Workers against globalisation

New times of spirited resistance

The heroic and defiant strike of 6,00,000 postal workers, beginning on December 5, 2000, has ended in partial success in terms of achieving its demands. But its success was complete from the point of view of total participation and the spirit of defiance, even in face of break-in-service, threat of invocation of the draconian ESMA, arrests and dismissal. The tense endgame was fought amidst manipulation by the minister, betrayal by the Congress and BJP unions and vacillation by the left-led union. At the end of the day, the Talwar Committee report, gathering dust since April 30, 1997, has been left to gather more dust. This government-appointed committee had recommended wage revision and improvement in service conditions of more than 3,00,000 ‘extra-departmental’ postal workers (EDs), as well as pension and other service benefits to the regular employees.

The government set a dangerous precedent by refusing to implement the recommendations of the committee it had appointed itself. Worse still, it took an adamant stand, that after the implementation of the Fifth Pay Commission report, the issue of service conditions will not be reopened though the demands of the postal unions related to their grievances on anomalies in the very service conditions handed down to them by the Pay Commission. The very same government had earlier acknowledged the existence of genuine grievances by appointing another committee to look into them, which had submitted its recommendations favouring the employees as far back as 1998. Thus, the postal bureaucracy refused what they had earlier accepted in principle. As for EDs, they were supposed to remain content with some interim consolidated payment and take it as final -- they should forget the Talwar Committee. Yet, how fast the very same government acted on the liberalisation recommendations of the committees headed by Malhotra, Narasimham and Sarin!

The courts, busy these days with judicial cleansing of unorganised sector workers and poor tribals from their habitats, bared their reactionary fangs, questioning the executive as to why ESMA had not been invoked to end the postal strike. Having distinguished itself with its strike-breaking role in the Delhi power workers’ struggle and AIIMS strike, this was the third time the Delhi High Court had struck the working class. It never occurred to the wise men on the benches -- meting out instant injustice, supposedly, in pubic interest -- to ask the government as to why it had refused to act on the recommendations of its own committees or as to what had happened to the written agreement the postal bureaucrats had entered into with the unions on May 1, 2000, promising that their pending demands would be redressed within four months, or, for that matter, why the hidebound bureaucracy had not acted immediately despite having received a valid strike notice from the unions.

The injudicious intervention by the court was used as a weapon by a minister, claiming to represent “Janashakthi” and social justice, to browbeat the weak union leaderships forcing two of them to enter into a farcical agreement and withdraw the strike. The left-led union could have carried on alone and brought the government to its knees, had the union retained the same strength of yesteryear and had it not been weakened by the debilitating infighting between two major left parties within the P&T union movement. Hence, they resorted to the by now familiar drama of not signing the agreement and prolonging the strike just for one more day before calling it off. The government too was only too willing to generously grant them this special privilege of posturing through a one-day extra strike. But the rebellious rank-and-file was not impressed. They were finally 'pacified' by raising the bogey of ESMA and isolation, even though only six states had ESMA, and not all of them had declared their intention to invoke it against the striking postal employees. The EDs have once again been made use of as pawns in a larger game of bargain between the spineless union leaderships and the government. Their perennial demands have been made a bargaining chip to achieve some demands for regular employees even though there was a militant spirit of solidarity among regular employees in favour of their more oppressed colleagues.

Despite all its limitations, imposed largely by the vacillating leaderships, the postal strike has brought the year 2000 to a glorious conclusion. The UP power workers strike set the tone of militancy for the year in January. Coalworkers and bank employees followed suit. There were also numerous other struggles, smaller in scale but not less in intensity. Even the unorganised workers of Delhi launched a mini upsurge of sorts to halt the judicial juggernaut in its tracks. If the year 2000 began with a comment by an annoyed Vajpayee about the ‘strike fever’ in the country, the globalisation virus got activated again and again in the course of the year and The Times of India had to round up the year with front-page graphics listing half-a-dozen ongoing strikes by hospital workers, teachers and others under the title “Delhi Mess”. The social impact of globalisation has entered a new stage. Thrown back initially into the defensive under mounting onslaughts of globalisation and liberalisation, almost on a daily basis, the working class seems to have collected itself and its more organised detachments are gearing up for a counter offensive. The attitude on the other side of the fence is also hardening, pointing to the possibility of grim battles in the days ahead. The need and the possibility of a solidarity strike by all sections of government employees and even a general strike by industrial workers appeared very real for a brief while for every trade unionist of consequence, even as the chances of a crackdown on the striking postal employees appeared imminent. The mood for a showdown was definitely in the making. This is how the new consciousness is blossoming. That the union leaderships are lagging far behind and are facing its consequences is evident from the expressions of wrath by coalworkers against their union bosses (See report). New consciousness and new radicalisation often take several unconventional avenues to mature. But, unmistakably, these are new times for the working class movement.