First General Council 2007: General Secretary’s Address

General Secretary Ashim Roy’s Address at the First General Council held in Chennai on 29-30 July 2007

In the first year of NTUI, the focus was on giving an identity to the organisation, integrating the affiliated unions in a common understanding, deepen the core idea of NTUI, developing the organisational process for a functional national organisation and advance a democratic and progressive union culture.

At the centre of this organisational consolidation was the functioning of the central office, the Committee of Principal Office Bearers (CPOB) and Executive Council. In this period of 15 months the CPOB met ten times and the EC four times. A system of agenda setting, preparing agenda papers, a structured mode of discussion and decision making and documentation has been brought into existence and is working well. Both, the attendance and deliberations of the CPOB reflect the determination of the national leadership of the NTUI to build it into a nation-wide organisation.

The first leg of this organisational building is culminating in this first General Council. The extent of participation of all unions and state organisations is a sign of the great commitment all of us have to rebuilding the trade union movement in India.

In a way, this is the first experimentation of building a federation from below without the authority of party, state or even one ideology. So this organisational process can only be built through discussion and debate and though allowing enough space for dissent. The effort is to build a consensus on all major issues even if it takes time and involves a layered debate. In fact, in the last one year the effectiveness of this process is reflected in the almost unanimous decision on all major issues, though the leadership has come from various political traditions.

There has been a campaign against NTUI from a certain Left quarter that the NTUI is devoid of politics. I want to take this occasion to stress that our position is not that of neutrality to politics, but to allow for diversity of political viewpoints. Our attempt has been to build a democratic structure, system, process and a culture of enabling a political engagement and understanding rooted in our affiliate unions’ own experience.

We joined the Central Trade Unions in the 14th December General Strike. The NTUI was invited as a national organisation to the National Assembly of Workers and allocated 5 minutes. It made an effort in this Assembly which gave a call for this general strike, to incorporate two major themes in the call for the general strike. Both were reflective of our understanding that the trade union movement has to move beyond the organized public sector interest and should focus and give priority to issues that has widest focus on working class interest. We suggested that effective implementation of eight-hour day and no relaxation of this legal position be made a central slogan. In our understanding an overwhelming majority of the working class are still forced to work on an average 10-12 hours per day. This is still a primary form of exploitation of working people.

Second, in relation to the organized sector the biggest threat is the contractualisation of the workers. The stated reasoning of government and industry is that contractualisation is need only for work. But the real intention is to deprive workers of trade union rights and effectively reduce the organized sector wages and depress it in line with the market determined minimum wage. A general slogan for abolition of contract labour though is politically correct, does not expose the real intentions and fails to confront it with the concrete demand of equalisation of wages between contract workers and regular workers. So we suggested equal wage for equal work for a more effective demand. Unfortunately, these two amendments were turned down but we have incorporated this in our independent campaign and even succeeded in many states and areas to incorporate them in the calls of Joint Action Committees in local areas. It was an occasion for testing our tactics of forcing radical new positions from the grassroots.

Moreover, our evaluation of the 14th December General Strike showed that both passivity and tokenism were not broken in a big way. As a result the militant characteristic of the General Strike was lost on the state. In our understanding every general strike should bring in a new layer of working class into the strike momentum. We made an effort to mobilise contract workers, in various areas and industries, into the strike action for the first time. Similarly, we brought garment workers in the new industrial areas and the construction workers into the fold of the General Strike.

The NTUI also has put in place key organising and campaign strategies on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), displacement issues, universal social security, forest bill and contract labour. I want to highlight the focus on rural labour. The NTUI has always viewed the struggle and campaign for NREGA as an intervention in the rural labour relations. With this perspective, the NTUI is the first, possibly only, organisation that has effectively integrated the NREGA into an organisational and collective bargaining strategy for drawing in the rural working people into a union organisation. As stated in the report the NTUI has selected 10 major districts all over the country for organising. Our strategy is a three step process, the first is to organize the rural workers to demand work and ensure effective payment of wages, and in that process create an organisational capability, that has a power to call a strike in a village to bargain for wages and working conditions and shift power relations. Second step is to build on this organisational capability to define the needs of the working poor in villages and develop projects for fulfilling these needs and building assets in the rural area. The third step is to build on the union organisation and develop political consciousness to build rural workers co-operatives for redefining the co-operative movement.

NTUI is opposed to imperialist globalisation. We have been fighting the impact of it on working class. But real opposition and resistance can emerge only through a united struggle with the peasantry. In the present context the impact on the peasantry and the rural people is the massive land acquisition using the powers of eminent domain of the State constructed in the colonial era which did not have either a well defined criteria and a democratic process for defining public purpose, or a comprehensive scheme for adequate compensation or rehabilitation of the affected people from such an acquisition. It has become the main instrument of offensive under the present regime. It is primarily a forcible encroachment on peasant land and deprivation of rural livelihood dependant on that land. The massive resistance that has erupted throughout the country has emerged at the forefront in the struggle against imperialist globalisation. NTUI has been involved and active in the major sites of this confrontation. Our comrades of West Bengal have made us proud by their active involvement in the struggle that has emerged in Singur and Nandigram. NTUI has mobilised nationally in support of their struggles. It has also intervened in the political debate arising out of this resistance by putting forward a concept of democratic industrialisation and is engaged in a debate and discussion to concretise this as a meaningful construct for people to shape their struggle, and the policies of the State.

The NTUI has already begun the process of building the state level organisation. For us, a federation is strong if it is strong at the state level and we look towards the state organisations as the primary forum for building up solidarity and unity of the working class. NTUI believes that the state organisations have the main responsibility for supporting and integrating the organising efforts of the unorganised workers with organised sector workers unions, building up solidarity strategies, addressing the intra-union and inter-union disputes, and taking concrete initiatives of unity building. In this direction, one of the important decisions that this General Council will take is to frame the State bye-laws that reflect these intentions into structures and processes for state unit functioning. We look to the national bodies and central office of the organisation as an enabling and supporting centre for the state organisations.

29 July 2007