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Learning from India: Political Parties, Alliances & Trade Union Organising for Counter-Power

category south-east asia | history | non-anarchist press author Tuesday December 31, 2019 05:37author by Sameer Pandey - Indian National Trade Union Congress Report this post to the editors

Historically labour has always found itself at the unfortunate end of the table, denied the fruits of its labour. Organised labour has, therefore, always tried to alter the balance of power in society. Sometimes unions have attempting to align with state power, to try push it towards the side of the workers. Sometimes unions have instead developed organisational strategies that look beyond state power. In India, as elsewhere, “political unionism” – where unions support a political party aiming at state power – has been very common.

This short article will critically discuss the history of “political unionism” in India. It will argue the need for a change in the strategic outlook of unions, towards working outside the state, building movements that refuse to participate in the state but aim instead to pressure it for reform where possible, through bottom-up mobilisation.

Learning from India: Political Parties, Alliances & Trade Union Organising for CounterPower [1]

By Sameer Pandey (Indian National Trade Union Congress)


Historically labour has always found itself at the unfortunate end of the table, denied the fruits of its labour. Organised labour has, therefore, always tried to alter the balance of power in society. Sometimes unions have attempting to align with state power, to try push it towards the side of the workers. Sometimes unions have instead developed organisational strategies that look beyond state power. In India, as elsewhere, “political unionism” – where unions support a political party aiming at state power – has been very common.

This short article will critically discuss the history of “political unionism” in India. It will argue the need for a change in the strategic outlook of unions, towards working outside the state, building movements that refuse to participate in the state but aim instead to pressure it for reform where possible, through bottom-up mobilisation.

Unions are always political, and have intense traditions of political engagement. It is important to note that unions, in the past, have been instrumental at changing the economic and political landscape of many countries worldwide, standing as a power source for the working class against authoritarian governments and exploitative employers. There are many ways that unions can engage in politics, but in the West, this often involved political unionism in the form of alliances with labour and left parties. In Asia and Africa, political unionism evolved during and through the process of the struggle for independence and saw unions linked in many cases to nationalist parties. The problem in both cases is that this strategy by the unions committed one social class (the proletariat) to supporting political parties that, entangled in the state, represented another, opposite class (the ruling class in society).

Generally, after anti-colonial victories, political unionism found itself busy with the agendas of post-colonial developmental states, which saw them as a “junior partner” in an era of economic rebuilding birthed at the end of the colonial era. Political unionism attempted to influence the state, and, specifically to influence labour policies. More often than not, however, union leaderships were directly instrumentalised by the state for its own purposes. This weakened unions, and – as more and more parties emerged – fragmented organised labour as each party sought its own union wing.

Unions today have indeed been weakened by the changing form, and growing strength of capitalism under neo-liberal globalisation, but we cannot reduce the problems to neo-liberalism. Unions were already weakened by post-colonial governments, which viewed them as threats and responded strategically, either smashing unions completely or trying to control and co-opt them. India presents an interesting case: with a large population, high unemployment and cheap labour, it has become a hub for foreign direct investment (FDI). Labour is constantly squeezed out of formal jobs, where unions are mostly based, and therefore are pushed outside the umbrella of organised labour. India today has a plethora of unions, with weakened bargaining power and a real challenge in organising the growing mass of informal workers in the age of neo-liberalism.

But union weakness did not start with neo-liberalism. At independence in 1947, the Indian government turned to a new industrialization policy: running from 1947 to 1966, it saw intensive moves towards import-substitution-industrialisation (ISI). Unions were big enough and wielded enough influence at this point to pressure on the government to nationalize banks, mines, oil companies and so on. ISI led to the growth of state enterprises, which in turn saw a boom in employment in the state sector and the rapid growth of unionism. The state was now one of the largest employers and played a major role in determining wages and working conditions. Labour militancy grew from the late 1960s, in tandem with the global capitalist crisis, with India averaging over 2,000 strikes per year from 1966-1979. [2]

However, workers remained excluded from any control of state assets. Union structures became highly centralised, as the state aimed at centralised collective bargaining, and collective bargaining became entangled with parliamentary politics due to political unionism. Rather than unions uniting, there is a long-established pattern of ongoing splits. The number of registered trade unions increased from 4,623 in 1951 to 14,686 in 1966. [3] By 1979 the number of registered of trade unions had shot up to 34,430 unions.

The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed in 1920, and is linked to one of the communist parties, the Communist Party of India founded in 1925. Nationalist politicians and union leaders formed the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) in New Delhi in 1947, aligned to the then-ruling party, the Indian National Congress. This was meant to unite the labour movement, but it did not put an end to divisions within the labour movement. India saw the creation of Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) union centre in 1948, which was oriented around a socialist ideology; then came the United Trade Union Congress (UTUC) in 1949, linked to the Revolutionary Socialist Party, with an ideology based on Maoist communism; the United Trade Union Congress-Lenin Sarani (UTUC-LS) in 1951, linked to the Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist), and Soviet communism; then the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) in 1955, based on the rightwing nationalismof the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The fate of unions was tied to that of parties: for example, with the rise of the BJP party, the BMS union centre and its affiliates grew to a verified membership of 6.2 million in recent years, which makes it one of the largest union center.

Key to the link between unions and parties, and an essential factor in the ongoing splits, is that leaders of unions allied with political parties can be handsomely rewarded when the party forms the government. They get deployed to posts as chairmen, directors and members of state sector firms, banks and statutory bodies. There is a fierce competition for these lucrative positions, and the ruling class prefers union leaders that have a bad reputation or a shady background. They are corruptible, and put on the management payroll. Rewarded handsomely, they forget about the mandate of the workers they supposedly represent, and instead act as agents of management within the unions.

By 1980, the state was moving from ISI towards neo-liberalism in the context of recession. Rather than present a united bloc in the face of this onslaught, unions multiplied rapidly, affiliating with different political parties as they competed with each other. Initially, the number of registered unions fell in the face of As a result of economic downturn and growing repression, the registered unions sharply declined from 34,430 in 1979 to 15,042 in 1981. [4] Then, the number of registered trade unions drastically increased, more than tripling from 15,042 in 1981 to 53,535 in 1991. While the number of unions increased they became more polarized and divided both at the national and state levels.

India has the largest labour force after China, but labour in India is clearly divided and on the retreat. It is not able to build counter-power from below. By 2008, the number of union federations, or centres, had reached 12. Meanwhile, the unions together only organise around 13.4% of all workers(regular/ salaried as well as casual) and only 28.8% of regular/salaried workers, in both cases a fallen number, declining 3% and 17.7% since 1993. [5]

Organised labour is not in any position to build a counter power that can deeply alter the balance of class forces at this stage. It can suggest changes in policy but it is really up to the ruling party and the capitalists to decide whether these suggestions should be accepted or not. The parties view the unions as vote banks, and as a means for politicians to rise high in the class system, and secure positions within the ruling class. As in the West, labour movements are used to benefit parties and elites –after elections, promises are broken and reforms forgotten. For example, the BMS has participated in national strikes along with other federations to privatisation and outsourcing, but the BJP has continued these policies; the INTUC has had the same experience with Indian National Congress governments. Rather than union-party alliances helping unions, they stifle them, weakening their bargaining power and their ability to wield structural power at the point of production.

What is essential is a new route for unions, which can build on some positive developments in unions in recent years that have arisen in the face of neo-liberal globalisation. These include efforts to overcome union divisions: in India, the relatively new Forum of Federations brings unions of different ideologies under one roof and has successfully organised three historical national strikes, which forced the government to fall back a little. There are also new strategies for organising, among them working with civil society beyond the parties, including NGOs, and engaging in advocacy work. A number have formed new wings within the unions, such as health wings, youth wings and women’s wings. The latter help create awareness among women workers around equal pay for equal work, medical benefits, working conditions, and above all, raise voice against sexual harassment at the workplace. There is some effort to organize in the informal sector.

What is crucial is to create distance from the political parties, and their divisions, and rely on an inclusive, class-based bottom-up approach. It has become imperative for unions to beginning to think about alternatives outside their alliances and outside the state, building counter-power structures, which can stand against state and capital while standing for the workers and poor.

This includes fighting against divisions, bigotry and right-wing ideas, and aiming at a new society of equality and freedom.


1. An earlier version was presented at the 11th Global Labour University Conference, Johannesburg, South Africa, 28-30 September 2016
2. Ahn P, (2010). The Growth and Decline of Political Unionism in India. The Need for a Paradigm Shift.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Rajiv Shah, 25 August 2019, "India's trade union density lower than Brazil, South Africa; there is tendency to victimize unionized workers: ILO," Counterview, https://www.counterview.net/2018/08/indias-trade-union-density- lower-than.html

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