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Workers of India, unite!

The January 8-9 general strike observed across the country could have a far-reaching impact on the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha polls

Workers of India, unite!

Will the impact of the January 8-9 general strike reverberate in the general elections? A general strike barely three months before general elections, that too stretching for two days, is bound to assume special significance no matter whether it is a total success or not. That is why the international media had screaming headlines that 200 million workers from India – including factory workers, government employees, unorganised labourers and supporting farmers – have launched a general strike.

In reality, the general strike might well have witnessed a level of participation slightly short of this and uniformly even achieved success all over the country as per the reports pouring in at the end of the first day of the strike. But, considering the fact that without direct participation of major opposition parties in the strike, a general strike called by just 10 central trade unions, especially at the initiative of the otherwise electorally not-so-strong Indian Left, has achieved this much impact is a big deal in itself.

One reason for this is the active participation of sectoral trade union federations – from banks, transports, communication and so on – which has imparted a kind of vibrancy to the strike. Further, it assumed added significance as it took place just on the eve of the general elections when an overall impression has set in that there is latent resentment among the workers, generated over five years of the incumbent government, and they are increasingly turning against it.

It seems that this general strike has had an impact even beyond the expectations of the trade unions themselves. One reason for this is the role of media. Many newspapers and TV channels gave out the news describing it as a Bharat Bandh. So, despite the trade unions calling only for a general strike, an impression has gained ground among the public that it would be a total bandh. In north Indian states and in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, a holiday was declared for schools and colleges. Shops downed their shutters in some places. In many cities including Chennai, 50 per cent of all public transport, buses and auto-rickshaws did not operate. Some scattered demonstrations were visible and road and rail rokos were organised by bandh supporters in some places.

That the bank employees had also declared a two-day strike on their own industrial issues coinciding with the general strike was a key reason for the crystallisation of a general strike atmosphere. This in the main created an expectation about the general strike among traders.

In Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, we got in touch with Udai Bhat, President of the well-known trade union Sarva Shramik Sangathan. He reported, "The workers of BEST, Mumbai's public transport service, have launched an indefinite strike on their own demands coinciding with the general strike and, as a result, more than 10,000 buses did not operate and urban public transport came to a standstill. Auto-rickshaws also did not operate.

"In the last two decades, the very nature of Mumbai has changed. It is no longer an industrial city. You can't see industries within Mumbai. Even in Thane industrial area, IT companies have come up in the old sites of industrial plants. The industries which existed there have shifted to Pune and other hinterland districts. Hence, the participation was mainly by public sector workers from banks, telecom, etc., and by municipal workers. Those workers dependent on BEST buses to commute to their workplaces did not go to work. Those offices with employees like IT workers, who used to drive down to their offices in their own two-wheelers or cars, functioned," Udai Bhat said. Almost 50 per cent of the money exchange and foreign exchange transactions in the country takes place through the bank clearing houses in Mumbai. Bank employees' strike in the clearing houses was a total success. Without these functioning, how can business go on in the metropolitan city? Bank employees almost brought business to a halt.

Goldy George, a leader of mining workers in Chhattisgarh, is currently on a tour of Odisha. He reported that public transport buses did not operate in Cuttack-Bhubaneswar. More than half the shops were closed. According to him, in Odisha, the general strike had assumed the shape of a bandh. He also reported having learnt that the mining work in Chhattisgarh had been halted.

In Uttar Pradesh, farmers' organisation that had participated in recent struggles on their issues blocked the traffic on roads to Delhi from Moradabad and Aligarh and, thus, transformed it into a bandh of sorts.

If we take the industrial belt of Tiruvotriyur-Manali, many MSMEs functioned. But a worker leader from Ashok Leyland who had just retired said that as the three major industries of Ennore Foundries, Ashok Leyland and MRF did not function there, the general strike can be considered a success.

A leader from Pondicherry said that 90 per cent of shops and business establishments had downed their shutters. After two buses coming from Tamil Nadu were smashed, public transport also came to a grinding halt. Despite the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary warning that strict action would be taken against those participating in the strike, the government employees did not report to work in many places. Solidarity from abroad also poured in for the general strike. The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) representing trade unions in 130 countries sent a message of solidarity on behalf of the trade unions affiliated to it.

This strike would have a long-term impact. This is largely because of the demands it raised. The trade unions had raised 12 demands. The main one among them was to call for an end to the labour reforms of the current government. The second most important demand was a statutory minimum wage of Rs 18,000 per month. This creates a rationale and justification for the wage struggles of workers at different levels. In states like Uttar Pradesh, construction labourers and painters etc., are already getting a daily wage of Rs 600–700. But scheme workers like Asha workers, anganwadi workers and mid-day meal workers don't even earn one-fourth of it.

Only recently, the monthly wages of anganwadi workers, who were receiving Rs 1,500, was increased to Rs 3,500. The cowherd boy tending cattle in villages here gets Rs 350 as daily wage. But the anganwadi workers who take care of children get a paltry wage of Rs 120. An unbelievable one-third! Such glaring wage inequalities have been brought to the limelight by this general strike with its minimum wage demand.

It is expected that this general strike will play a key role in spreading general consciousness that wage levels should go up alongside creating a justification for wage struggles.

In the industrial clusters of unorganised workers, the job losses were to the extent of 70–80 per cent during demonetisation and GST. Now, one of the demands in the general strike was for job-loss compensation similar to what exists in western countries. The slogan of "tab note bandi, ab vote bandi" (No note then, no vote now!), raised by AAP in some industrial areas of unorganised workers, is already gathering a positive response.

In the oncoming Lok Sabha polls, which is witnessing a tough neck-to-neck fight between the ruling party and the opposition parties with almost equal strength, even a small share of workers' votes swinging away from the ruling party would have a dire impact. Moreover, the number of Lok Sabha constituencies with industrial workers' concentration has also increased. In such a scenario, the real electoral political impact of this general strike would unravel in a few months.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

B. Sivaraman

B. Sivaraman

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