Academic journal article Capital & Class

Indian Public-Sector Trade Unionism in an Autocratic Political Climate: The Distinctive Case of Gujarat

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Indian Public-Sector Trade Unionism in an Autocratic Political Climate: The Distinctive Case of Gujarat

Article excerpt

Introduction

The three decades following Indian independence in 1947 were dominated politically by the Congress Party, and economically by a strong state sector. However, since then there have been major political and economic changes in India. First, this has been in terms of the effective end of Congress Party political hegemony. Second, there has been a fundamental shift in economic policy in favour of market liberalisation, especially after the country's major financial crisis in 1991. Post-1991 liberalisation has provided the engine of growth for the recent phase of Indian capitalism, although with essentially no benefit to India's poverty stricken masses, and with a slow-down in growth in the global economy's post-2008 period.

The market reforms introduced since 1991 have had a considerable impact on the nature of Indian industrial relations. Arguably, the restructuring and privatisation programme has been relatively gradual (Ahluwalia 2002; Uba 2008: 863), and with significant variations between states (Sinha 2005: 19; Ube 2008: 865-6). However, these developments as part of the broader liberalisation environment have posed tough challenges for trade unions, and created a distinctive and difficult context in which ongoing battles over pay, benefits, conditions, casualisation and job security have been fought out. Not surprisingly, there has been significant debate about how effective the unions have been, both in their opposition to these policies and more generally (e.g. Bhattacherjee 1999, 2001; Noronha and Beale 2011; Chowdhury 2003; Sen Gupta and Sett 2000; Teitelbaum 2006; Uba 2008). For example, Bhattacherjee (1999, 2001) emphasises the assertion of managerial power associated with the post-1991 economic liberalisation, the impact of market demands on unions and pressures on unions to work more cooperatively with employers. In addition, the informal sector represents by far the largest element of the labour force in India, and is largely non-unionised. Many workers in the formal economy are also non-union. Nevertheless, trade unions remain an important element of Indian industrial relations, and are a regular feature of government policy debates and concerns. There has been substantial union membership growth in India (Government of India--Ministry of Labour 2009; John 2008);' and overall, unions may not be as divided and may be more influential than many studies and press reports have often suggested (Teitelbaum 2006). They are also strongest, traditionally, in the public sector (Candland 2007: 30-31).

The dominant historical trend in Indian trade unionism developed on the basis of strong political influences, linked to the impact of colonialism and the struggle for independence. In the post-independence period, the trade-union movement fractured along party-political lines, creating deep-rooted and persistent divisions (Candland 2007: 17-34). Until very shortly before independence, there had been one national union federation in India, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), which was often allied to the Communist Party of India (Candland 2007: 22-30; Chandra, undated; Thankappan 2002). However, in 1947, a major split occurred in the AITUC, with a breakaway Congress Party group establishing its own federation, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). In the subsequent eight years, several further national union federations were established, based on party political allegiances. This was followed in the 1970s by a split in the INTUC, and by separate national union federations that mirrored a major split in the Communist Party.

In general, such political fragmentation adds significantly to the challenges faced by Indian unions in the post-1991 period. In the case of public-sector unions especially, it poses important questions about how particular unions respond to particular national and state-level governments in light of the party political allegiances and antagonisms of unions, and about how this might affect their response to post-1991 restructuring, liberalisation and related management initiatives. …

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