All-India general strike: Eyewitness report from Chennai

THE ALL-India general strike on 7 September showed the enormous potential for workers’ struggle in India, but also exposed a number of complicating factors.

The strike gave a glimpse of the potential power of the working class in India. In Mumbai it was reported that 90,000 auto-rickshaw drivers struck. Nationally hundreds of planes were grounded and rallies and protests took place across the country.

In Bangalore, where garment workers are super-exploited, members of New Socialist Alternative (NSA), the Socialist Party’s sister party in India, helped to bring out workers from six garment factories to join the strike.

However, the experience in Chennai gave the impression that more planning and preparation could have yielded much greater results. Auto drivers complained that they had not received a single poster or leaflet to help them advertise the strike. Most areas did not have preparatory meetings either.

There is a myriad of reasons for the workers, poor and young people to strike and protest in India. Poverty, dire working conditions, lack of public services, oppression on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, caste or language, state repression and many more transgressions of human rights.

This strike was particularly focused on the enormous price hikes in food and fuel which further punish the poor. Government figures show that 77% of India’s population lives on less than Rs20 (about 28p!) a day.

The cost of staples like rice and dal have rocketed while wages stagnate and hours and jobs are cut. Meanwhile, the wealthy of India live on a different planet of air-conditioned restaurants and chauffeur-driven shopping sprees.

The NSA leaflet called for genuinely elected committees of working and poor people to control food prices and for the general strike to be followed by further action – well-organised and prepared.

Workers’ struggles

The strike was called by a number of trade unions mainly, but not all, affiliated to the Communist Parties. Even unions affiliated to the biggest ruling party – Congress – came out.

The attitude of some Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) members was that the general strike should sound a warning shot to the government. But a ‘warning shot’ with no clear signal of a determined and organised follow up is unlikely to put sufficient pressure on the government.

However, the workers who took action showed courageous determination. Young women working at Gold Winner Oil near Chennai were striking for better wages. They described their conditions as “semi-slavery” and were angry that the mainstream Indian and Tamil Nadu media did not cover their conditions and struggles.

Young men working at RSB, a supplier for the giant US-based firm Caterpillar, were striking against the price hike and against job insecurity. They were members of a new independent trade union, the United Labour Federation (ULF).

Their complaints were many. While managers took home Rs1.5-2.5 lakhs (lakh=100,000), 400 workers shared one toilet, received no lunch or dinner at work and faced suspensions over minor issues.

When they established their union, RSB management set up a new boss-friendly union, bringing in political parties for support. Not surprisingly, these young militant working class fighters felt there was no political party that represented them. They hoped that Caterpillar workers in the US would organise solidarity with their struggles.

The police made mass arrests at the CPI-M unions’ rally. Hundreds of workers were driven away in trucks. However the presence of western tourists with cameras seemed to keep the police at bay at the ULF rally.

The ULF’s honorary president, V Prakash, described the horrendous wealth gap and the conditions of the workers. He condemned the political parties and the way that the trade unions had ordered the strike from the top when it should have been organised from the bottom up.

There was a warm welcome for visiting socialists (from the CWI) who gave solidarity greetings, with particular applause for the call for a new workers’ party to be built across all sections of society and with no discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, sexuality, religion or language. This point was made in the NSA leaflet and repeated by V Prakash. Many expressed an interest in finding out more about the NSA.

CWI reporters in Chennai, Tamil Nadu

From The Socialist (Paper of the Socialist Party England & Wales)