Full-time trade union leaders & the societal context: the bosses & deputies.

AuthorPatel, Pravin J.


In the post-liberal India the triumph of capital over labor, as indicated by the introduction of several anti-labor practices, has weakened the once powerful trade union movement and worsened the socio-economic conditions of working class (Sheth, 1993; Sodhi, 2014). According to the World Labor Report 1997-98 of the ILO the trade union membership in India as a percentage of non-agricultural labor slumped from 6.6 percent in 1985 to 5.5 percent in 1995, and union membership as a percentage of formal sector workers dropped from 26.5 percent to 22.8 percent (Bhattacharjee, 1999: 31,2001:259).

Albeit, Indian trade union movement was never revolutionary, however, it was acquiring some momentum before the liberalization, as the number of strikes more than doubled between 1961 and 1974 at all-India level (Ahn, 2010:39). Indeed, in the post-liberal era also there have been a number of nation-wide strikes, demonstrations, and struggles protesting against neo-liberal policies of the government. But most of them were in the public sector units and were unsuccessful (Shyam Sundar, 2010: 589-95; 2015). Moreover, the industrial disputes since mid-1990's largely involved individual, isolated, and independent plant-level unions and on the whole the unions' bargaining power has declined after liberalization (Chakrabarty & Dhar, 2008:73).

Why the Indian trade union movement, which was so powerful before the economic reforms (Ramaswamy, 1988; Sodhi, 2013: 175; Titlebaum, 2009), succumbed to the forces of liberalization, privatization, and globalization without posing a serious challenge? Mostly, this post-liberal docility of the Indian trade unions is attributed to the introduction of new labor practices such as recruitment-freeze, outsourcing, increasing use of contract workers, freedom to hire and fire, liberty to close industrial undertakings, soft labor inspection system, permissiveness to introduce labor saving technologies, repeal of legal provisions regarding bonus, 'voluntary retirement schemes' (VRS), and privatization of nonviable public enterprises. This paper examines the conundrum by focusing on the role of full-time trade union leaders, also known as 'outsiders', in the pre-liberal era.

Full-time Trade Union Leaders

Leadership is important in the trade union movement across the world. However, the distinguishing feature of the Indian trade union movement has been the two broad types of leaders, namely, 'outsiders' and 'insiders'. Those who initiated and developed the movement in India were not regular factory workers or employees. Instead, they were social workers or politicians who became full-time trade union leaders and were financially supported by their unions. Such leaders are generally known as 'outsiders', and are usually associated with one or the other national federation of the trade unions, functioning under the umbrella of a political party. The dominance of these politically oriented outsiders over the trade union movement in India has been a much discussed issue (Karnik, 1978; Ramaswamy, 1973; 1974; 1977; Rothemund, 1981).

Many critical observers maintain that the outside leaders were responsible for the politicization of the movement, multiple unions, inter-union rivalry, and other such debilitating consequences (Shyam Sundar, 2008: 168-69). Such critics, however, generally underplay the fact that despite all its limitations, the Indian trade union movement before liberalization was very much vibrant, aggressive, and politically quite influential (Ramaswamy, 1988; Titlebaum, 2009). Moreover, they also ignore the constricting role of the sociopolitical milieu on the trade union leadership evident at a micro-level, which is the actual arena of industrial relations. This paper, therefore, examines the role of fulltime trade union leaders at the grass roots level, with reference to Baroda (now Vadodara), an industrial city of Gujarat, and highlights the curbing impact of the pre-liberal socio-political context on their leadership role. To focus sharply on the leadership role performed by the outsiders and its bearing on the trade union movement at the grassroots level, the paper underscores the internal differentiation found among them, by highlighting two main strata among them, namely, 'Bosses' and 'Deputies'. This distinction between the bosses and the deputies not only accentuates the societal constraints but also illuminates Robert Merton's conception of the influence structure, which implies not only a hierarchy of leaders but also a chain of influence (Merton, 1968:441-74).

The Context

The trade union movement of Baroda city, as elsewhere, has been shaped by a constellation of historical, socio-political, and economic forces. Although, the industrialization began by the late 19th century in the city, it did not flourish till the 1930s, when the city could boast of several factories apart from a few services. The city's working class was nebulous but the economic hardships caused by the First World War, and mobilization of the industrial workers elsewhere in India, stimulated the working-class movement in the city. In the early phase until the Independence, the working class movement in Baroda was confined mainly to its textile workers, organized by the Majur Mahajan, a trade union formed by the Gandhians committed to the ideology of industrial peace and class collaboration. (1) Albeit, the communists, believing in class conflict, also attempted to unionize the workers of the city, under the Lal Vavta (Red Flag) banner, their influence was limited (Patel, 2011). Immediately after Independence, two major trade union federations were active in the city, namely, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) of the communists and the newly formed Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) of the Indian National Congress, with which the Majur Mahajan was affiliated. Later, in the post-Independence period, with the increasing industrialization the non-textile sector was enlarged. Consequently, the non-textile and white-collar workers were also increasingly unionized. During the late 1960s Indian polity was fractured causing a division of the then dominant Congress Party and a split in the Communist Party of India. Consequently, several national federations of the trade unions, formed by various political parties came into existence, in addition to the already existing AITUC and INTUC, such as Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), and National Labor Organization (NLO) (Karnik, 1978). (2) These federations setup their braches all over the country, including Baroda. Thus, by the early 1980s the city had 64 trade unions, affiliated with the local branches of the six national federations. Of these six national federations, Majur Mahajan, now affiliated with the NLO, had a monopoly hold over the textile workers, who constituted the bulk of the city's working class; having a very limited influence on the non-textile workers. The remaining five federations, having negligible influence on the textile workers, concentrated on organizing the non-textile workers. The non-textile workers, mostly employed in small or medium sized units, were scattered in multitude of units dispersed all over the city and its periphery. Therefore, their unions were relatively small, having limited resources. The competition among all the six federations to organize the non-textile workers augmented industrial conflicts and fragmented the movement due to the inter-union rivalry.

The Societal Milieu

The leaders do not function in social vacuum. Local socio-political culture of a city or region and macro level developments, significantly shape the configuration of industrial relations (Ramaswami, 1988). The social environment of Gujarat and India was characterized by: (i) competitive democratic polity and (ii) underdeveloped economy. The former promoted multi-party democracy, generating intense competition for political power, and politicizing almost all spheres of the society, including the trade union movement, and the latter determined the main goal of Indian society as economic development, socialjustice, and industrial peace. (3) While politicization of the labor movement caused by competitive polity resulted in inter-federation rivalry and the consequent fragmentation of the movement (Ramaswamy, 1971; 1972; 1973), the state-centric legal framework empowered the state to frequently intervene in the disputes between the labor and capital, weakening thereby collective bargaining process (Mitchell, Mahy & Gahan, 2014, Chaudhury, 1996: 8-20; Hill 2009: 396-400). The societal milieu of Gujarat in general, and Baroda in particular, in which the leaders functioned, is examined here by focusing on (i) socio-political culture, and (ii) the legal framework.

The Socio-Political Culture

Ostensibly, the short-term goal of the different federations was common, namely, to solve the immediate work-and-wage related problems of the workers. However, all these federations legitimized their separate existence by articulating their long-term goals expressed in their respective political ideologies, ranging from Marxist (AITUC-CITU) to Socialist (HMS) to Gandhian (INTUC-Majur Nahajan/NLO) to Rightist-Nationalist (BMS). Besides, the 'Mahajani-Gandhian' socio-political culture of Gujarat, (Sheth, 2003), moderated the industrial relations, by emphasizing pragmatism, reconciliation, and class collaboration rather than class conflict, distinctively influencing the state's trade union movement. The influence of this culture...

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