Events in India and the Future of Organized Labor


In an article published by AlterNet, Vijay Prashad reports on the latest and most massive general strike that occurred in India in early September. Although the article has a Marxist slant that may make it seem more op-ed than news report, Prashad gets several things undeniably right: (1) the corporate media has largely ignored labor unrest; (2) the decline in union membership does not mean that labor issues have become anachronistic; (3) the number of exploited, low-income workers is increasing, rather than declining; (4) in many ways, the exploitation of those workers has not just been an unfortunate consequence of economic change and an unfortunate anomaly of recent economic growth, but, instead, a major factor in both; and (5) if labor unions are to have renewed purpose and renewed vitality in the post-industrial economy, they need to serve such exploited workers, even if doing so requires new structures and approaches than those that became institutionalized in organizing the workers of the industrial age.


“Trade unions leaders are reticent to say how many people struck work on September 2, 2016. They simply cannot offer a firm number. But they do say that the strike– the seventeenth general strike since India adopted its new economic policy in 1991–has been the largest ever. The corporate news media–no fan of strikes–reported that the number of strikers exceeded the estimated 150 million workers. A number of newspapers suggested that 180 million Indian workers walked off the job. If that is the case, then this is the largest reported general strike in history.

“And yet, it has not been given much consideration in the media. Few front page stories, fewer pictures of marching workers outside their silent factories and banks, tea gardens and bus stations. The sensibility of individual journalists can only rarely break through the wall of cynicism built by the owners of the press and the culture they would like to create. For them, workers’ struggles are an inconvenience to daily life. It is far better for the corporate media to project a strike as a disturbance, as a nuisance to a citizenry that seems to live apart from the workers. It is middle-class outrage that defines the coverage of a strike, not the issues that move workers to take this heart-felt and difficult action. The strike is treated as archaic, as a holdover from another time. It is not seen as a necessary means for workers to voice their frustrations and hopes. The red flags, the slogans, and the speeches – these are painted with embarrassment. It is as if turning one’s eyes from them would somehow make them disappear.


“A leading international business consultancy firm reported–a few years ago–that 680 million Indians live in deprivation. These people–half the Indian population–are deprived of the basics of life such as food, energy, housing, drinking water, sanitation, health care, education and social security. Most of Indians workers and peasants count amongst the deprived. Ninety per cent of India’s workers are in the informal sector, where protections at the workplace are minimal and their rights to form unions virtually non-existent. These workers are not marginal to India’s growth agenda. In 2002, the National Commission on Labour found that ‘the primary source of future work for all Indians’ would be in the informal sector, which already produced over half the Gross Domestic Product. The future of Indian labour, then, is informal with occasional rights delivered to prevent grotesque violations of human dignity. Hope for the Indian worker is simply not part of the agenda of the current dispensation in India. . . .

“Only four per cent of the Indian workforce is in unions. If these unions merely fought to defend their tenuous rights, their power would erode even further. Union power has suffered greatly since the Indian economy liberalised in 1991, with Supreme Court judgments against union democracy and with the global commodity chain pitting Indian workers against workers elsewhere. It is to the great credit of the Indian trade unions that they have embraced–in different tempos–the labour conditions and living conditions of workers and peasants in the informal sector. What power remains with unions can only grow if they do what they have been doing–namely, to turn towards the immense mass of the informal workers and peasants and draw them into the culture of unions and class struggle.”


Prashad’s complete article is available at:



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