Working Class Movement and ‘Sudden Death’ of the 1980s – Challenges For Rebuilding the Left II


Let us call it ‘sudden death’ football style – even though, strictly speaking, there was no ‘tie’. Yet, even the highly frayed but continued existence of the earlier Nehruvian legacy (our version of the welfare state) had provided a kind of buffer that had kept in place an intricate balance between labour and capital. The Nehruvian state was no ‘socialism’ but it did represent a ‘social contract’ of sorts that had kept the worst caprices of capital in check and provided a certain legitimacy to issues and demands of labour. The balance was always tilted in favour of capital but was a balance nevertheless. This is what some ideologues of the neoliberal dispensation that succeeded it continue calling socialism – for that gave them the legitimacy, in the post-Soviet 1990s, to institute the unbridled rule of corporate capital. In that sense, there was a tie – and neoliberalism was the tie-breaker.

Protest_Photo, Image New Indian Express

The defeat of working class politics in the 1980s is a story that remains to be told – at any rate, properly analyzed. There are of course, layers and layers to that story  and no single article or even a book can do justice to it but it is nevertheless worth looking at some aspects – not all of which may have been apparent to players involved at that time. But that is precisely why it is so important to look back, especially if we are interested in building a movement in the future, avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Prelude to  the 1980s Crisis

In a sense, we could say that the historic Railway Strike of 1974 was the last big struggle that presaged many more defeats in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency. The railway strike was a heroic episode of the workers’ movement in Independent India and is very legitimately remembered as such, even though it was suppressed ruthlessly by the  govenment. In a manner of speaking, though, as Ranabir Samaddar points  out in a recent book, for the  rank and file it quite simply spelt misery, which they had to deal with for years after that. (Samaddar, The Crisis of 1974: Railway Strike and the Rank and file, Primus, 2017)

The defeat – as well as the long story of how the 1974 strike took shape – is in many ways symptomatic of the overall problem with the trade union movement in India. The pre-history of the strike, going back to the first big one in Independent India in 1960 and its suppression by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru himself, documented by Stephen Sherlock, lays out the entire story for anyone wanting to know. (‘Railway Workers and their Unions: Origins of the 1974 Indian Railway Strike’, Economic and Political Weekly, 24 (41), 14 October 1989) Two things stand out in this respect. First, there is absolutely no doubt that the case of the railway workers for a strike was perfectly justified, given that they were not only paid the lowest among public sector enterprises but also because the Third Pay Commission award for them hardly made any attempt to cover the massive loss in real earnings in the face of galloping inflation.  Second, notwithstanding this the strike was met with a belligerent response from the regime, which went all out to repress it, recalling the way Nehru himself had dealt with the previous 1960 strike, accusing it of ‘fomenting rebellion’ and ‘sabotaging the economy’. In fact, in the course of the 1960 strike the Nehru regime had so broken the back of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) by derecognizing it, among other things, that it had been reduced thereafter, to the pathetic situation of wanting to avoid all conflict and focusing simply on regaining recognition. That was how things remained till the 1974 strike was forced upon  it by a restive workforce. It was actually with the emergence, in 1970, of the All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA) as a non-recognized but militant body of a section of rail workers that the tide had started turning.

That was the point at which the AIRF was forced to bring in George Fernandes to lead the decrepit organization – and through it the all India strike. Let us remember that the strike was being forced on an unwilling leadership by the rising tide of popular discontent. It is easy within a certain radical rhetoric to see this as an expression of the ‘limits of reformism’ of the old leadership and let it rest at that. There is no doubt that over the years something that could better be called ‘accommodationism’ of old-style unionism came to dominate trade union practice, where the whole effort would be to avoid any major confrontation with managements. ‘Reformism’ it certainly wasn’t – if one understands the term literally as an orientation to reforms of work-conditions, expansion of workers’ rights (including union rights), to getting better pay-scales, leaves and medical and other facilities. The term ‘reformism’ became a bad word in the lexicon of a certain kind of new radicalism that prided in claiming a ‘revolutionary’ mantle for itself. In practice that ‘revolutionary’ trade unionism actually fared no better but because of its dismissive attitude towards ‘reforms’, it derided everything that mattered to workers as ‘economism’.

But perhaps we are running ahead of ourselves. The point of bringing in the experience of the railway strike here is to underline another aspect. When workers’ demands are perfectly legitimate and justified and when unions like the AIRF raise those demands in utterly non-confrontational ways but are repeatedly ignored by managements, pushing restive workers to resort to militant action, how must one see the role of any serious unionism in such a situation? Does this call for some strategic thinking on the very nature and role of unionism? In part, this question is related to a particular fetishistic commitment to workplace organizing and to ‘protest’ and ‘strike’ as the only mode of intervention. As it happens, in workplace organizing the scales are always tilted against the workers and private managements in particular have always resorted to termination of employment of potential union activists. And when workplace organizing becomes the sole preoccupation, public political outreach to seek allies and supporters from a larger public suffers. As a matter of fact, that has never been of the trade unions’ agenda. In fact, if one looks at it, the workers are best placed to know the multifarious ways in which a corporation either indulges in practices that either lead to environmental degradation (like air and water pollution) or those that may be inimical to communities in other ways. In the case of railways, whose dealings are directly public, the possibilities for building support are immense though they would require some imagination.

To put the point differently, how must a proper reformist unionism respond and act in such situation? Activities of this kind may not always be a demonstration or a strike and may involve a developing keener sense of ‘mangement’ issues. This question is perhaps tied to another that I can now only put very bluntly: workers and workers’ lives are not there for middle class radicals to play out our revolutionary fantasies and must have absolute priority in determining the course of trade unionism. This point is actually linked to another that  I want to raise in the next section on the actual crisis of the 1980s.

The Interregnum

In between the railway strike and the 1980s lies the interregnum of the post-Emergency years, especially 1977-1979/80, when worker militancy was apparently in evidence everywhere. Some of the struggles of this period had to do with the accumulated grievances and  discontent of the Emergency years and directed at reversing it legacies – increased workload, pay freezes, non-payment of bonuses and so on that had been rampant during the Emergency. On the face of it, it seems like a period of great spontaneous upsurge of workers’ anger and that is how some of us perceived it then – only to realize that these were the last dying gasps of the militant trade unionism. In fact, it is surprising how many of these worker protests were met by the non-Congress Janata government with violent police repression, leading to large number of killings/ masacres.

Some Reflections on the Defeat of the 1980s

This is not to say that all militant working class struggles have died down since but from that period on, the managements and capital in general have been on the offensive and the occassional eruptions have been far more violent and confrontational.  As is well known, compared to the 1960s and 1970s, when ‘mandays’ lost were largely due to workers’ strikes, by the 1980s, the  situation had been reversed and lockouts by managements accounts for the maximum number of lost ‘mandays’.

However, crucial to the story of the story of the 1980s is the story of the crisis in two major industries – textile and jute. And here I am really interested in something very different, in a somewhat  introspective mode. This was the period of my own involvement in  the  trade union movement and some of us were certainly aware that by the  beginning of the 1980s, a different trend had set in that was evident in the management strategy of resorting to lockouts as a counter-offensive to strikes. We were also aware that the textile sector in particular (jute was not so much part of our north Indian imagination in the initial years) was facing a serious crisis with rampant sickness. (For an account of the sickness of the textile sector in Gujarat through the 1980s and 1990s, see SS Mehta and Dinesh Harode, ‘Industrial Sickness and Workers: Case of Gujarat Textile Industry’, EPW, 33 (52), 26 December 1998).

Though the crises of these sectors had to do with a number of different issues, there were some larger structural questions that are or were relevant but which were never really incorporated into our strategic thinking. Let me just briefly refer to three of them. The first had to do with the ‘modernization’ (i.e. technological upgradation) question which we were very quick to dismiss as part of the government’s anti-labour policies, forgetting that these were some of the oldest industries that had been functioning with archaic technology. This obviously meant that they were producing now at much higher unit costs affecting competitiveness. The second had to do with the fact that over the years, because of the otherwise well-intentioned policy of protection to small-scale and cottage industry, handlooms were increasinlgy upgraded to or supplemented by powerlooms and the mill sector had started outsourcing  weaving to them in an effort to cut costs. Finally, something that affected both the textile and the jute sector, was the emergence of the petrochemical industry. With it, synthetic fibre started replacing both jute as packaging material and cotton as apparel material in the market. Lodged here is the saga of the rise of the new ‘Polyester Prince’ Dhirubhai Ambani and a whole range of other new entrants in the apparel industry that completely transformed the game at least for some years to come. Forgetting all this, or evading taking these issues head-on pro-actively, meant that the trade unions really had no sense of the robust survival of the industry on which their own depended. If they had to have an alternative plan in advance, they could not merely content themselves with mere sloganeering, demonstrations and strikes – all of which are reactive in nature. They had to have had a sense of anticipating possible changes in the market as well as in management practices if they wanted to make their interventions effective.

In retrospect, I am convinced that the defeat of the working class movement did not have only to do with bad organization and bad ways of fighting but also with the fact that it had really no clue about long term changes. These were changes in tastes, demand-structures following new technological breakthroughs, for which capitalists always plan years in advance, moving out investments into newer, ‘sunrise’ industries and letting the ‘sunset’ ones simply die.

Textile was a sunset industry. Older laws then existent did not allow the closing of mills in this sector and the best possible option – that did not go unnoticed by keen observers even then – was to provoke workers into long-drawn indefinite strikes, during which time accumulated stocks could be got rid of and the money diverted gradually into other avenues. Thus would the mills be ready for permanent closure. From the almost two-year long Bombay textile strike led by Datta Samant to many of the long jute mill strikes in West Bengal, this was a common story.

So, while it was the futility of the accommodationist old unionism that often led workers to call in charismatic maverick figures like Datta Samant to lead them, it was also what led to the situation that would lead to the industry’s and therefore that working class segment’s destruction.

This raises questions about the very form called the trade union, which is defensive and conservative (in the literal sense of wanting to conserve wages, jobs and therefore, old structures). It is a form that is in itself quite unsuited to the task of thinking dynamically across industries and sectors but given the dynamism and rapid changes in capitalism of the post-Fordist era, it is all the more necessary that we begin to think of trade unions as simply one node, one point in a larger network of working class organizations. It also seems to be pretty obvious to me that apart from such organizations, ‘think-tanks’ of the movement that look at larger changes and are able to see newer possibilities, are absolutely essential. To take just one instance in conclusion, let us return to the jute industry. By the time petrochemicals/ synthetic materials had started displacing jute, it was already becoming clear that ecological concerns were soon  going to push towards new demand for bio-degradable jute and that the fascination with synthetic materials would not last. When some of the sick jute mills were being taken over by workers or when such possibilities opened out, proactive thinking in this direction could have created new possibilities. As a matter of fact, even running of worker cooperatives require a string of institutions that develop ‘worker-management’ ideas concretely. Unless we are able to develop a body of knowledge/s of how to run enterprises that are based on different princples from those of corporations, worker-cooperatives too will only function sub-optimally and may not last very long.

One thought on “Working Class Movement and ‘Sudden Death’ of the 1980s – Challenges For Rebuilding the Left II”

  1. I appreciate the piece. I was in Bombay as a reporter of the Indian Express, 1980-83 and personally witnessed the textile strike and the demise of textile industry. I also like your suggestions of involving the working class in takeover and running the industry. I think its time we start thinking in these terms about Indian Railways about to be sold out.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s