Autonomy in India: Tactical and Strategic Considerations on the New Wave of Workers’ Struggles

Recent workers’ struggles in India prompt us to examine the concept of autonomy more closely. Movements in the Gurgaon-Manesar region have consciously or unconsciously addressed the reality of the social factory and have combined mobilizations from below and mass initiative with the need to formulate an appropriate strategy and effective set of tactics.

Submitted by Ed on February 19, 2017

Interesting response to this piece can be found here: On "Autonomy in India".

Over the last decade or so, workers’ struggles in the industrialized Gurgaon-Manesar region near New Delhi have caught the attention of political activists and trade union organizers throughout India and abroad. Many on the Left have praised the workers, expressed astonishment at their perseverance, and offered a sense of local solidarity. But a full analysis of the dynamics of the struggle, and the lessons it may hold for us, has yet to be produced. There has hardly been any discussion of this issue in places like West Bengal, where the Left was traditionally strong and with a massive influence in the trade unions – in part because it’s unclear what to say in such meetings beyond expected words of solidarity and sympathy. We do not know how to respond and relate to a situation, which is not of our own making, but resplendent with all the glory and tragedy associated with labor struggles of the past. Is this undecidability about the nature and organization of the workers’ movement related to what we call “autonomy”?

These local developments in Gurgaon-Manesar have a wider significance. Workers’ struggles around the globe are entering a phase of recharged militancy. This era of globalized production and casualized work has given rise to new forms of struggle. To make sense of the current situation, commentators have adopted neologisms, such as precarious work, precariat, and more familiar phrases like unorganized and informal workers, and informal work conditions. There have also been attempts to invent and improvise methods of organizing workers in these changed conditions, where the organized sector is supposedly being increasingly fragmented, with lean production or just-in-time production becoming the norm, and shop floors becoming increasingly redundant as a site of both production and mobilization. Even where the shop floor continues to be important, as in the automobile sector, the worker is now a mere appendage of the machine and has to tune their self to the iron rhythm of the robot. The ideal worker, it seems, is one who can transform into one of the cogs of the huge machine. Perhaps what we are witnessing now is not so much a clear division between formal and informal working conditions, but a mix of the two and a gradual transformation of the shop floor into a site of precarity. After all, the Gurgaon-Manesar unrest happened in a so-called organized branch of industry – the automobile sector, where production unfolds in high-tech shop floors, with cutting edge technology able to increase productivity to hitherto unseen levels, but marked and permeated with the most rudimentary working conditions found at the household level.

Often automobile parts have many tiers to pass through before they end up at the Maruti or Hero Honda main factory. For example, rubber hoses for carburetors arrive in the form of rubber blocks in Mujesar, a village in Faridabad surrounded by industry. What remains of the village is the scattered layout of the small one-story shanty huts with cows and goats in front. The rest is transformed by the industry. Inside the huts people work on 1970s lathes of German origin, turning metal or working on antique power presses. Maruti’s supply-chain starts here.1 Gurgaon-Manesar has transformed the entire area into a social factory – not metaphorically but in reality, thus turning the battle at Maruti as one for the command and occupation of the social factory. The Maruti struggle showed the significance of the idea of the factory and beyond.

In a substantial sense, industrialization at Gurgaon-Manesar represents the new type of industrialization and circulation of finance characteristic of this age of globalization. In most of the factories, unions were prohibited for a long time. In the plants producing automobile parts, production standards have been set in tune with the production needs of the car producing plants in the United States and elsewhere. If work stops or simply slows down at Gurgaon-Manesar, it will hamper wages, salaries, and the comfort level of the employees there, and most importantly, the global profit margin in the industry. Perhaps economists will have to rack their brains to find out how much of the present rise in productivity has been due to the development of machinery and how much due to an intensification of the physical efforts of the workers by tying them to the rhythm of the second, minute, and hour, and grouping them in a way that the rhythm is not punctuated because of the absence of a worker, however small that period of absence may be. But then, the calculations of the productivity of the body have been always an impossible question for political economy.

This situation raises a series of pressing questions: What are the challenges in uniting workers who have been segmented and marked by the vagaries and irregular frequencies across the entire supply chain? What should be the location and site for working-class struggle when the shop floor condition shrinks or becomes precarious? How do the workers mobilize and organize? What will methods or approaches will be adopted by the political organizers?

All these questions, we want to argue, lead us to a critical discussion of the call of “autonomy” of the working class movement from certain quarters. In this article we will analyze two workers’ struggles in the peri-urban areas of Delhi: the Maruti struggle and the struggle of workers in the unorganized sector in Wazirpur. These struggles, unfolding in two industries with very different conditions, illuminate not only contrasts, but also important similarities. Indeed, these similarities point to major, shared tendencies in working-class struggles today.

However, before we begin our analyses of these two movements we have to recognize at the outset that the state is fully aware of the problem of unruly workers in precarious labor processes. In fact, one of the central problems of statecraft today is precisely how to govern this unruly, often militant, population working in extremely uncertain conditions. Every other day we hear news of workers murdering a factory official, workers raiding a company or plant office, or the sudden disappearance of a worker, or a laborer in a precarious work condition committing suicide. To manage this situation, the state has recently devised a novel idea, promoted in the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector. The Commission decided to transform the question of workers into a question of the poor, displacing the original problem of the nature of work and work process. While the Commission report conceptualizes both the informal sector and the informal worker from various angles, it avoids the issue of capital, ignoring the linkages of informal production to the organized and unorganized market of capital and commodities.

Therefore it has no alternative but to turn to the concept of poverty as a way to solve the problem. Instead of inquiring into precarious working conditions, or the precarious worker, the Commission goes on a statistical tangent, quantifying the laboring poor. As a result, the crucial distinctions between peasants and industrial workers, domestic work and factory work, among many others, collapse. Even worse, the recommendations essentially boil down to anti-poverty initiatives, while the state’s own machinery to protect the rights of unorganized workers remains woefully inadequate. This is a novel development in the art of governance. The problem for the state seems to be: how to govern the unorganized conditions of production without producing a subject called the organized worker or how to think of a normative phenomenon (poverty in this case) as a solution to the problem instead of defining a worker – unorganized worker in this case – whose rights have to be protected by the state in face of an onslaught by global capital. To put the dilemma more concretely, the state is now trying to find ways to normalize the figure of the unorganized worker through social measures, while allowing – and in fact facilitating – the uncertain conditions of work in the wake of globalization.

It is precisely this dilemma that has characterized the state’s response to workers’ protests in Delhi.

Struggles at Maruti: The Changing Face of Labor and Capital

The history of Maruti is a fascinating on two counts. It began operation as a state-owned automobile company (Maruti Udyog Limited) with its model Maruti 800 in 1983. In the final decade of the welfare state it was the car every member of the middle class aspired to own. It acquired a brand loyalty unmatched in the automobile sector. In other words, it was one of the success stories of state-owned enterprises in the midst of the growing perception that such state-owned enterprises were inefficient and only incurred losses. With the economic liberalization of 1991, Maruti saw a gradual transformation from a public sector undertaking to a joint sector company and finally to a privately-owned company. With Suzuki Motor Company of Japan now at the helm, Maruti not only saw a transfer of ownership, but perhaps the first experiment with just-in-time production, or what was called then the Toyota system of production.2 Under this new system, a whole set of stringent regulations governed the workplace. Workers were told how often they could take bathroom breaks, and how for long. Regulations determined how often a worker at the belt would need to drink water, or how long workers would be permitted to talk to one another on the assembly line.

In short, this regime of production demanded the creation of a new kind of pliable workforce. It’s impossible to understand the subsequent struggles at Maruti – which now has two manufacturing units, one at Gurgaon and another at Manesar – without taking into account this attempt to forcibly transform the composition of the working classes. Indeed, the first wave of struggle at Maruti exploded between 2000 and 2001, during a period of transition, so to speak, as older workers were trying to come to grips with the new production system, which unleashed an unprecedented rise in productivity at the factory. This first struggle was important in the history of the struggle because in many ways it set the template for subsequent demands, as well as the question of strategy and tactics. The struggle began over incentive wages, which management unilaterally changed from the basis of savings of labor-cost to the basis of productivity per direct worker. The agitation began on September 8, 2000 with workers wearing black badges, shouting slogans, and meeting at the gates. After a general body meeting, the union decided on collective action, which included a tool-down strike, assembly, and collective hunger strike, as well as writing to the management to call for a union-management meeting.

When there was no response from the management the workers began their tool down strike of two hours in each shift. In response, the management started to dismiss and suspend workers. On October 12, 2000, the management demanded that workers sign an undertaking of good conduct in order to enter the factory. This particular strategy was later employed over and over again by the Maruti management. A lockout began on October 12. By mid-December the workers realized that their agitation was being ignored. It was then that the union took the decision to move their agitation to Delhi and started a sit-in demonstration in the winter chill in front of Udyog Bhawan. This created a stir in Parliament and the government had to intervene as Maruti was still was a joint sector company. A settlement was reached and the good conduct undertaking was withdrawn but only a few workers who were dismissed were taken back.3 It was through this struggle that management experimented with many of the tactics that would be deployed later against future workers’ agitation. Further, during this time, the workforce at Maruti became increasingly casualized with contract workers and apprentices being recruited in large numbers. In fact, during this first phase of struggle they were used to continue the production at factory to undermine the strikes

The particular labor process and the production regime put in place in this period were marked by the intensification of social control of the workers. Apart from the usual management steps, such as banning unions, suspending workers at will, handing over rebellious workers to the police, and restricting the physical movements of workers in the plant, social control was buttressed from the outside. The rural rich gentry, the upper caste kulaks, and the wise elders of the nearby settlements all supported the company bosses. Not only did these social forces profit massively from the increasing financialization and consequent sale of land for the special economic zone, the money was then invested in building up ties with the businesses. Thus, some invested the money to build resorts for the super rich coming from outside, while some built hutments for the workers of the area – all as matter of business. Some invested in high-end restaurant business or in the sale of luxury items. Some became contractors to build roads, while others engaged in supplying building material. Still others simply became agents in the sale of land and other property. This moneyed class is the mainstay of the mahapanchayat (village governing body) of the Gurgaon-Manesar area. In most cases the mahapanchayat supported the Maruti owners throughout these years. Not surprisingly, years later, when the great Maruti unrest broke out and the fleeing workers wanted shelter in nearby villages, some of the wandering workers were handed over to the police by the local gentry, particularly if the worker belonged to a low caste.

Indeed, the surrounding region restructured around the factory. Some of the members of the local rich gentry became contractors for Maruti and other plants in that area. Others became canteen suppliers. Still others supplied other material to the plant. All this was not a merely spontaneous consequence of the sudden availability of money. The company officials deliberately decided to turn locals into suppliers as a guarantee for stability and security in the region. On the other hand as more and more temporary hands were engaged in Maruti the workers became casual, contract bound in special ways indicated above,bereft of any social security entitlement. These workers were mostly Dalits. They were kept invisible from the public profile of the company and the business so that later the bosses could say that only a minority of the Maruti workers were troublemakers, large-scale worker dissatisfaction was a lie, and the repeated lockouts at Maruti were aimed at protecting the majority of loyal workers. All these claims helped the state and the local government frame its response: quick apprehension of the troublemakers, quick trial, and quick exemplary punishment.

However, let us not anticipate the full story here. Let us go back to the agitation in 2000.

What followed the agitation should be taken as a study in transition the of regimes from a welfare state to a “regulatory state.”4 Firstly, against the Maruti Union Employee Union (MUEU) which had led the agitation so far, a new management controlled Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU) was founded, holding election in 2001. A massive retrenchment process in the name of Voluntary Retirement Scheme was undertaken and workers were laid off. In 2002, Suzuki increased its share to 54.2%. In 2006, the Manesar unit of Maruti was established. The grip of management on the workers was tightened as never before. There were regular reports of daily abuse of workers, mostly on ground of caste and the impossible working conditions of the lean production system.

In 2011, a new wave of struggle at Maruti brought it to the forefront of working class struggle in India and attracted global attention. The discontent with working conditions and the abusive attitude of the management reached a breaking point. On June 3, 2011, workers at the Manesar plant submitted an application to register their independent union Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU).5 The next day a workers’ sit-in at the Manesar factory began. The primary demands of the workers were the right to unionize and to make all contractual and temporary workers permanent. On June 6, eleven workers were fired. On June 17, the labor department intervened and the workers were reinstated and a verbal assurance was given that their union would be registered. During this entire period the workers occupied the factory. They had learnt their lesson from the earlier struggle:it was unwise to leave the factory as this allowed the management to declare a lockout. What followed was constant threat and abuse by the management as well as dismissals and suspensions. This continued until August 28-29, when suddenly a large contingent of police entered the plant and management sealed the gate. When the workers arrived, the management declared that they could enter only after signing an undertaking (a signed promise) of good conduct. The workers refused to do so. Harassment and arrest of union leaders followed. On September 30, the workers agreed to sign the good conduct undertaking. However, only permanent workers were allowed to enter while 1,100 contract workers were denied entry. They were told to take their dues and leave. From October 7, permanent and contract workers occupied the factory, and on October 13, the High Court passed the order that the workers should vacate the factory.

In the meantime, the management laid a siege on the factory cutting the water supply and closing the canteen. In a dramatic turn of events, still largely inexplicable, the strike ended in November as some leaders of the strike took compensation from the management and left the company. In any case, the management promised that the union would be registered by December 13, 2011; but it was until January 31, 2012 that the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) was finally registered. The struggle, of course, continued.

On April 18, 2012 the union presented a charter of demands to reduce work pressure, modify the extremely demanding work schedule, end of the incentive scheme, etc. In May, two union leaders were suspended because of an altercation with supervisor, but they were reinstated due to collective pressure from the workers. Matters came to a head in June-July when talks between management and the union broke down. Workers stopped reporting early and worked for only eight and half hours. On July 18, 2012 a supervisor abused a worker with casteist remarks and the worker was suspended.6 Subsequent events remain unclear. Workers said that bouncers were called by the management and violence broke out, resulting in the death of an HR manager. Who killed the manager remains a mystery. Workers demanded an impartial probe into the incident. In any case, the violence and the death of the manager allowed the state to crackdown on workers with ferocity. Thus came to an end of the year long struggle of the Maruti workers.

Over this entire period, the struggle remained autonomous in the sense that the direct intervention of trade unions of the Left and other parties was negligible. However, after the events of July 2012 as the struggle came under heavy state repression, several trade unions came to the support of the workers. This period is more interesting as it revealed a completely new face of the trade union movement in India, marked by new methods of negotiations between the workers and the unions. There were several unions and workers’ organizations ranging from various shades of what is called the far-Left, to ones which were more like non-governmental organizations and labor solidarity associations than unions. It meant a shift in the organizing principle hitherto based on the concept of class to that of community. This, as later events showed, was to have serious repercussions on the movement.

After the July 18 incident, 546 permanent workers were terminated along with about 1,800 temporary workers and 147 permanent workers arrested on charges of murder. To meet the consequences of the crackdown of July 2012, the union reorganized itself through a provisional committee and a new movement began from November 7, 2012. MSWU demanded that the arrested leaders be released, dismissed workers reinstated, temporary workers made permanent, and an impartial probe on the incident of July 18,be instigated.

The struggle this time, however, was perceptively different in terms of tactics and strategy. The new phase of struggle began on November 7, 2012. While the earlier movements recognized the importance of sit-ins or occupying either the factory or an important government office, this time the workers moved around. An important reason for this was that a large number of workers had been terminated and the temporary workers were looking for jobs, thus making it difficult for the workers to organize an occupation of the factory. However, there was considerable debate between the various unions and MSWU to shift the site of struggle to the capital (Delhi) rather than clinging on to Gurgaon-Manesar. This suggestion was not taken up. It is a bit surprising as the experience of the struggle had shown the gains of standing ground even if that meant shifting at times the location of the struggle. In this case, if the terrain of the mobilization had been even partially shifted to Delhi, the kind of repression possible in Haryana may not have happened, since that level of repression in Delhi would have very likely attracted large-scale public interest. In any case, by this time the issue of the Maruti struggle was not a local one only, but a national, even a global issue. There was a greater chance of workers’ mobilization from other places as well as a greater display of social solidarity. The suggestion had come from some groups involved in the movement with MSWU.

In the meantime MSWU aligned itself with some central trade unions like CITU. On one occasion when the site of the movement shifted to Kaithal the workers sought help from the notorious khap panchayat (a council of elders of few villages often emerging as quasi-judicial body and pronouncing harsh punishments based on age old customs of practising violence on women and dalits). In some circles, this tendency of workers of choosing their own leadership is taken as a positive phenomenon and a sign of autonomy. However, the experience of Maruti showed that such alliances are never symmetrical in their power relations. In this case the power was firmly in the hands of the khap panchayat. After the police repression of May 19, 2013 in Kaithal, the khap panchayat withdrew its support. With this came the end of this phase of the struggle. There was a seminar held at Jawaharlal Nehru University where MSWU asked for suggestions for continuing the struggle.

The latest notable situation in Maruti struggle is that MSWU has been reorganized and a new body has been elected. However, this long history of Maruti struggle has left the question of strategy and tactics of the workers’ movement open. How do we conceive of the autonomy of workers’ movement? Taking into account that many of these workers belonged to villages around Gurgaon-Manesar, their impulse led them to fall back on the community organization of the khap panchayat. They also tried to align themselves with central trade unions of the parliamentary Left as well as organizations belonging to the radical Left. These forces were parts of and not merely spectators in the debates surrounding the question of organization. A working class movement, even as sophisticated and led by what is called advanced workers such as those of Maruti, working on the cutting edge of technology, cannot remove itself from its political and social background. It might also be the case that this movement may not even want to do that. Thus, debates, quarrels, party alignments, and various pulls remained intrinsic to the situation.

It cannot be forgotten that to a large degree the struggle was sustained because of their links with the villages. Perhaps the postcolonial condition not only does not completely transform peasants into workers at least for now, but in this condition the workers have to traverse both spheres. In the case of Maruti the workers who were part of the struggle were only the first generation who had given up farming and taken up technical education to become part of the skilled workforce. Maybe that is the reason that forced them to look for succour in their villages rather than in their so-called autonomous self. Also, it must not be forgotten that after the collapse of struggle post-July 18, 2012, the unions and organizations of the Left rallied in the support of MSWU in the face of heavy state repression, though not to the required extent. Certainly more could have been done. However the support helped the movement remain alive both on the ground as well as in the progressive circles and media. The question is: Is autonomy even desirable, at least in the way it is understood? Is there a new way to conceptualize the issue?

There are good reasons to argue that the autonomous character of the workers’ movement in Maruti stems from the specific, precarious labor conditions at the plant. Suzuki has become an increasingly globalized enterprise since it started its joint venture with Maruti three decades ago, with its centers of production, investment, and export sales now reaching into parts of Africa, Europe, and the United States. But its Indian subsidiary still accounts not only a large portion of Suzuki’s foreign sales (62 percent), but its total sales (48 percent). But increasing productivity rates at Maruti have only been possible due to changes in both the forces and relations of production: namely, the adoption of a just-in-time production system and the subsequent differentiation of the labor force into three categories of workers – permanent, contract, labor, and apprentice laborers. In 2012, of the total number of Maruti workers, 1100 Maruti workers were contract laborers, 400 apprentice laborers; and only 950 were permanent laborers. The number of contract laborers has periodically fluctuated. Combined with speed-ups in the production process, this reorganization of the labor force has helped the Maruti plant at Manesar to increase its annual production capacity from 250,000 to 350,000 units.

Technological adjustments and the implementation of a flexible work regime have also had tangible effects on the factory floor. For instance , if Maruti workers previously received two 15-minute tea breaks per shift, now they receive two tea breaks of 7.5 minutes each. Likewise, the time allotted for lunch was reduced from one hour to 30 minutes. Strangely, while political economy speaks of intensification of production, and thus the increase of production through constant improvement of technology, it does not have the language to discuss, or any means of measuring, the role of the body and the intensification of its laboring capacities in the “Post-Fordist” regime of accumulation. This is the necessary background, however, for understanding the currents forms of labor (permanent, casual, and apprentice) and relations of production at the Maruti plant.

The failure of the traditional trade union movement led by the classical Left Parties to adequately respond to the growing saliency of labor market flexibilization and just-in time-production system in global capitalism today, and the constant blows against working class institutions inflicted by the neoliberal state, point to a central question: instead of the fight for wages, is the idea of autonomy the best conceptual tool to understand today workers’ movements that are often displaying new forms of organization, mobilization, and proletarian power? In 1970s Italy, a section of the theoreticians of workers’ movement argued that in contrast to the centralized decisions and authority structures of modern institutions, autonomous social movements involved people directly in decisions affecting their everyday lives. In this way democracy would expand and help individuals break free of the political structures and comportments imposed by capital from above. Such an understanding involved a call in a revolutionary perspective for the independence of movements from political parties. Autonomia in Italy sought to create a practical political alternative – a terrain of struggle – that evaded the traps of both capitalist democracy and what they defined as authoritarian socialism.

This is not the place to discuss in details the theory of the autonomous movement, for more often than not the principle of autonomy has been discussed theologically; at times a particular context has been universalized, and at times politics has been taken out of working class movement, with the result that the experiences of workers’ movements have not been given adequate importance in theorizing the issue of autonomy. This has been responsible for a lack of dialectical understanding of what we should mean by autonomy of workers’ movement. In this background the recent workers’ movements in Delhi deserves importance, and surely it will be necessary to look dialectically into the issue of autonomy in the workers’ movement in the context of the strategy and tactics of proletarian politics.

To arrive at that discussion we have to now move on to the second experience that we propose to narrate here.

Struggle of Hot Roller Workers in Wazirpur: Who Organizes the Unorganized and How

The labor conditions in Wazirpur in Delhi are as far removed from the Maruti case as one can possibly imagine. In Wazirpur, workers toil in hot rolling steel factories under the most dangerous conditions. The temperatures of the blast furnaces in the factories, reach more than 2700 degrees. The labor process involves direct exposure to these extreme temperatures: one group of workers will attend to the furnaces in 30 minute shifts, before taking a rest for the next 30 minutes while another group of workers takes over, and the process repeats. The 30 minutes rest period is not recognized by the factory owners, and thus goes unpaid.

Migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar provinces compose the majority of the workforce. The migration pattern of workers is incorporated into the process of production itself: during the summer, migrants return to their villages in the summer for the sowing and harvesting season, permanent works tend to the furnaces; in the winter, when the weather in Delhi is often unbearably cold, new, inexperienced migrants are often contracted to work on the furnace, as it is purportedly more “comfortable.”

Migration is thus a decisive element in the formation of the workforce at Wazirpur. Most workers come through a well-formed migration network based on kinship relations. The other alternative for workers from other provinces is to come through a labor contractor, who is often the supervisor or foreman at the same factory. However, as in Maruti, the percentage of permanent workers who live in Delhi and work at the plant year-round is relatively low.

These structural conditions are essential for analyzing the steelworkers’ struggle at Wazirpur in June-July 2014. Our analysis draws on the detailed chronology of this political sequence posted on a blog created by a factory committee involved in the struggle, which is a valuable firsthand account in its own right. What is important in this discussion is how Wazirpur workers created novel forms of collective action in and through their struggle – a struggle often marked by intense, yet generative, polemics between the different groups involved. But what was at stake in this month-long battle? What issues were the most contentious issues for workers, and what were the tactics and outcomes of the Wazirpur confrontation?

As is so often the case, one must first turn to the issue of wage. Most of the workers at Wazirpur are not even paid the minimum wage. There had been previous agitation around low pay and lack of benefits during 2012 and 2013, which resulted in a partial success in terms of wages and holidays, but problems around work hours, work conditions, and the absence of any legally-required social security provisions remained major fault lines.

Moreover – and this is a significant departure from the Maruti case – the experience of collective action and the history of militancy among workers was fairly low. In Maruti, there was a historical memory of struggle which was readily available to the workers; not so for workers in Wazirpur. This was due not to a lack of antecedent struggles to draw upon: there was, for example, a heroic week-long strike of 1988, which was unfortunately all but forgotten. This dynamic should rather be attributed the specific obstacles of organizing in the informal sector, and the dependence of this sector on migrant labor. Due to the constant shifts in the internal composition of the labor force, it becomes difficult for a workers’ movement to have a continuous history and culture of militancy, or a robust tactical repertoire to return to. This history is interrupted by the ebbs of migratory flows: long periods of inactivity means that the struggle has to begin anew, so to speak.

One of the most effective interventions developed during the struggle was that of the community kitchen. In itself, this may not have been a completely new tactic, but it had not been used for a long time. The problem of organizing informal sector workers is largely a consequence of the lack of any financial security for migrants; the owners have thus always used hunger and food aid as a strategy to break the workers. Almost 20 days into the strike striking workers established a community kitchen, and the owners were taken aback and forced to negotiate. Some even were forced to close their factories as they could not have run it profitably according to the new settlement.

The struggle also made the government labor department, which was till now mostly inactive, suddenly active and relevant. Once the settlement was reached, the onus of the implementation fell on the labor department.7 The officials of the labor department were genuinely surprised to find the kind of power they still had over these informal units. All these may change however after new labor reforms are put in place. But for the time being the struggle have forced them to take up investigations of the factory and the working conditions prevailing in these factories.

The struggle in Wazirpur and its partial victory is an encouraging signal that even the most unorganized sector, where the parliamentary Left’s union activism has only a limited presence, has the potential to become a thriving ground for experiments in radical forms of workers’ organization. This is a vital supplement to the Maruti case, which demonstrated that even in the organized sector – at the cutting edge of technological innovation in the workplace – the radical Left has an important role to play. With the rise of casualization of labor, it is true that workers have become more geographically mobile and contractually flexible; but the upshot may be that they are now more amenable to the kind of politics articulated by the radical Left.

The struggle did, however, bring an important question to the fore. Who organizes the workers at sites that have not been previously organized or where trade union influence has been minimal? Here the history of the Left movement in India needs to be considered. The changing circumstances have forced the radical Left, which emerged after the movement of the late 1960s, to look at their program, and strategy and tactics anew. Contrary to the belief that radical Left is in terminal decline or at best only active in isolated spaces or distant forests, there is a great deal of ideological and political ferment taking place within this circle. As a matter of fact, the level of polemics is similar to the 1960s, if not more intense. This renewed activity has been brought about precisely because of the questions raised and methods of organizing developed by the working class struggle, making it more militant and sustainable. The radical left is now forced to reconsider the question of the party form, trade union tactics, and the possible new forms of association that can and must be elaborated through working class struggle. Those are no longer ossified or arcane concepts, but living, urgent strategies to be considered.

Concepts like war of position, mobile war, and protracted war (enunciated by Antonio Gramsci and Mao Zedong) have not escaped the political understanding of the radical Left in India, and these concepts can perhaps lead the way in articulating new forms strategy and tactics in workers’ struggles.

Concluding Remarks

Both the experiences suggest that the problematic of “autonomy” and the received notions of workers’ autonomy need to be seriously investigated. After all, we have to ask ourselves, what are the issues, forces, or institutions that the workers’ struggles have to be autonomous from? What kind of emancipatory politics will such autonomous forms engender? Finally, through the looking glass of autonomy, will the working class stumble upon only its own interests, or will it complete the historical task Marx so eloquently expressed when he said, in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, that the working class has finally discovered the “political form” under which it can achieve the “emancipation of labor”?

We have stressed the need to consider the question of autonomy in a dialectical fashion. In other words, the issue cannot be framed as an either/or choice: between the party-form or the union form, the union form or the autonomous organizational form, political movement or the self-organizational movement of workers, or finally, between a political upsurge or social movement. Every instance of worker-led resistance has shown strong marks of autonomy, a swell of consciousness on the ground, and a large degree of spontaneity. At the same time, every uprising of workers has demonstrated features of strategic leadership, effective organization, wide social networks, and a strong transformational desire.

As Stephen Sherlock’s 2001 study (The Indian Railway Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organised Labour) and Ranabir Samaddar’s recent study (The Crisis of 1974: Railway Strike and the Rank and File) show, the great Railway Strike in India in 1974 was one of the clearest instances of a current of “autonomy” developing within a movement. But the formation of the great autonomous institution of the NCCRS (National Coordination Committee of Railwaymen’s Struggle) was a political decision and an agreed decision of the political parties leading the struggle. NCCRS was backed by the tremendous upsurge of the railway workers. Mass initiative was created through struggle: its advances and successes, but also errors and failures. It is also important to note that the craft unions were crucial in the wave of sectional protests and strikes by railway workers across the country in 1967, 1968, 1970, and 1973, leading up to the great Railway Strike. In all these senses, therefore, one can say that the 1974 strike was based in a significant sense on the rank and file, particularly the newly emergent crafts unions among the rail workers. While labor historians generally regard craft unions as being limited in their expressions of class consciousness, and prone to the pulls of sectarian rather than wider class loyalties, such crafts unions broke the stranglehold that the large federations had on workers’ initiatives. Therefore, in the papers relating to the Strike of 1974, we find repeated references to the loco-running staff (locomotive drivers, train guards, etc.) Whoever has studied, for instance, the legendary railroad workers’ movement in the United States will know the strategic importance of the loco-running staff because of their work conditions, long working hours, high-pressure work for days without a break, and the solidarity that the loco-men forge through their work.8 The ascendancy of the Loco Running Staff Association (LRSA) was crucial in mobilizing the workers for the strike. In some sense, with the firemen joining the rank and file, the railwaymen were now ready for action because they had found their leaders.

In 1968, the Firemen of Southern and South Central Railways walked off the job for twenty-one days, demanding an eight hour day. While negotiations with the Deputy Railway Minister to find a solution were going on, the leaderships of two major unions, the AIRF and NFIR, entered into an agreement with the Railway Board for a fourteen hour work shift from punch-in to punch-out. This compromise broke the strike and decimated the strength of the workers. However, the Loco Running Staff learned an important lesson: they decided to stand on their own feet and organize themselves. A number of firemen councils, besides other existing running staff unions, were established throughout the country. These firemen councils and running staff associations formed the All India Loco Running Staff Association in 1970, at Vijayawada. The loco-men agitated persistently, and organized a nation-wide strike beginning on August 2, 1973 which resulted in an agreement on a ten-hour working day. The struggle boosted the self-confidence of the railwaymen, and had a direct impact on the subsequent formation of NCCRS (National Coordination Committee of Railway Men’s Struggle) and the historic strike of May 1974.9

Other nodal points in this submerged history of autonomous workers’ movements in India bear mentioning. First, there is the well-known movement for factory self-management in the Kanoria Jute Mill in West Bengal in the 1990s. This movement was mobilized after an autonomous group of workers – with a very particular political perspective – led a factory occupation with the support and solidarity of different Left organizations.10 There was also the Dalli-Rajhara miners’ movement in the late 1970s, led by late Shankar Guha Neogy, a case once again marked by strong organization, a keen sense of tactics and strategy, and active involvement of the rank and file. This history of autonomous organizing on the part of workers exhibits the dialectical dynamics we described above. Strongly poised between the two poles of insurgent self-activity and established political and social institutions, workers in India are now learning to strategically and tactically use the concept of autonomy.

Autonomy, as a movement and as a theory, challenges the notion that capitalism is an irrational system. Instead, it privileges what it takes to be the workers’ viewpoint, emphasizing their activity as the lever of revolutionary passage as that which alone can construct a communist society. The economic level and the political level are intertwined; economic relations are directly political relations of force between class subjects. And it is in the self-activity of the social worker – not in what is considered as an alienated political form like the party – that the initiative for political change resides.

But can the rich experiences of working class movements in India be comprehended through the concept of autonomy if the latter is theorized in non-relational terms? We are not indulging in semantic dispute here; at stake is our understanding and sedimented conceptions of politics.

The idea of autonomy today is undergoing a revival in India; it is doubtless one important mode of resistance to postcolonial capitalism. There is clearly a multiplicity of forms of dependent labor operating globally, with factories turning into sweatshops, the most virtual forms of accumulation combining with the most primitive, the wage question linking up with the issue of work conditions, and labor processes becoming enmeshed with the issue of casualization of labor. While admittedly the old trade union movement failed to revise its strategy in light of the changes in the labor regime ushered in by neoliberal modes of accumulation, the answer does not lie in making autonomy the holy panacea to the impasses of trade union policies; the upsurges of workers’ autonomy must be treated dialectically.11 This means bringing back the three great questions of the workers’ movement: organization, transformation, and emancipation. The question of organization is crucial, when we see that while in 1980-81 the share of wages and salaries in gross national income was 40.5 per cent, in 2011-12 the share had come down to 22 per cent.12

On the other hand, the Indian state has no illusions about the autonomous character of these recent workers’ movements, and the threat they pose. As Maruti showed, the state came down violently on the strike and the entire movement, justice was summarily denied, criminal justice provisions were abused, trade union rights were trampled upon, and every governmental step was taken to ensure that Maruti does not become the symbol of a politics of the workplace and beyond.13 The employers, public authorities, local elites, the moneyed gentry, and the machinery of law and justice – all of these agents allied against the workers. In this instance, the imperative for the workers’ struggle was not to be autonomous, but be more and more connected to the existing political relations within society, the reality of the social factory, which called for rigorous thinking and debate about strategy and tactics.

Workers have come a long way from earlier forms of resistance. From being rick burners, machine breakers, humble petitioners, sober trade unionists, stewards of unions, to trade union militants leading general strikes and teaming up with other struggling sections of society – this is the tortuous history of the workers’ movement. Yet this inspiring and often tragic history has to be revisited again and again in order to determine the strategy and tactics of the working class movement in the context of our contemporary time. Strategy and tactics are crucial concepts – as crucial as the imperative of autonomy. While autonomy is a concept, strategy and tactics are principles of waging class war, and are in fact essential components of all wars. They indicate relational judgement, evaluation of balance of forces, command, stewardship, mobilization, deployment of forces, logistical planning, measurement of time, etc. Once workers have gone beyond the boundaries of workplace trade unionism, which they know and understand naturally, they often become reliant on national institutions like political parties and national trade unions. Since the parties and unions have very little idea of working outside the national institutional sphere, workers grope for a way out of the institutional confines. This is the time when they cry out “treachery!” They say leaders have sold out. Yet they cannot find the exit route.

This is where the two experiences we have cited are indicative of new thinking and new modes of organization, however faulty and hesitant the initial steps may look to us. These movements have consciously or unconsciously addressed the reality of the social factory and they have combined an autonomous character – mobilization from below and mass initiative – with the need to formulate an appropriate strategy and effective set of tactics, which only political leadership can provide.

As long as industry catered to local markets, served local areas, and drew from local population to form its labor force, sectionalism and differentiation among workers was not a major problem for union organizers. But now in the age of globalized capitalism, precarious conditions of work have accentuated the problem of sectionalism and differentiation, which can bring back some of the maladies evident in workers’ movements during the pre-mass industrialization era, with reverse effects. One thinks of cases where union organizers from Europe and the United States (the AFL-CIO, for instance) visit workers’ movements and activists in the so called developing countries (for instance China, India, or South Africa), encouraging the formation of “autonomous unions” there, while unions in their own backyard have been drastically weakened, even destroyed. The slogan of autonomy reflects the desire to exit institutional confines and outmoded political forms; and as such it reflects the dualities and paradoxes in the present situation.

The situation calls for a dialectical thinking of autonomy and organization. While there has been a general consensus on the decline in union membership and several other features associated with a strong labor movement, there has also been a recent surge of activity in many areas, including the formation of unions, associations, solidarity forums, militant groups, and the waging of local battles that involve political choices at every step. We might say that the slogan of autonomy is the appearance of a different reality, connected to the question of precarious work and the labor process, inasmuch as the wage relation may become under particular circumstances what Marx called the “form of appearance” of the “true state of affairs.” Yet, as Marx said apropos of classical political economy, it is absolutely essential to work beyond the form of appearance: “The forms of appearance are reproduced directly and spontaneously, as current and usual modes of thought; the essential relation must first be discovered by science. Classical political economy stumbles approximately onto the true state of affairs, but without consciously formulating it. It is unable to do this as long as it stays within its bourgeois skin.”14

The task, then, is the following: instead of spontaneously giving oneself over to the trend of providing an ideological name to a new or emerging reality, we have to proceed in a dialectical manner towards finding out what is actually happening in workers’ struggles today. Questions of organization, tactics, and strategy are therefore essential; and they can be discovered (at least in elemental forms), discussed, and elaborated only through a science of relational analysis.

Originally posted on the Viewpoint Magazine website.

  • 1Gurgaon Workers News, Newsletter 3, May 2007.
  • 2Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, Hard Drive: Working Conditions and Workers Struggles at Maruti (Delhi: Hindustan Printers, 2001).
  • 3Ibid.
  • 4 This is how the new role of the state is articulated in a paper published by the Planning Commission in 2008. See Approach to Regulation of Infrastructure. New Delhi: Secretariat for the Committee on Infrastructure, Planning Commission , Government of India, September 2008.
  • 5Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, Driving Force: Labour Struggles and Violation of Rights in Maruti Suzuki India Limited (Delhi: Progressive Printers, May 2013).
  • 6Ibid.
  • 7For details of the settlement see Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, “Wazirpur Struggle Continues, As Factory Owners Refuse to Honour Written Agreement,” (accessed September 15, 2014).
  • 8Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working Class Organizers, ed. Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 1973); see in particular, Wayne Kennedy, “An Absolute Majority,” 233-52.
  • 9For a detailed discussion on the role of the rank and file, particularly the Locomen in the General Strike of 1974, see Ranabir Samaddar, “Forty Years After: The Great Indian Railway Strike of 1974,” Economic and Political Weekly volume 50, no. 4, January 24, 2015; Ranabir Samaddar, “The Indian Railway Workers and the Crisis of 1974,” Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, December 18, 2015.
  • 10Kushal Debnath, “West Bengal: The Neo-Liberal Offensive in Industry and the Workers’ Resistance,” Revolutionary Democracy (accessed on October 16, 2014).
  • 11On the paradoxical play of autonomy, mass initiative, and political leadership of the movement in the organization of the 1974 Indian Railway Strike, cf. Stephen Sherlock, The Indian Railway Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organized Labour (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2001).
  • 12From respective Annual Economic Surveys, cited in a report, “Maruti Karkakhanar Sramik Andolaner Shikkhoniyo Kichu Dik,” Charcha, August 2013, 54-8.
  • 13On the legal dimensions of the violations of Maruti workers’ rights, see “Merchants of Menace: Repressing Workers in India’s New Industrial Belt: Violations of Workers’ and Trade Union Rights at Maruti Suzuki India Ltd,” Report of the International Commission for Labour Rights, New York, n.d.
  • 14Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 682.


Synthesis anar…

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Submitted by Synthesis anar… on April 14, 2020

Thankyou for this article. What I like to read