Workers’ Violence and Corporate Violations of Law
It has been a long time in the making. The violence at Maruti-Suzuki’s Manesar plant on 19 July 2012, that led to the ghastly killing of the general manager, Awanish Kumar Dev was waiting to happen. While the killing was gruesome, I believe this is merely a ‘freeze shot’ of a larger film that has been playing for a very long time now. While it is the media’s wont to focus only on these moments of spectacular violence and then dish out reports from handouts provided by managements and the police, sometimes, such moments of conflagration do illuminate what has been in the dark for so long.
What follows below is an attempt to think through some of the issues that seem to me to lie at the bottom of the violent event. The ‘violent event’ here is not simply what took place in Maruti-Suzuki’s Manesar plant now; it is rather a shorthand for the whole series of such conflagrations that have been taking place over the past few years in the National Capital Region (NCR) – starting with Honda Motors and Scooters 2005, Graziano Trasmissioni 2008, and many others since – Rico Auto Industries, Pricol Ltd and so on. The struggle in Honda Motors that had been brewing for a long time had eventually spilled over into a series of public protests with severe police violence in the full glare of the media. Things have never been the same in the entire belt since. Rico Auto Industries incident in September-October 2009 subsequently became an important milestone – galvanizing as it did a number of other workers’ strikes. There it had started when the workers struck work after 17 of their colleagues had been dismissed ‘on disciplinary grounds’. Actually, the workers rightly felt that this was to quash their attempt to form a union. And while the workers were protesting at the gate, a group of hired goons attacked them, killing one of the workers and injuring many others. In the Graziano Trasmissioni the issue of contention was the reinstatement of 136 dismissed workers which led to a massive unrest in the unit in Greater NOIDA, leading eventually to an incident not very different from the present one.
These are not aberrations in the otherwise happy story of the growth of the Indian economy. Violations of law and indulgence on what is known in labour law as ‘unfair labour practices’ is rampant in 21st century India. Especially in the neighbourhood of its Capital where the most disgusting and vulgar display of new wealth of a lumpen-bourgeoisie is the most evident. A word about this lumpen-bourgeoisie. Andre Gunder Frank once used this term for a middle-cum-capitalist class that was apparently inauthentically capitalist, unlike say the European capitalists who were of course, modern and with some kind of respect for the rule of law. I personally do not believe that capital anywhere in the world has become capital without being immersed in violence. Nonetheless Frank’s description of the lumpen bourgeois is important for us in one respect – this section of the middle class-turning-capitalist (through real estate, through labour frauds like non-payment, plain theft of the public exchequer through political nexuses as for instance in the mining sector or CWG games) is fundamentally criminal in its dealings with others. Their relationship to people whose labour they steal on a regular basis – from domestic helps to factory employees – is among other things, also a marker of their deeply caste-structured contempt for labour. From stealing two rupees from the rikshaw puller or three from the vegetable vendor, this class rises to more serious kinds of labour theft that then become the basis of its accumulation. In more recent times, the term “lumpen political-economic power” has been used by some intellectuals in the context of Latin America in the 1990s, where again the reference is to a criminality that is in some sense outside the law. I use the term here to refer to a certain criminality that is internal to the law and the political structure: the lumpen bourgeosie in 21st century India is a parasitic class that inhabits state institutions, makes use of them, feeds off them and ‘accumulates’. In a sense, there is a fair bit of the lumpen element of labour theft at the heart of all all our corporate enterprises – with very few exceptions. That most private corporations actually violate the law in this regard with complete impunity was stated in the immediate aftermath of the Graziano Transmissioni incident, by the then labour minister for which of course, he was wildly attacked by the corporate media. As one report stated:
“Indian labour minister Oscar Fernandes, in a surprising moment of truth, let the cat out of the bag. He mentioned the “unmentionable” fact -– that companies like Graziano habitually violate labour laws –- including minimum wage laws; restrictions on contract work; working hours; right to unionise; and basic human rights liberties of workers at the workplace. And he said that the lynching of the Graziano CEO ought to serve as a “warning” to industry to mend its ways.” Of course, corporate industry and the government which is its faithful servant could not bear such a home truth to be told -– and Fernandes has been forced to issue an “apology”.
Every one of these practices, declared unfair and unlawful in the Industrial Disputes Act 1947, are followed in the Maruti-Suzuki plants among many others. What is even more interesting is the way the state government of Haryana has perfected its deep alliance with the private corporations in ensuring that no new workers’ union can be formed/ registered. Trade unionists from Haryana allege that there are a number of strategies that are followed in this regard. First, the strategy that is adopted by Honda, Rico and Maruti. Simply dismiss the key workers who seem to be taking a lead in organizing unions. Usually, dismissals are not – obviously – on grounds that they were trying to form a union; rather the charges are of ‘indiscipline’ or not fulfilling duty. In this they have the full backing of the state government. If by some magic, workers do manage to form unions and try and get them registered, they are almost always not registered by resorting to technicalities and delaying till such time as the information about the leading characters can be passed on to the employers, who then do the needful.
Wages of Neoliberalism
And yet there are those dreamy-eyed advocates of neoliberalism who believe that corporations are God’s gift to humanity and that workers are basically party-poopers who have come to destroy the happy life they have been living in Indian cities in the past two decades. The moon-struck middle class of India (and I am not saying that the entire middle class is moon-struck) has never had it so good. For the first time they have been freed of all responsibility of even thinking – leave alone doing anything – for those who make their lives what they are. Despite its serious problems, the Nehruvian dispensation, at the very least did not let you forget that there are others too whose lives are at stake; that the world is not for the consumption who can afford to do so right now. These sections of the middle classes had a ball till at least the middle of th 2000s and they had, along with their corporate gods and goddesses, started believing that everything was theirs – the land on which adivasis live, the minerals, the forests, the rivers, the groundwater, the commons. And why not? It was after all the state’s call: It was the state in the early nineties, when the current prime minister and other assorted World Bank and IMF trained economists took over our lives, that ‘the state’ itself gave the clarion call to consume, consume and consume! That was the new mantra. How can you have 10 percent growth if people do not consume?
But there is a catch here. After all, you cannot consume unless you have enough disposable income. The economy cannot continue with a high growth rate merely on the basis of this moon-struck middle class youth. All the brouhaha about a 150 million strong middle class was okay to start with – but in the final analysis, it is also the new working class of Maruti Suzuki or Honda that must become a consumer. This new working class is culturally a different entity from the earlier working class. It is simultaneously a consumer and wants to have all the things to play with that our middle class consumers want. They too have EMIs to pay, they too have access to credit. Many of them are local youth who have a sizeable backing of a reasonably well-off peasantry from which they come. Following our post of the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union statement, there was a flurry of horrified comments from mainly anonymous commenters who clearly belong to the globalization-drunk middle class. The burden of their song was: how can workers use high end cell phones? Perhaps they have other aspirations too – of joining your hallowed class. Think about that! And why should they not? [As it happens, even as I write, a comment by Faiz gives the lie to the iphone story…]
I do not wish to reduce the effects of ‘neoliberalism’ to just this circumstance. Unlike many of my other friends on the Left, I do think that there is a seductive, cultural-political aspect of neoliberalism that constitutes us as desiring subjects. This part of neoliberalism builds upon a potential entreprenuer within all of us – it opens out a world that was not available in the Nehruvian years. And that is the part of neoliberalism that has enlisted a huge section of middle classes to this new dispensation. However, I do not claim that this is the only level at which neoliberalism works. The other level at which it works, is in fact, more well-known. At this other level, it was the way in which, with the advent of the early 1990s, suddenly everything was overturned. ‘Flexible labour markets’ became, along with privatization, the new clarion call. And, as if the socalled economic logic of labour market flexibility had some self-evident priority over the larger economic question of livelihoods, everybody from political leaders/ parties to the judiciary fell in line. As if this was the law of gravity that could not be violated! That was the argument through which a new regime was put in place where everything from ‘hire and fire’ to increasing resort to contract labour – all in violation of existing laws – were seen as necessary for the greater good. So pervasive was this common sense that even senior judges in the higher judiciary now began reinterpreting the law in keeping with this new logic of corporate neoliberalism. The real victory on neoliberalism however, was that it was able to convince a large number of people, opinion makers in particular, that privatization was somehow the panacea for all our ills and that everything from public property (like PSUs) to common property resources, had to be simply handed over to private capital. It managed to convince a very large number of people that this was nothing short of a theological matter on which no debate was possible: henceforth the priestly class would decide on what was right and what was wrong. Everything else then followed.
Some Posers for the Workers’ Movement
One of the key issues that the current spate of workers struggles throws up, it seems to me, has to do with the crisis of the old kind of trade unionism. It is amusing to read statement after statement of various industrialists bodies from the Gurgaon-Manesar industrialists to FICCI – how the wave of unrest is creating a situation of insecurity for the employers and sending out wrong signals for prospective investors. The employers want to have their cake and eat it too, it seems. If they thought – as many of them certainly did through the 1990s – that they could simply crush the workers’ unions and exploit their labour without a murmur from the workers, then clearly that assumption has proved completely false. It may be possible to suppress the resistance for some time but people cannot take indignity endlessly. A case in point was the very same Manesar unit of Maruti-Suzuki where the two erstwhile leaders of the union (who led the struggle last year) were ostensibly bought over by the management. Sonu Gujjar and Shiv Kumar opted for ‘voluntary retirement’ and were said to have quit the company after receiving Rs 40 lakhs. The company clearly thought that the unrest was simply the creation of a handful of trouble makers and once they were taken care of, things will be back to normal. That clearly did not happen and the tactic has in fact created a more volatile situation.
The simple point that trade unions were actually never the schools of communism but essential to the maintenance of a more stable capitalism is something that the lumpen capital of 21st century India does not recognize. That collective bargaining through an independent union (independent of the management, that is) should be a central feature of any half-way decent capitalist enterprise is widely acknowledged. This was one of the key issues in the ‘social clause’ debate in the mid-1990s, when many Northern governments wanted to introduce a clause linking trade to unfair lablur standards. And one of the key issues there was of free collective bargaining that would ensure a decent wage. True, it was a struggle between two different capitals over the export market that prompted the idea of the social clause. The Indian trade unions in their wisdom decided to rally behind their own governments and are now reaping the benefits of having once given their unconditional support to ‘their own’ capitalists and government. The idea of collective bargaining through independent trade unions, it may not be out of place to mention, also found favour with the World Bank which in its World Development Report 1995, entitled ‘Workers in an Integrating World’ vigorously advocated it. The Indian capitalists and government supported by the Left parties and trade unions rejected the move. But have the Left parties and trade unions managed to come up with any kind of action plan, any ideas about how to ensure the minimum labour standards including the right to collective bargaining? Unfortunately no. After that initial grandstanding about ‘imperialist conspiracy’, they went back to their routinized ways.There once used to be a practice of tripartite wage negotiations where, apart from the employers’ representatives and union representatives, government representatives too used to be present. These industry-wide wage negotiations could have been expanded in scope and a wider range of industries and issues could have been brought into their ambit.
However, already by that time, the old kind of unionism had become toothless; that was perhaps also what left the new work force at the completely at the mercy of these predatory corporations and they decided to find their way through mostly unpredictable wildcat actions. The difficulty with the struggles in this format is that they are always only workplace centred. The capitalist, on the other hand functions politically, fully in cahoots with the government, with political parties and with the bureaucracy. Can the fight against capital then be simply confined to the workplace where a groups of always new and inexperienced workers are pitted against the all-powerful, politically-backed managements? What can be possible ways of making the struggle more political, more public?
As I indicated above, in many of the industries we see a working class that is very different from the old working class of say the textile or engineering industries. In the first place, these are not the most proletarianized workers (‘nothing to lose but their chains’ kind). They are local and come from a relatively more ‘well-to-do’ sections of the neighbourhood. They are skilled workers, many of them trained in ITIs, and they have ambitions of moving up the social ladder. They do not come to work in a factory with the idea that they will retire from there. As such they are also more impatient. Talk to any of the older trade union organizers and they will tell you that they do not have the grit to slowly and diligently build up a movement. They want results here and now. Now, this opinion might be in part, a reflection of the failure of the older kinds of trade unions and leaders in dealing with the new challenges, but only in part. For the fact is undeniable that this is a different working class – one with middle class aspirations. And how can one hold it against the workers? The point I am trying to make here is that this situation calls for a different kind of response. In another time, we would have raised slogans of workplace democracy and in its more ‘management studies’ form also of ‘workers participation in management’. I am not sure that the former, an essentially anarchist/syndicalist idea can work in the absence of a highly political workforce that sees its place in the factory as the microcosm of the new society. That utopian moment has long passed. However the idea of ‘workers’ participation in management’ is an eminently achievable one, though employers have always resisted it. In India, during the National Front government headed by VP Singh in 1990, the idea of workers’ participation was taken up quite vigorously by the government for a brief moment. But then the neoliberal deluge set in and that was that!
Today, it seems to me however, this can become a slogan for demanding accountability of corporations. In fact, it is entirely possible to demand that not only should there be workers participation in management, other stakeholders too must find a place in management – the local community for example, whose water and air the corporations pollute or destroy. Today, capital is not simply about exploitation of workers; it is about the destruction of the life chances of the ’99 percent’ – to borrow from the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement. So, industry management must include not private persons who profit from its activities but also those who are continuously losing.