What India’s worker strike really means

By the standards of the 1980s, the countrywide strike by India's major trade unions was a failure, as business as usual continued in areas outside traditional union strongholds. But union leaders are right to trumpet the partial success as a show of new strength – if for no other reason that the labor organizers were able to overcome factionalism and work together for perhaps the first time.

More importantly, by setting a common charter of demands that centered on inflation, the unions may also be beginning to lay the groundwork for a much-needed shift in focus. And high prices aren't the real, or most significant, target. The real aim is to bring so-called “contract workers” into the fold of the unions by pushing through an amendment to a law that guarantees these semi-permanent employees the same wages as their higher-status co-workers.

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As I pointed out in The Shiva's Rules last year, when India's unions go on strike, it means that some of the country's highest paid, best treated workers are hitting the picket lines, while the vast majority of the work force is not protected. Only about 7 percent of Indians work in the so-called “organized sector” – which in this context means companies large enough to register on the government's radar, not necessarily unionized shops. The rest toil in conditions that would make Upton Sinclair shudder, often for less than the legally mandated minimum wage, and are unable either to secure protection from the law or fight for their rights through collective bargaining.

Business leaders say that unions have unwittingly contributed to the swelling of this unorganized sector by preventing companies from hiring and firing workers to match fluctuations in the economy. The logic being that if a big firm can't hire 1000 workers today and fire 500 of them next month, it will outsource those jobs to sweatshops in the unorganized sector that don't have to worry about such rules.

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At the same time, big firms like Maruti-Suzuki employ thousands of “contract workers,” who can be fired more easily than “permanent employees” (note: there doesn't seem to be much difference between the two sets of workers, apart from classification).

Making the two classes of organized sector workers equal, and getting them to fight on the same side, would be a big victory for the unions, and go some distance in re-establishing their political significance and bargaining power.

But the real job – and the moral obligation of anybody who claims to fight on behalf of “workers” – lies in forcing the government to implement labor laws for the unorganized sector.

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