150 Million Workers in India Just Staged the Largest Strike in History To Resist Neoliberalism

Theo Anderson

Unions have a 12-point “charter of demands” that includes not only higher minimum wages but better enforcement of labor laws, an end to privatization of the public sector, guaranteed pensions and social security protections for all workers, and an end to foreign investment in India’s railway, insurance and defense industries. (Centre of Indian Trade Unions/ Facebook)

Trade union­ists in India staged a nation­wide strike last week that affect­ed key sec­tors of the nation’s econ­o­my, includ­ing trans­porta­tion, health­care, finance, ener­gy, coal, steel, defense and edu­ca­tion. Orga­niz­ers report­ed­ly claimed that more than 150 mil­lion peo­ple took part and that it cost the econ­o­my some $2.5 bil­lion, mak­ing the strike the world’s largest.” 

Those num­bers could not be inde­pen­dent­ly con­firmed, but this much is clear: Work­ers are angry at the Indi­an gov­ern­ment and unwill­ing to accept its neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic agen­da with­out a fight.

Union lead­ers had asked for nego­ti­a­tions in March, and called the Sep­tem­ber 2 strike when gov­ern­ment offi­cials ignored them. On August 30, in a last-minute attempt to head off the strike, the gov­ern­ment pro­posed to increase the min­i­mum wage for unskilled work­ers employed by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, from about $3.70 to $5.20 per day. The offer wasn’t enough. Union lead­ers reject­ed the pro­pos­al, which didn’t begin to address their broad­er, far-reach­ing agenda.

Unions have a 12-point char­ter of demands” that includes not only high­er min­i­mum wages but bet­ter enforce­ment of labor laws, an end to pri­va­ti­za­tion of the pub­lic sec­tor, guar­an­teed pen­sions and social secu­ri­ty pro­tec­tions for all work­ers, and an end to for­eign invest­ment in India’s rail­way, insur­ance and defense industries.

Tapan Sen, gen­er­al sec­re­tary of the Cen­tre of Indi­an Trade Unions, accused the gov­ern­ment of a vile con­spir­a­cy” to pri­va­tize India’s pub­lic sec­tor. We have been putting for­ward our demands for the last five years,” Sen said, accord­ing to Reuters. But over the last year no min­is­ter has even met the trade unions.”

The effects of the strike var­ied wide­ly from state to state and sec­tor to sec­tor across the nation. For exam­ple, the state of Ker­ala, which has a long tra­di­tion of sup­port­ing Com­mu­nist politi­cians, and where the state assem­bly is dom­i­nat­ed by the Left Demo­c­ra­t­ic Front, was almost com­plete­ly shut down. The state’s chief min­is­ter, Pinarayi Vijayan, expressed sup­port for the strike on his Face­book page.

Across the nation, the trans­porta­tion and bank­ing sec­tors were par­tic­u­lar­ly affect­ed. In the state of Telan­gana, about 15,000 bank employ­ees par­tic­i­pat­ed in the strike and froze bank­ing oper­a­tions for the day. In the state of Tripu­ra, a news­pa­per report­ed, nor­mal life was par­a­lyzed,” and the state cap­i­tal Agar­ta­la wore a desert­ed look with pub­lic trans­port vehi­cles stay­ing off the roads.”

India has about 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple, or 17.5 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, and a work­force of about 500 mil­lion peo­ple. The Guardian report­ed that few­er than 4 per­cent of work­ers come under labor pro­tec­tion,” and that pri­vate employ­ers who wish to dis­cour­age any kind of union­i­sa­tion are being active­ly encour­aged by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment,” accord­ing to Jay­ati Ghosh, an econ­o­mist at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Uni­ver­si­ty in Delhi.

This unof­fi­cial cam­paign against orga­nized labor is tak­ing place with­in two rel­e­vant con­texts. One is the New Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy that India launched in 1991, an eco­nom­ic pro­gram in which it embraced neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic prin­ci­ples, includ­ing the dereg­u­la­tion of indus­try, the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the pub­lic sphere, low tar­iffs and cor­po­rate tax­es and a friend­ly envi­ron­ment for for­eign investment. 

The sec­ond con­text is the rise of Naren­dra Modi, who became the nation’s prime min­is­ter when his BJP par­ty swept into pow­er in the 2014 elections.

Modi’s polit­i­cal suc­cess is root­ed in his rep­u­ta­tion for cre­at­ing a vibrant econ­o­my in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief min­is­ter from 2001 to 2014. As The Econ­o­mist not­ed in 2015, Gujarat is rich­er, enjoys faster GDP growth and a greater inten­si­ty of jobs and indus­try than India as a whole.” Specif­i­cal­ly, the state has 5 per­cent of the nation’s pop­u­la­tion and 6 per­cent of its land mass, but it accounts for 7.6 per­cent of its GDP, almost a tenth of its work­force, and 22 per­cent of its exports,” The Econ­o­mist reported.

The Gujarat mod­el,” as it is some­times referred to, is a micro­cosm in which neolib­er­al prin­ci­ples reign. Modi is the vehi­cle for the broad appli­ca­tion of that mod­el to India as a whole — in the same way that Gov. Rick Per­ry, in his bids for the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, tout­ed the busi­ness-friend­ly cul­ture in Texas as the pre­scrip­tion for a vibrant Amer­i­can economy.

But the Gujarat mod­el” falls apart under scruti­ny. The high rate of strong over­all eco­nom­ic growth dis­guis­es increas­ing dis­par­i­ties and inequal­i­ties. In a 2014 arti­cle in the Indi­an mag­a­zine Front­line, for exam­ple, two schol­ars not­ed that Gujarat ranked ninth in an index of human devel­op­ment among Indi­an states. Specif­i­cal­ly, near­ly 52 per­cent of chil­dren were under­nour­ished — an increase from the ear­ly 1990s. And the lit­er­a­cy rate for chil­dren above the age of 6, although high­er than the nation­al aver­age, actu­al­ly declined between 1999 and 2008.

The schol­ars con­clud­ed that the mud­dled and selec­tive pre­sen­ta­tion of facts in the main­stream media on Gujarat, which does not high­light the fail­ure of the Gujarat gov­ern­ment to pro­vide basic needs and the wel­fare require­ments of the poor, has helped to project the Gujarat mod­el as an alter­na­tive’ for India.”

As in the Unit­ed States and across the globe, the suc­cess of the neolib­er­al project in India has pri­mar­i­ly meant more wealth for the wealthy — and false promis­es of trick­le-down ben­e­fits to work­ers. Last week’s strike was one con­cen­trat­ed protest against the relent­less march of that project. Whether momen­tum from the strike can be lever­aged into a more durable and broad-based move­ment, and how the move­ment can expose and over­come the myths of the Gujarat mod­el, remains to be seen.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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