Why strikes are less successful
In the post-reforms era, unions can no longer mobilise workers to fight structural inequalities. This is a more pertinent political economy question than the immediate demands of protests such as the current strike
The response to the two-day general strike called by 10 central trade unions — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh has not lent its support to the call — has been on expected lines (Monday was the first day). Barring the exception of Kerala, where the Left is still in power and some formal sector public enterprises such as nationalised banks, it was business as usual. The trade unions that called the strike have a wide range of demands. These include reversing the ongoing labour reforms and disinvestment processes, cash transfers for the poor, and reducing taxes on petrol and diesel. While some of these issues are sector-specific and, therefore, designed to have a limited traction, others have a larger relevance.
It’s interesting to look at why such calls to strike no longer generate the response they once did; nor indeed, affect life and work. Usually, it is public sector employee unions that respond to such calls. Because the size of formal sector workers in the public sector has been shrinking, the ability of trade unions to undertake actions which force the government to take notice has also been diminishing. This has been the biggest challenge India’s trade unions are battling in the post-reforms period. The squeeze in the striking power of working-class organisations has been an important factor behind what is largely a bipartisan consensus on economic reforms in India. While there is little doubt that economic reforms have delivered the goods, especially on income growth and poverty reduction in India, it is equally true that the recent economic slowdown and the pandemic’s subsequent disruption has created a situation where some of these gains have been reversed. The ongoing inflationary spiral could make matters worse.
To be sure, the Bharatiya Janata Party has adopted a carefully targeted and continuously evolving welfare strategy to make sure that the economic pain because of slow growth and high prices does not hurt its political prospects. While such policies are important harbingers of relief, they are no solution for what many economists fear is the widening of structural inequalities in the economy. It is in fighting such trends that democracies require strong working class participation. As of now, India’s trade unions seem to be struggling to meet this larger challenge. This is a more pertinent political economy question than the immediate demands of protests such as the current strike.