-Rameshwar Dutta/ 24.4.2016
Recently, Bengaluru had witnessed a sudden upsurge of more than one lakh garment workers. The outburst appeared as a bolt out of the blue. Magnitude and intensity of the protests was unprecedented, at least in over a decade.
The garment workers, vast majority of which were women, had been protesting recent amendments in the Rules under Employees’ Provident Fund Act. The amendment stealthily introduced by the central government, vide notification of February 10, virtually blocked the withdrawal of employers’ contribution to the employees’ provident fund, that comes around 3.67% of the basic salary of a workman, till the workman attains the age of 58 years. For long, the central government had been eyeing the huge corpus of provident fund contributions as long term investment chunk for corporates. The amendment was part of a whole series of labour reforms, that remains in the offing.
As the news of amendments spread on Monday, the workers saw it as an open assault by the government upon their crucial savings, having direct bearing upon their living standards. Workers of Shahi exports came out first and then others started to pour into streets in peaceful protests.
Workers had returned to their abodes in the evening. But police and security forces caught up more than 20 workers, took them to Peenya Police Station, beat them up and detained them.
The next day Tuesday, April 19, the workers retaliated the provocative police violence. They gathered in thousands and stormed into the Police Station, pelted stones and torched the vehicles stationed inside and outside. Protests continued to draw more and more workers into their fold and within no time workers from dozens of garment factories joined the protests.
Terrified at the militancy and intensity of the protests, the central government beat the retreat deferring the decision for 3 months initially. But the maneuver failed to deter the workers from protests. As the protests continued to spread, the government was forced to retreat completely into withdrawal of the notification.
Workers in these garment factories work in most appalling, low wage, sweat shop conditions. Nine hours uninterrupted work with short interval, is paid for in around two hundred bucks per day. Under these conditions, the unrest was building up among the workers for long and resulted in sudden eruption.
The critical feature of the upsurge was that no Trade Union was involved directly or indirectly into the struggle. This absence of TU bureaucracy, in fact, gave free hand to the rank and file workers to take their destiny in their own hands. It was the fighting spirit of ordinary worker that gave the struggle its militant color.
None of the local or central trade unions has even formally condemned the police violence upon the workers. none of them has welcomed the struggle or even reacted positively to it. On the contrary, taken by surprise by the militant offensive of the workers, the TU bosses have reacted with an admix of astonishment and shock, regretting that had they been there, the things would not have gone ‘out of control’ taking that ‘ugly turn to violence’. Expressing this regret, Padmnabhan, leader of CITU, the trade union center affiliated to Stalinist CPI (M) said, “Since several state governments and private corporations did not permit unionization, only eruptions could take place”. This implied that had TUs been there, there would have been no ‘eruptions’. RSS affiliated BMS was more vocal into naming the struggle as a ‘political conspiracy that misled the workers’, saying that restrictions on PF withdrawals are justified and not new.
Before the eruption of protests on Monday, April 18, these TUs were attempting in their own different ways to dissipate the anger of workers into harmless channels. The Garment and Textile Workers’ Union had prepared a demand letter with one lakh signatures to be presented to the President of India on May Day. But the outbreak of street protests on Monday, shattered the maneuvers of these false leaders of labor.
Since decades, these TU bosses, have assisted the capitalists to chain the workers and hold them back from launching meaningful and real struggles. Every time, these TU bosses, divert the anger of workers away into peaceful channels and prevent them from mounting decisive assault upon the employers. It was absence of these TUs and the bureaucracies leading them, that gave the garment workers’ struggle, a radical edge.
Even before this, the militant outbreaks in Maruti, Graziano, and Godrej could take place only in absence of these TUs. As the trade unions intervened later, these struggles were completely ruined.
For long, these trade unions have been assimilated into the political establishment of the capitalism. All of the major trade unions in the country did have their seats on the Central Board of Trustees, Employees Provident Fund Organisation, under the central government, where the decision to amend the PF Rules, was taken. All of these trade unions were part of the conspiracy that finally galvanized into notification of February 10, which they all kept consciously away from the cognizance of workers and never called upon the workers to oppose it.
Core lesson of the Bengaluru workers’ surge is that the road to liberation of the working class goes through its own independent class actions on the streets. To retain this initiative and its class independence, the workers will have to turn their backs upon the labor bureaucracies and the Trade Unions under them. These TUs have already exhausted all of their steam long back in history and have become reactionary citadels to sell away the vital interests of the working class. Labor bureaucracies oppose or pay only lip-service to socialism and revolution. Unexceptionally these TUs and the bosses sitting in their offices, block the workers’ struggles from spreading around and assist the capitalist bosses, to get the disputes settled through peaceful negotiations. Their role is limited to stifling the workers struggles and inhibiting them from gaining wider momentum opening a revolutionary threshold.
Under the stronghold of these TUs, labor movement stands cornered to the fringes and the last two decades have been witness to a sharp decline in strikes. At this time, the Bengaluru workers movement has come as a streak of lightning among the dark clouds.
If workers’ movement has to take leap forward, it has to smash the stranglehold of these labour unions and bosses first to regain its class independence and initiative in the struggle.
Workers must break themselves away from all Trade Unions and labor bureaucracies and must reject all offers and proposals of TUs to join them. Instead, the rank and file workers must call the workers’ assemblies of struggling workers and elect the most militant elements among themselves into ‘struggle committees’, with right to recall and re-elect the elected representatives anytime.
The struggle of Bengaluru workers symbolises a sharp turn in the mood of the working class. It has opened a new threshold to new possibilities in the labor movement through radicalization of ordinary workers. The rapidity with which the workers were mobilized to action without any aid from outside, ensures the road to more dashing successes in future.
This struggle of Bengaluru workers must be made the spearhead of a broader revolutionary offensive of the entire working class, not only in India but in entire South Asia to counter the concerted assaults being made by the respective elite rulers upon living standards of the workers, under cover of ‘labor reforms’.
If workers of one trade in one city can force the government to bend in no time, the working class of the sub-continent, organized around a revolutionary fighting program and an able leadership, would sure be successful to blow away its class enemies and their respective states and establish the rule of workers and toilers, socialism in place of capitalism.