Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

BSWU: A Case of 'Independent' Trade Union in India

Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

BSWU: A Case of 'Independent' Trade Union in India

Article excerpt

About the Case

This study has two fold objectives: (a) to present the history of trade union (1) movement in India (2), largely narrating the changing relationships among unions, employers and the state, and (b) to elaborate and explain the conditions that were instrumental in the growth of nonpolitical 'independent' unions in the country. Flanders (1970) pointed out that there is no such animal as a non-political union, and in a situation where most unions owe allegiance to a political party, it is even more difficult to speak of nonpolitical unions (Ramaswamy 1983). However, the points that emerge out of the case discussion signify a trend where independent rank-and-file led union (that came into existence owing to a variety of reasons) has proven its collective strength time and again. With the advent of economic and political reforms, the state-dominated pluralism and the state-controlled unionism gradually perished with a new ray of hope rising with the 'independent' unions. These unions' active engagement in informed and militant bargaining with employers in the process put the traditional party-based unions in serious trouble with their potential recruitment terrain both challenged and curtailed (Bhattacherjee 1999).

In the contemporary world of work, with the evolving bedlam in industrial relations characterized by floor crossing and inter-union rivalry, the effectiveness of a labour union is contingent upon the union leaders who disclaim allegiance to any political groups. That the union, which stayed unaffiliated although, had not kept itself detached from issues of workers' economic concerns or the country's democratic process happens

to be the central theme of the present case. The growth of this union was attributable to certain conditions and the case attempts to portray those conditions. With a little variation in details, such conditions could have taken place virtually in any enterprise or in any location.

Rise of 'Independent' Union

It is essential to conceptualize the expression 'independent trade union' to an extent, which encompasses the contemporary meanings assigned to the term within the industrial relations practices of the country. By definition, a local independent union is a labour organization with membership in one plant or company not affiliated with any national union or federation of any union, and free of employer control, directly or indirectly (Troy 1961). Although there have been debates on whether local independent unions are 'company unions' (Taft 1942, Troy 1961), yet there appears to be certain common characteristics. In this case, the word 'independent' is used to signify a broader perspective of the union as a collective muscle and its decentralized power in collective actions to promote industrial democracy.

'Independent' Union--the Indian experience

Since mid 1980, organized labour has not been able to challenge India's centrist ideology and politics, that is, to mount or support a left class party (Rudolph & Rudolph 1987). The causal factors for the rise of 'independent' unions can be summarized as follows:

The multiplicity of unions led to a severe inter-union rivalry, which promoted a parochial and unprincipled view of membership among the union leaders. Since the unions' bargaining strength is positively related to their size, membership was a crucial element to be inflated. Eventually, the union (caught in inter-union rivalry) realized that only an independent, vigorous labour organization that enjoys the loyalty of the members has any chance of standing up to the challenges from the rival unions and possible government hostility to defend its relationship with management (Ramaswamy 1983). In this 'loyalty contest', unions were caught in the fray over commitment to a political ideology or safeguarding the economic interest of the workers. Many unions opted for the latter and ultimately grew as 'independent' unions. …

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