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Print edition : Mar 25, 2011 T+T-

G. Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the INTUC.-R. ASHOK

FOR the first time since Independence, the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the trade union arm of the Congress, decided to join in a march to Parliament along with other central trade unions. It had been involved in a few joint actions with the Left trade unions before, but on February 23 its presence was very visible. At the mammoth rally, INTUC president G. Sanjeeva Reddy shared the podium with representatives of other trade unions and spoke in a language that many would construe as anti-government. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Would you describe the rally as a success, in spite of the fact that it received scant media attention?

It was one of the biggest rallies taken out in India. Everybody worked hard. It was very peaceful. There were no political speeches. It was the first step towards the unification of the trade union movement. It was unfortunate that the media did not cooperate with us. There were 10 lakh poor people at the rally. Proper media coverage would have brought out the misery these people are undergoing. But we are not discouraged. We will intensify our peaceful struggle for job guarantees and decent wages.

What were the circumstances that brought the trade unions together?

Historically, the INTUC has been the largest trade union. Most of the Labour Ministers have had trade union backgrounds. The INTUC has always enjoyed a good rapport with the government at the Centre. Many laws that were enacted over the years, including the Provident Fund legislation, were passed with the help of the INTUC. Almost all the labour laws were enacted during Congress rule. The unorganised sector is huge, accounting for 45 crore people. It is not possible for a [single] trade union to organise such a mass of people.

There are new challenges. The trade union movement is getting weakened because of the global economy. Earlier, the government used to support the working class movement, but it does not do so now. Today, the government finds itself on the side of investors, in the hope of attracting investment. The government is ignoring the non-implementation of the minimum wages law.

Trade unions find it difficult to function as employers are getting emboldened owing to government support and cooperation. It was in this context that we thought that it was better to have trade union unity. The INTUC took the initiative and all the meetings were conducted in our office. Twelve central trade unions participated; the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, too, joined in the beginning but later dissociated itself for reasons we do not know. The rest of us formed the All India Trade Union Coordination Committee and I was asked to be the chairperson. We prepared a five-point charter of demands, which included a check on price rise and non-contractualisation of jobs that were essentially of a permanent nature. We took these proposals to the Prime Minister, who agreed to them in principle. I met him thrice personally. A meeting was called, to which the Finance and Labour Ministers were invited. He said he would appoint a committee to look into the demands. But whether any action has been taken or not, we do not know.

On September 7, 2010, all the trade unions observed a one-day strike and in February, we decided to take out a march to Parliament House. If the government does not take any action even now, we will have to take drastic action. The central trade unions will meet again. We hope the government will call us after the Union Budget is presented. The authorities seem sympathetic but it won't be possible to resolve some issues.

The INTUC's participation with Left trade union organisations surprised many. You must have faced a lot of questions within your party as well.

I am a Congressman and I am not against the party. I am only asking the party and the government to implement what they promised. Because of the INTUC's participation, the communists could not politicise the rally. The Congress should feel happy that the demand of the poor people was not politicised. If our attempts succeed, then the Left unions and others will be compelled to think of one trade union centre for one nation. The INTUC joined in the national interest. We all merged to protect the interests of the working class.

Workers should get their due in wealth distribution. The national wealth should be distributed equitably, not among a few alone. The income disparities have increased. We are fighting for opportunities for people, for the poor. The government has to take the blame and the responsibility. We are in power, so we have to take the blame for the way things are. Never in the history of our country have we had almost 38 per cent of the people living below the poverty line. Where is the money going? New jobs are not being created by the multinationals. Workers are suffering and that is why they are cooperating with us. Inflation is not because we are eating more. One has to look at the situation in our villages today; people are not even getting two square meals a day. This is indirectly insulting the poor.

Do you think the government does not know all this or is this a case of deliberate ignorance?

The UPA government is in much confusion. It has good intentions but it is not able to implement them properly. Somewhere, the government is getting misguided. It is giving more importance to investors. It thinks greater investment will lead to more industrial development, which will then remove poverty. The programmes of the government are indirectly supporting the rich man. In China, the government not only gets investment but spends a lot for rural development. Here, only the MGNREGA reaches the poor; no other programme does. We would like the government to involve the trade unions in the implementation of the MGNREGA, but it is not agreeing to this.

Given the experience of the February 23 programme, do you think trade unions can work together on workers' issues despite their ideological differences?

Only the future can say whether all unions will come under one roof on workers' issues. Earlier, we used to dislike each other; today we sit together and work together. The ideological difference has always been there; this is a democratic country. Some people criticised me for going along with the leftists; some appreciated me also. I am not bothered; I am more accountable to the working class and to the nation.

T.K. Rajalakshmi
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