Mumbai: Working Class Struggles Show Signs of Return to Militancy

Adhiraj Bose/ 9.5.2010

If you are searching for strikes, lockouts, unrest and action on part of the working class, Mumbai or for that matter even the whole of Maharashtra wouldn’t be the first suggestion for it. Any soul in this country would suggest going to Calcutta or Kerala at least, home to the ‘left bastions’ of the sub-continent. But that view it seems does not hold much merit any more to the recent developments in Maharashtra and specially Mumbai.

The most recent act of insubordination of the working class of Maharashtra being the ‘crippling’ 24 hour strike by the Mumbai motormen. This is not the first instance that the motormen raised the issues of safety and wage increases . The workers were in fact fighting for these demands for a period of 6 months. That prolonged struggle culminated when the worker's patience wore thin and a hunger strike was announced in protest. The workers went on their indefinite hunger strike on the 3rd of May. The tactic appeared prima facie to be a most ‘Gandhian’ in its basic logic. The motormen relying on their ostensible ‘capability to starve’ went on the hunger strike driving the trains on an empty stomach. Before long the motormen started falling sick and their patience wore ever thinner when faced with the total apathy of the state government to tend to the ailing workers.

That is when the hunger strike changed from a peaceful Gandhian struggle into a full blown picket. How else would one expect working men starving for months being responded with nothing but the apathy of the state government for demanding their most legitimate demands. This lasted for hours thereafter affecting the movement of much of the city's population practically holding the entire machinery of capitalism in Mumbai for ransom. No more than 600 motormen were involved in the strike and this crippled the entire machinery of capitalism. The city came to a standstill. This kind of militancy more reminiscent of Mumbai's golden days of the 1970s and 1980s has, it seems resurfaced in the first decade of the 21st century.

The incident was enough to send the bourgeois into a panic mode invoking ESMA to stop the strike from continuing . At the end of the strike the union leaders seemed to strike a compromise understanding with the establishment halting the striking workers on the basis of promises made by the state to look into the demands of the motormen. A final date was given for the same as 15th of June. In return the government promised not to effect the detention orders on the working class under ESMA. Thus, the battle between motormen of Mumbai and the machinations of the bourgeois establishment thus ended in a ceasefire with an uncertainty as to its future development. But what it showed was the power of the working class who with a mere lift of their finger could bring a metropolis, equal to size of Australia to a standstill. The major unions under these radical circumstances acted in a most contemptible way seeking this or that compromise with the establishment doing little or nothing to spread the militant wave to other sections of the class with the view of bringing about working class solidarity. But the wave did spread and shortly after the strike of the motormen the cab drivers of Mumbai struck seizing the opportunity to raise their demands in front of the management.

The strike of the Mumbai motormen cannot be looked in isolation and evaluated merely on the basis of the limited goals of the striking workers in their sector but as part of a regional - national and international trend in the working class which has seen a rise in militancy after the world economic crisis.

Just as recently as 2 months back there was a massive mobilization of sugar factory workers demanding wage arrears due from the state. The sugar factory worker's strike represents one of the biggest mobilizations in the recent history of the state involving no less than 200000 workers from 188 sugar cooperative factories. A branch of industry notorious for its links with the leaders of big bourgeois parties, in particular the Congress and the NCP, and their strategic role as an instrument of maintaining their quasi-feudalistic clout over the populace. It was this strategic position of the sugar industry that made the strike all the more threatening for the establishment , ever fearful of the wrath of the working class. The response to the strike represented the underlying fears of the ruling strata of India society. In no less than two weeks from the start of the strike a staggering amount of 400 crore rupees was paid into the account of the cooperatives to pay the arrears.

Subsequent agreements and compromises between the establishment and the union leaders lead to the end of the strike around the end of February. However, some important questions remained unfulfilled as far the payment of part time employees in the sugar industries. A faction of the sugar factory worker's federation later on continued the agitation however as a protest against the compromises. But the deal had been done. The state and its de facto agency in the union leadership had won the day. However, the war is still pending. The struggle of the sugar factory workers, again reveals a certain fixed pattern of worker's struggles emerging in the state or more precisely re-emerging , where the union leadership either marred by reformist views or by an oppressive bureaucratic structure within itself acts to contain the militancy of the class thereby stalling the natural progress of a militant wave. These two major strikes in recent times represent not just the weaknesses of the bourgeois of India when faced with the overt threat of the class' advance , but also the weaknesses within the leadership of the working class. These weaknesses must not be interpreted merely in its regional-national existence but as a reflection of a much wider global crisis of working class leadership. This crisis is dialectically counter posed to the crisis of world capitalism which forces the workers more and more into the line of militant struggle.

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