BY JONATHAN STRAUSS
"We have a chance to fight ... to present a unified picture of workers", said N. Vasudevan, general secretary of the Federation of Blue Star Workers Unions, as I talked with him in the union's office in Mumbai. Behind him were pictures of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Vasudevan was one of the political activists and union militants I met during a four-day visit to Maharashtra state at the end of May. I asked him about the significance of the April 25 state-wide general strike, in which 15 million people — 90% of the state's working population, including factory hands and restaurant managers, agricultural workers and taxi drivers — took part.
Federal and state government austerity and privatisation policies were the spurs for the strike.
Successive state governments, including the present Congress Party administration, have cut deals with the US transnational, Enron, to operate the Dabhol power plant, Vasudevan recounted.
The government agreed to buy a set amount of electricity at a set US dollar price. Then the Indian rupee fell in value: the result has been a price more than three times that of other suppliers.
A month after the general strike the government ended its purchases from Dabhol, although it was also trying to get a better deal from Enron.
The federal BJP government has set about privatising government-owned enterprises, such as the copper company Balco, now that the country's capitalists feel they are rich enough to buy them. It has also proposed to cut medical benefits.
The immediate catalyst for the strike, however, was the February federal budget's declaration that labour laws would be changed.
Employers would be granted more power to hire and fire. This employer demand to end "labour market rigidities" has endangered job security and collective bargaining rights.
"But", said Vasudevan, "pay is low and productivity not good, so labour is not responsible" for India's economic problems.
A new mood gripped the workers in the now half-empty textile factories of Mumbai, the electronics plants of Pune and the sugar plantations and mills of the countryside. The strike, he said, had expressed their "strong feelings that trade unions must be independent [and] able to act".
The different trade union federations, none of which can claim to represent all workers, put aside their ideological differences. The independent left and Communist-affiliated unions initiated the general strike call, but the unions affiliated to the right-wing parties also joined in.
The unity achieved in Maharashtra has, according to Vasudevan, improved morale and provided an example to the whole of India, as Mumbai's textile workers once did during the years of formation of the country's union movement.
The examples offered by the union activity I saw, however, seem to me to have relevance far beyond the borders of one country.
The weaknesses of militant Indian unions are in membership and material. Ninety percent of India's workers remain unorganised, the barriers to their unionisation include their roots in the villages, their religious and cultural differences and employer resistance through the use of hired goons and contracting out.
And it is not suprising to find that the organisations of poor factory workers, who live in rundown tenements or even tin-and-tarpaulin slums and whose typical income is the equivalent of $100 or less a month, operate with battered desks, solitary computers and arrays of portable fans to move thick, pre-monsoonal air.
They do not, however, lack a perspective for class struggle.
In Pune I attended a lunchtime rally of the city's municipal workers. The 3000 unionists, of whom half were women, were applying pressure for the resolution of a four-year-old wage claim. After listening to the union president and the head of the commission considering their claim, the unionists, to finish the rally, stood as one, raised clenched fists and joined a woman leader in a series of chants.
Returning to Mumbai, I sat in the small office of the Sarva Shramik Sanghatana (General Labour Union, GLU). It was a hive of activity, but no less efficiently run for this: numerous paper files were carefully stored.
Open from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, this office not only handled visits and phone calls from members seeking assistance, but groups of union activists gathering to discuss their problems.
But, as energised as the unions now are, the significance of the general strike is far broader than that, the GLU's president, Jayanta Chavin, told me. This was not a strike for any immediate benefits, he said, but rather a strike which had an explicitly class character. It may well turn out to be a forerunner of things to come in the world's second most populous country.