim Roy then addressed the delegates. He stressed the need for shaping the tremendous support, enthusiasm and zeal into a well-defined strategy and action plan to take NTUI forward. A Strategic Plan for NTUI shall be prepared through wide discussion and debate among its affiliate unions. Such a Strategic Plan shall be evolved and built on the core organising principles which have emerged both in the preparation for the Founding Conference and at the various sessions of the Conference. These are:

  1. Democracy: NTUI believes that democracy has to be a core principle that defines all its strategic perspectives. All relations of power, between collectives of people; between collectives of people and the state; and between individuals and society should be mediated on democratic principles. Deepening of labour rights is only possible within this framework.
  2. Organising the unorganised: The perspective of NTUI is to acquire strength as a national organisation, not by breaking affiliates of other organisations but by organising the unorganised sections of the working people. For this the key element of NTUI’s organising strategy should include the following:
    • The struggle for the recognition of woman’s work both paid and unpaid and the increasing participation of women workers in wage employment, requires integrating their concerns, capacities and self-organising initiatives into all levels of NTUI. The absence of this integration is a fundamental weakness of all trade union organisations in the country. NTUI recognises this weakness within its own organisation, and its strength will be determined and measured by its ability to integrate this.
    • The interests and organising capacity of dalits, adivasis and other socially weaker and marginalized sections of the society have to be integrated into NTUI’s organising framework. This framework should take the form of social alliance for labour. An alliance of organisations of socially discriminated and excluded people with NTUI for organising them and equalising their right and claim in the world of work.
    • Contract labour is the broad category of employment that comes closest to the existing employment in the formal sector and yet remains unorganised. Organising contract labour is essential to ensure that the existing rights of workers gained through trade union struggles in the past are not diluted. NTUI will give focus to this organising thrust by developing a national campaign against the contract labour system.
  3. Building Solidarity: NTUI believes in solidarity as a foundation for trade union unity. It will develop concrete plan, and take effective, open steps to develop solidarity beyond our constituency in major states, regions, and industry where our strength is significant.
    • NTUI believes that in the current context of globalisation it is necessary to go beyond national boundaries, and seek to deepen international solidarity and alliance of labour movements. However, NTUI is committed to an international alliance from the perspective of labour in the global South that secures expanding universal labour rights and right to development of the people in less developed nations and regions of the world. NTUI believes that such alliance should be built between unions in the North and the South on principles of equality and mutual respect.

In conclusion, he expressed that the new leadership will evolve a method, style and culture of work that enables and promotes initiatives and autonomy at all levels of organisation to respond to the needs of the Indian working class movement. This leadership shall work hard to measure up to the confidence of all its members and responsibilities of NTUI’s historic task.

NTUI President Com. Y. V. Chavan brought the delegate assembly of the founding conference to a close with the message that it was the responsibility of every activist of every NTUI affiliate to ensure that every worker, in our country, in every town and every village, must know that the NTUI fist is a militant fist. This militant fist will defend the rights of and advance the struggle of every worker throughout the country.

Pratidhwani then performed for the delegates to celebrate the founding of the NTUI.

7th March 2006:

Meeting of the first Executive Council of the NTUI.

Alliance Building Meetings:

  1. International Solidarity
  2. Contract Workers
  3. Garment Workers