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Print edition : Mar 25, 2011 T+T-

Trade unions of all hues join forces in an unprecedented manner and present a charter of demands to the government.

in New Delhi

IN a rare show of unity, and for the first time since Independence, around one lakh workers affiliated to eight central trade unions and national industrial federations, including the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the trade unions of the Left parties, came out on the streets of New Delhi on February 23 demanding policy measures to remove the hardships of the people, particularly the poor.

The workers, belonging to the organised and unorganised sectors, came from all over the country and stood shoulder to shoulder under a common banner. The gathering included coir and fish workers from Kerala; agricultural labourers from Madhya Pradesh; port, dock, brick kiln, beedi, handloom and powerloom workers; women construction workers and home-based workers from Delhi; anganwadi workers and social health activists; State government employees from Haryana; bank employees from Punjab; and employees from the insurance, transport, textile, steel, coal, mining, power and petroleum sectors.

Workers employed in the government's flagship programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission, Bharat Nirman, the midday meal scheme and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) were also present.

Raesa, a beldar (construction worker engaged in loading and unloading work) who was at the rally with 15 other women from Sangam Vihar in Delhi, said: We do not get enough work in a month, maybe for 15 days or so. The minimum wages are close to Rs.200, but we get much less in a place like Delhi.

The united trade union action, which saw a sea of red flags in the national capital, was the broadest trade union unity conceivable in recent times. The last time these trade unions had come together was for a one-day general strike on September 7 last year to issue a warning to the government. Some 10 crore workers participated in that strike.

The eight trade unions that participated in the march to Parliament House on February 23 are the INTUC, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), the All India United Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC), the Trade Union Coordination Committee (TUCC), the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) and the United Trade Union Centre (UTUC).

Significantly, it was not a sporadic action by the trade unions and the federations affiliated to them. It was a planned event, strategising for which began in 2009. The INTUC played a major role in this along with the Left-leaning trade unions. As a first step, an all-India Convention of Workers was held on September 14, 2009, and October 28 was observed as protest day. A march to Parliament' was organised on December 16 the same year, and a countrywide satyagraha and jail bharo agitation on March 5, 2010. Several attempts made in the interim to draw the attention of the government failed.

In the past two years, all the trade unions actively organised State-level meetings in order to mobilise support for the grand rally in New Delhi, an event that was almost completely blacked out by the electronic media. Much of the print media, barring a few exceptions, reported the event only on their city pages. Notwithstanding the cold reception given by the media, the trade unions believe that the February 23 rally, which was a peaceful one, was a success.

The rally was important for two reasons: one, the active participation of the INTUC, the trade union wing of the ruling Congress. Previously it had stayed away from joint programmes against the United Progressive Alliance government's policies. Secondly, all the Left central trade unions, including the AICCTU, came together.

At a press conference, addressed mainly by G. Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the INTUC, a joint statement was issued. It said: The country is in deep crisis. The economic situation has turned from bad to worse. Unemployment is at its peak. The job that is available is so underpaid that it does not provide two square meals a day. Millions of workers in unorganised sector get paltry wages, less than half of the statutory minimum wage. They are forced to work more than twelve hours a day. Trade unions are not allowed to be formed. The wide disparity of wealth accumulation at the top and the accentuation of poverty at the bottom, intolerable social anachronism, calls for united resistance. The other trade union leaders who were present included Tapan Sen, Rajya Sabha member; Gurudas Dasgupta of the AITUC; R.A. Mittal of the HMS; and A.K. Padmanabhan, president of the CITU.

Sanjeeva Reddy pointed out that even after the one-day all-India strike by central trade unions on September 7, the government did not call the unions for talks. If the working class decides to take action, it won't be good for the country. We want to tell the government not to push the working class into a corner, he said emphatically. The speakers clarified that the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its affiliates supported the charter of five demands prepared by the unions but stayed away from the joint action programme. We do not know why the BMS stayed away. You should ask them, but it is the INTUC's job to remind the government of its duty. We are only telling the government to implement what it promised, Sanjeeva Reddy said, responding to questions regarding the INTUC's decision to join forces with the trade unions affiliated to opposition parties. I don't think that the INTUC's joining will help the opposition parties. It will only help the working class, he said.

The charter of demands agreed upon ranges from containing the rising prices of essential commodities through corrective measures such as a universal Public Distribution System and checking speculation in the commodity market; strict enforcement of all basic labour laws and stringent measures against violations of labour laws and attacks on labour rights; arresting the rising unemployment rate, especially among the youth; and an end to the casualisation of jobs and disinvestment in public sector units. The trade unions also demanded universalisation of social security benefits for unorganised workers without any restrictions on the basis of poverty line estimates, and allocation of adequate funds for the National Social Security Fund.

In a joint memorandum submitted to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Meira Kumar, the eight trade unions expressed concern over the curbs on the right to association and the right to collective bargaining as well as violations of labour laws. They criticised the government's interpretation that the rise in prices was because of increased consumption owing to the increase in the earnings of the people, when in fact the per capita consumption of foodgrains had declined because of job losses and reduced earnings. They also pointed out that despite an increase in the gross domestic product, workers' share as part of the value added in manufacturing had been going down.

On February 24, around 20,000 anganwadi workers and helpers converged on Delhi and marched to Parliament House to press their long-standing demands of higher remuneration including a minimum wage, increased budgetary allocation, regularisation of their work, and social security benefits. Their sustained efforts over the past several years bore some fruit when the Finance Minister announced in his Budget speech a cent per cent increase in the honorarium received by the anganwadi workers and helpers.

The All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, which has been organising the workers and helpers, has expressed its deep disappointment at the budgetary hike in the rate of remuneration which, it says, is still lower than the minimum wages. It pointed out that there was no mention of social security for anganwadi workers and helpers, who are the linchpin of the ICDS.

The trade union action of February 23 may not appear historic in the eyes of those running the government, but the fact that the union movement, cutting across political lines, came together cannot be taken lightly. It shows that even unions affiliated to the ruling parties are unable to defend the policies of the government owing to the dichotomous nature of the constituencies they seek to represent.