Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Full-Time Trade Union Leaders & the Societal Context: The Bosses & Deputies

Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Full-Time Trade Union Leaders & the Societal Context: The Bosses & Deputies

Article excerpt


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. …

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