Worst of both worlds

Last Updated: Wed, Feb 20, 2013 21:10 hrs

The two-day general strike called by 11 all-India trade unions in protest against the ruling United Progressive Alliance’s economic policies will disrupt normal life, certainly, but not as much as the trade unions may like. In some ways, that fact reflects both the successes and the failures of liberalisation. For the unions and the political parties that are supporting them – primarily the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the parties of the Left Front – the bandh call is a straightforward response to policies that they see as having led to inflation, and a warning against further reform like disinvestment and more foreign direct investment. It seems to have become a feature of Indian politics that protest even by well-established political parties against the chosen policies of a legitimate government requires the entire gamut of inconvenience, intimidation, destruction of property and outright violence against people who are opposed to a general strike. This has unfortunately become the case even though the judicial system has several times pointed out that strikes are only legal if everyone participating does so strictly voluntarily, and not under duress of any kind. Political parties using the harassment of ordinary citizens as a bludgeon against the government of the day should be held directly responsible for any destruction of property they enable, such as the arson against a factory in Noida (Uttar Pradesh) that stayed open on Wednesday.

However, it is also worth considering that the basic point of a general strike over economic policy – to demonstrate the strength of the unions, by harassing citizens – is one that is rendered moot in a way by the logic of liberalisation. Bank clearing houses might remain shut, slowing down cheque payments — but automated banking functions will still go through, and most bank customers won’t even notice. Those using auto-rickshaws in Delhi or buses in Uttar Pradesh might be stranded — but those with private transport will merely see less traffic on the roads. The post office’s shut? Use a courier. If not for the threat of violence, the privatisation and contractualisation of the economy since 1991 would render a general strike largely toothless.

Of course, this casualisation of labour is part of what the unions are protesting — the state’s unwillingness or inability to properly enforce restrictive labour laws in particular. But organised labour must realise how much it is to blame for this state of affairs. Instead of holding fiercely on to labour laws far more restrictive than in most other economies, unions should have worked to relax them sufficiently to allow a larger organised sector to take root — the workers in which would be prime targets for the unions’ own expansion. That would allow workers to bargain collectively with their employers using strikes as an ultimate weapon, rather than have their self-appointed representatives threaten the government using strikes as the first possible option, as is the case now. Negotiating power should come from the ability to deprive the employer of profits, not from the threat of harassment to ordinary citizens. The real problem for the unions is their growing powerlessness, and thus their tight connections to political parties with real power. In the reformed, services- and unorganised sector-led economy, they have not been able to reach out to workers and find new constituencies. Nor have they been able to successfully champion the cause of their legitimate rights. Hence the Bharat Bandh will inconvenience enough Indian citizens to be problematic, but not so many as to achieve anything.

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