Revisiting Chennai: Message of AICCTU’s 7th all India Conference

- D P Buxi

Our party launched its Central TU -- AICCTU -- in 1989. The founding conference in Chennai was actually little more than a meeting of party activists engaged in TU work and some worker vanguards. After nearly two decades, AICCTU revisited Chennai to hold its 7th conference on 2-4 August 2008.

During the intervening years, the situation has obviously changed a lot. In coping with the new challenges of working class movement, AICCTU has got its share of both strong and weak points. Unlike official mainstream trade unions, AICCTU does not suffer from old baggage and inertia; it has the capacity to mould itself in accordance with demands of new situation. On the other hand, limited base in working class remains its historical weak point. Thanks to its dynamism, however, it has partly overcome the historical limitation and achieved the status of a recognized TU as per criteria fixed by the Labour Ministry of Central government.

Working class movement today: emerging challenges and our response

a)       Organising the unorganized and revitalizing the entire working class movement

From the very inception, the AICCTU identified SSI units, sick industries and unorganized workers in general as its area of focus. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, as a latecomer in the trade union arena, AICCTU was hard-pressed to identify an area for quick expansion; secondly, it was necessary to develop a specific social identity and thus establish its own relevance in this arena. As it happened, within a very short period after its formation AICCTU had to face the comprehensive restructuring of capital-labour relations in the name of economic reform. This process brought about the vertical integration of capital dominated by MNCs and Indian corporate houses; closure of old and sick industries; destruction of SSI units and traditional sectors; winding up of several public sector units as well as growing ancillarization and downsizing; and massive casualization, feminization and informalization of labour. All this went hand in hand with large-scale attacks on labour norms and trade union rights -- with or without convenient tags like SEZ, IT sector, and so on.

In this backdrop the old and conventional boundaries -- as between organized and unorganised, formal and informal, permanent and casual and so on -- largely receded into the background. An unorganized workforce in the form of contract or casual workers with mediaeval working conditions now began to predominate not only in old industries and services but also in newly emerging sectors like real estate, tourism, etc. This reemergence of mediaeval features thanks mainly to retrogressive changes in working conditions is, of course, very much a modern feature of the reshaped capitalism of 21st century.

Viewed in this context, our focus on unorganized workers in the present juncture is by no means a defensive attempt at somehow gaining a foothold in the TU arena. It is an offensive initiative for responding to the new challenges before the working class and thus organizing a new strike force. Without this dynamic approach, our emphasis on unorganized workers is bound to degenerate into a formal, gradualist exercise devoid of any new inspiration or political edge.

b)       Politicization and trade union democracy:

From the very beginning AICCTU raised the twin slogans of politicizing workers and democratizing trade unions as the foundation of a new culture of revolutionary trade unionism. On the question of politicization of workers, we continue to face two extreme trends: abstract politicization and spontaneity or passivity. Whereas the former constitutes nothing but phrase mongering and escapes the real painstaking process of politicization, the latter at best adds some elements of trade union politics, i.e., reformist politics within trade union framework.

The real process of politicization of workers develops through a creative combination of several components:      developing class unity of the working-class by fighting narrow sector/ industry/trade/trade union mentality, mobilising the working class on specific questions of democracy, and assertion of the proletariat in political battles.

Our attempts to develop solidarity campaigns did contribute to developing class unity and solidarity. But we are yet to develop lively mass political campaigns on a truly broad scale. To overcome this problem we must grasp the twin dimensions of workers' existence. Firstly, within industry and at the production point they confront the conflict between capital and labour. Secondly, in their place of residence they experience all the conflicts in society as a whole. Obviously, the transition from trade union consciousness -- which grows from the conflict of capital and labour within an industry -- to radical political consciousness that evolves from participation in broader social conflicts, is very much related to combining trade union work and area-based work.

Many of our trade union leaders remain bogged down in redressal of grievances of individual workers. The real challenge here is to develop a mechanism for redressal of individual grievances in a professional way while laying more emphasis on addressing broader issues of the class.

Regarding trade union democracy, Comrade Vinod Mishra used  to say that revolutionary trade unionism cannot be defined by militancy or economic gains; the line of demarcation can only be drawn at the level of trade union functioning. If we can run a trade union on the basis of active role of a group of leaders and activists and by involving broad masses of workers, that would really constitute meaningful trade union democracy.

c)       United action and independent initiatives:

We must strike a proper balance between united action and independent initiatives. AICCTU has been a constituent of the Sponsoring Committee of Trade Unions from the very beginning and despite our differences we continued with united action against economic liberalization and globalization at national level. At lower level too we did not hesitate to go in for united action -- e.g., united action of several trade unions in jute industry of West Bengal. However, our emphasis has been and would continue to be on advancing our independent initiatives. To be more precise, we should take the following initiatives and measures:

a)       Go in for a big membership drive. By the next all India conference of AICCTU, we must redouble our present membership strength. This would take care of the quantitative aspect.

b)       Develop at least 50 districts throughout the country as advanced areas of work among the working class (with an immediate target of 15 districts). This would take care of the qualitative aspect.

c)       Strive for a proportionate growth of trade union members-activists-leaders (say in the ratio of 1000: 50:5) so as to ensure democratic functioning of our trade unions.

d)       Develop more effective, independent and professional office functioning at the center and in important states.

e)       Organize at least one general workshop and one sectoral workshop each for selected sectors every year for training trade union organizers and worker vanguards.

We have already achieved recognition as a central trade union; now we must use this vantage position to emerge as one of the major left trade unions in the country.

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