Last week was a historic moment for the Indian working class.
Irrespective of political ideology or affiliation, 20-21 February saw around 100 million workers come together in one of the biggest strikes in world history.
Responding to the call of 11 central trade unions and independent federations, these workers were protesting against the anti-people and anti-work policies of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
In raising their 10-point charter of demands, they brought the nation to a virtual standstill.
Since independence in 1947, India has seen innumerable strikes and protests.
In particular, many trade union struggles have happened since 1991, when the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao liberalised the Indian economy, boosting privatisation and foreign direct investment.
Until 2008, 12 one-day national strikes – organised by either the Sponsoring Committee of Trade Unions or the National Platform of Mass Organisations – had taken place.
The national convention of trade unions in September 2009 was a turning point in the trade union movement.
The general strike on 7 September 2010 was geared more towards united actions and it became stronger with the march to Parliament on 23 February 2011, followed by the one-day general strike on 28 February 2012.
Many of these strikes, in spite of the genuineness of their demands, lost direction along the way and their relevance became diluted. In most instances, an ignominious end was brought about by the crosscurrents of political sectarianism.
In such a context, what makes this 48-hour general strike unique? How could it muster such enormous public support?
The participation of leading sectors such as defence, petroleum, banking, insurance and telecoms was almost 100 per cent in almost all states. Miners, small traders and industrial associations all joined in the strike, as did health, domestic, agricultural, road transport and unorganised workers. Even those working for multinational companies like car giant Maruti came out on the streets in solidarity.
For the first time in the history of independent India, unions affiliated to different political parties with different ideologies came together for a 48-hour protest.
The ruling Congress-affiliated union, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) was among those who actively participated in the strike.
“We separated politics from the trade union and decided to concentrate on the demands of the working class. The rights of the workers were long due and so we joined hands with other unions. It was purely a trade union struggle,” asserts Sanjeeva Reddy, President of the INTUC.
“The government did not show any concern towards the genuine needs of the workers and that is what prompted us to show solidarity with the strike,” he adds.
The preparation for the strike happened immediately after the national convention of trade unions on 4 September 2012, held at Talkatora Stadium in New Delhi. On that occasion, all central trade unions had unanimously called for the strike.
The convention had expressed deep concern and anguish at the total non-response of the government towards burning issues such as price hikes, social security rights for workers in unorganised sectors, proper minimum wages, massive worker contractualisation, rampant violation of labour laws and the onslaught on trade union rights.
Amarjeet Kaur, National Secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress, says: “The exceptional response to the strike throughout the country reflects the anger of the people against the persistent increase in the prices of diesel, gas, coal, electricity and other essential goods.
“Just take the example of petrol. In 1989, the price of one litre of petrol was 8.50 rupees (0.16 US cents), and as of now, in Delhi it is 69.06 (1.28 US dollars) and much higher in other cities.”
Despite being served a strike notice five months prior, there was no response from the government until a week before the strike.
On 13 February, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Mallikarjun Kharge, convened a meeting of the trade unions and appealed to them to withdraw the strike call.
On 17 February, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formed a high-level committee of four senior ministers: Sharad Pawar, Minister of Agriculture; AK Antony, Minister of Defence; P Chidambaram, Finance Minister; and Kharge.
A meeting with trade union representatives was scheduled but it was a damp squib. Chidambaram did not take part in the meeting, Antony did not have much to say and Sharad Pawar talked about floor-level wages instead of the minimum wage.
“The meeting was just a mockery of the situation. They didn’t have anything to offer and they never wanted to,” says Tapan Sen, General Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
“There was no genuineness and we decided to proceed with our protest.”
Instead of criticising the modus operandi of the strike or the losses the strike caused to the economy, it is high time the government realised the impact of their anti-labour, anti-people polices.
They have to realise that the Indian working class and their unions are not an impassive entity – rather, they represent a force that can change the fate of the country.