General strike in India has become almost an annual affair, and shows the astonishing mobilising power of trade unions, yet their political power to win progressive labour reforms are in decline.
On 28 and 29 March 2022, dozens of trade unions and hundreds of thousands of workers in India marched and blocked roads and train tracks in a two-day general strike. Workers were protesting against the government’s economic policies, such as privatisation, and demanded social security for informal sector workers.
A general strike is notoriously difficult to organise, especially on such a large scale as in India. Yet, it has become almost an annual affair in India over recent years.
What makes a general strike so significant is that it is generally considered a higher form of political protest by the working class. The capability to organise a general strike is in itself generally a reflection of the strong position of a labour force and the act of a general strike is expected to strengthen its position further.
How have these general strikes in India been organised? To what extent does the understanding of general strikes apply to the general strikes in India? Are these general strikes able to achieve the objectives of uniting and strengthening the working-class movement and compelling capital and state to fulfil their demands?
Most importantly, what do the general strikes tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of the labour movement in India?
Organising of the General Strikes: the Rise of the Trade Union Joint Platform
From 1991 to 2022 there have been 21 general strikes in India. Before 2010, the general strikes were called by the National Campaign Committee of Trade Unions, which was formed around 1980 and called a general strike in 1982 against the imposition of the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) that banned strikes in sectors declared by the government as essential services. After 2010 the general strikes were called by the joint platform of Central Trade Union Organisations (CTUOs).
In Indian democracy, there is a guaranteed space for trade union representation in various provincial, federal and international policy bodies and forums on labour-related matters. For this purpose, the membership of national trade unions is verified by the Ministry of Labour and Employment and those fulfilling the criteria are accorded the status of Central Trade Union Organisation (CTUO). 1
With an all-round attack on the working class that started with aggressive anti-labour policies of liberalisation after 1990, trade unions increasingly realised the need for a broader unity in order to survive and maintain their relevance. It is against this background that left-wing trade unions took the initiative to create a joint platform of all CTUOs.
From 1990 to 2010 there were many joint protest initiatives with multiple CTUOs. However, a joint platform of CTUOs became a reality only after the 2010 general strike. Thereafter, the general strikes were called by this joint platform of CTUOs almost every year.
However, this joint platform never really emerged as a joint platform of all CTUOs. Moreover, political affiliations created constraints, particularly for those unions affiliated to the ruling parties. The Bhartiya Majdoor Sangh (BMS) – affiliated to the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), the ruling party in the centre from 2014 onwards – never really participated in general strikes after 2014; rather, it tried to create divisions by persuading trade unions not to go on general strike. Nevertheless, to maintain its relevance in the labour movement the BMS keeps on airing opposition to anti-labour policies.
Later, the BMS no longer remained part of the joint platform of CTUOs and in 2018 it floated an alternative platform of trade unions – the Confederation of Central Trade Unions (CONCENT) in collaboration with the breakaway factions of three CTUOs – TUCC, INTUC and NFITU. 2
In the meantime, the joint platform of CTUOs attempted to expand its base in provinces and industrial regions by uniting trade unions outside the CTUOs as well. Hence, the participation of trade unions in the general strikes called by the joint platform of CTUOs may be far wider and beyond the strength of unions affiliated to CTUOs in the joint platform.
It has not been the case that all industrial sectors participated in all general strikes. The participation of industrial sectors varied in different general strikes. For example, in recent two-day general strikes that took place on 28 and 29 March 2022, there was a wider participation than in earlier general strikes, with around 200 million workers joining in. However, it did not cover all industrial sectors in all regions, and moreover, all those supporting the strike did not actually stop working.
Participation and Impact of the General Strike
The general strike was almost total in public sector banking and insurance companies across the country, but without much impact on private sector companies. As for coal, steel, oil, liquefied petroleum gas, the power grid, copper, cement, the telecom sector, ports and road transport, the general strike was also mainly in the public sector, with some impact in the private as well. Moreover, in these sectors the strike was generally concentrated in certain provinces, not across the whole country.
The trade unions in the railways and defence sectors supported the strike but did not stop work; rather, they organised demonstrations at various places across the country. Similarly, in private sector manufacturing and services the strikes were not across the country and not across the sectors.
The strikes were successfully organised only in industrial centres and industrial sectors with a strong presence of CTUOs. 3 In many industrial regions, rather than going on strike, the unions organised protest demonstrations after working hours. This general strike was special in terms of building solidarity between the labour movement and farmers’ movement. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (United Front of Farmers), which surrounded Delhi for many months with its demands, participated in the general strike, supporting the demands of industrial workers as well as campaigning for its own. The participation of fishing workers, social sector workers, domestic workers, construction workers, beedi workers, tea workers and hawker-vendors was also significant, but varied in different regions.
However, the nature of participation in the strike of those in the above sectors, including the farmers, was naturally quite different. It was limited to organising scattered demonstrations in different regions and did not have the impact that the closure of business would have made.
At micro-level, even when the strikes were successful in industrial units and led to the stoppage of work, only less than 50% of the workers can be said to have actively participated in the strike. This is because the contract workers, temporary workers, trainees and apprentices who together form more than 50% of the workforce are neither eligible to be members of the trade union of company workers, nor dare to actively participate in the strike as they can be fired easily.
It must be emphasised that in the era of liberalisation, the all-round attack on the working class came in the form of closures, downsizing and privatisation of public sector enterprises, and labour reforms facilitating informalisation of labour across formal sectors (allowing a greater proportion of contractual and temporary labour as well as trainees and apprentices). This makes it easier for employers to hire and fire at will, discourages inspections and allows self-certification leading to large scale violation of labour laws. It also makes it difficult to form trade unions and to exercise the right to collective bargaining. Rising unemployment, skyrocketing prices of commodities and almost stagnant wages consistently increased the hardships of workers.
From these conditions the general or political demands of the labour movement emerged as equally, if not more, important than the enterprise level demands. It is out of these situations we may appreciate the formation of the joint forum of CTUOs and almost annual general strikes. Probably, this also helps in understanding the nature of the general strike, which is not the culmination of a consistent chain of struggles that then take political shape. Instead, even the smallest problems of the working class have links with neo-liberal anti-labour policies that have gradually intensified. Hence, the opposition to this requires general protests and some form of general strikes to whatever extent possible.
Thus, the almost annual general strikes appear more as a routine form of struggle rather than general strikes in the classical sense. This is also reflected in the charter of demands of general strikes, the framework of which has remained the same for the last 20 years.4 The continuity of the same framework of demands and the gradually increasing political nature of demands can easily be observed.
The general strikes have not been successful in compelling the state to reverse the anti-labour policies. The state appears to be completely ignoring the trade unions and their general strikes. At least in recent decades, it never really showed an interest in talks/negotiations with the trade unions other than the BMS, which is affiliated to the ruling party.
Instead, the state aggressively moved to achieve its own objectives. This is also reflected in the addition of demands in the later general strikes; for example, the four labour codes were legislated despite strong opposition from the trade unions, the standard pension scheme was replaced by a new pension scheme that is not worth calling a pension scheme, privatisation of public sector enterprises was sped up etc.
However, this is not to say that the general strikes have been complete failures. They have been successful in building solidarity in the trade union movement around the issues listed in the common charter of demands. This solidarity has gradually expanded beyond the CTUOs in the joint platform. A number of national or regional level trade unions and many local trade unions, which are not part of CTUOs, participated or actively supported the general strikes.
Moreover, the general strikes were successful in bringing together both informal and formal sectors and also the farmers and industrial workers. Some general strikes witnessed spontaneous and radical participation of non-unionised workers such as in the garment industry. The general strikes were also successful in getting the support of some opposition parties and many members of parliament.
Most importantly, some of their demands, such as the demand for scrapping the new pension scheme and bringing back the old one, emerged as important election promises of a number of political parties in recent assembly elections in certain provinces.
These achievements cannot be underestimated; however, the failures in compelling the state to come to the negotiating table should also not be ignored, as it reflects the weaknesses of the trade union movement, part of which can be attributed to the drastic changes in the overall politico-economic environment.
Explaining the Paradox
Since 1989 when the trade union density in India was probably at its peak, there had been a consistent decline in union membership until 2002. Then the trend was reversed. There has been almost consistent increase in union membership after 2002.
The aggregate union membership based on official returns filed by major trade union federations in India has risen substantially from about 35 million in 2008 (representing data of 2002) to around 100 million in 2013.5 Trade union membership data submitted by CTUOs in 2011 for verification by the Labour Ministry to recognise them as CTUOs for the next period also shows a significant increase from that of 2002.6
This shows that the strength of trade unions has increased significantly, but at the same time their political power to compel the state to listen to them has decreased significantly. This emerges as a paradox. There are several factors responsible for creating this paradox. We discuss some of the important factors below.
Declining mobilising power due to scattered nature of growing union membership
CTUO membership data published in 2008 reveals that the growth in trade union membership is in informal sectors rather than formal sectors. The proportion of membership in the informal sector reached as high as 41.7% of the total CTUO membership, and membership in the formal sector accounted for only 58.3% of the total CTUO membership.
Moreover, CTUO membership in formal sectors remained concentrated in only a few industries, such as railways (16.87%), tobacco (12.69%), coal mining (8.58%), roadways (8.43%), electricity, gas and water (5.81%). Membership in these industries together forms more than 52% of CTUO membership in the formal sector.7
This also implies that CTUO membership in the formal sector has still been heavily concentrated in public sectors, and hence facing a decline with increasing privatisation of public sectors, and downsizing and informalisation of labour in formal sectors in general.
However, the loss of membership in the formal sector has been more than compensated by the significant expansion of membership in the informal sector, thanks to the CTUOs’ push to organise the informal sector workers after 1989. The CTUO membership in agriculture and other rural sectors together constitutes as much as 30.7% of the total CTUO membership.8
It is clear that almost half of the membership of CTUOs is highly scattered in at least four or more provinces and distant areas within provinces, and the membership (in particular districts) may not be more than a few thousand. Moreover, the nature of these informal sectors is such that there are no sustained union activities. The collective activities even at district level require big organisational efforts and big expenses. Their participation in general strikes is dismal, and does not translate into any real strike or even into any big protest demonstrations.
Hence, the increase in the membership of CTUOs does not translate into a proportionate increase of its mobilising power. Instead, it results in a decline of its overall mobilising power.
Declining bargaining power due to informalisation of labour in formal sectors
Anti-labour policies in the era of liberalisation facilitated a drastic increase in the proportion of flexible categories of workers in the formal sectors. These categories include temporary workers, the workers engaged through labour contractors, fixed-term employees, trainees and apprentices. The proportion of contract workers in formal sector manufacturing increased from about 12.26% in 1990–91 to about 42.27% in 2013–14.9 The contract workers, the temporary workers, fixed term employees, trainees and apprentices, together form more than 50% of the workers in the formal sector manufacturing units.
However, due to the nature of their employment the temporary workers and fixed-term employees rarely take any interest in joining the trade union of the company. The contract workers are legally not considered employees of the company and hence have no right to join the union of company employees. They have the legal right to form their separate union, but because they can be easily fired, it is very challenging for them to form one. Trainees and apprentices are not legally considered employees, so they have no right to form or join any trade union.
These facts imply that the shop floor unions represent less than 50% of the workforce in particular units, which naturally translates into a decline in their bargaining power. Moreover, in the case of general strikes, even when the unions are successful in stopping work in companies, only less than 50% of the workforce actively participates in the strikes.
At industry level, this capacity further declines. In general, trade union presence is only in comparatively larger units, and rarely in units with less than 50 workers. Yet the factories with less than 50 workers account for more than 71% of manufacturing employment.10
Loss of trade union representation in parliament
The political power of trade unions in India before the era of liberalisation was most powerfully reflected in their significant representation in parliament. However, in the era of liberalisation their representation continuously declined and finally the trade unions almost completely lost their representation. The number of trade unionists in Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, in 1971 was as high as 108, capturing almost 21% of Lok Sabha seats. In 1996, their number in Lok Sabha decreased to 41 (7.7% of seats), and in 2004 their representation declined to a mere 21 (3.9% of seats) (Pratap and Bose 2015). The current representation of trade unions in Lok Sabha is only 5-6, all from left-wing parties.
We have already discussed that the growth in trade union membership is largely in informal sectors, with greatest growth in agriculture and construction, and that this growing membership is so scattered that it does not add to the mobilising power of trade unions. The scatteredness of membership also implies that there is no concentrated membership in particular parliamentary constituencies. A great proportion of the formal sector workforce (temporary, contract, fixed term, trainee and apprentices) remains outside the trade unions, and hence in industrial regions as well, the mobilising power of trade unions is limited.
In addition to this, and most importantly, in the era of liberalisation, the migrant workers form the huge majority of the workforce in industrial regions, and this is a conscious design by employers to exploit the vulnerabilities of migrant labour. In the manufacturing sector in urban areas, 38% of the male workforce is composed of migrant workers, with a similar share in modern services.11 This data includes only inter-state migrant workers, and if inter-district (within same state) migrants are added, then the migrant workers may form the huge majority (80-90%) of the workforce.
The anti-labour policies in the era of liberalisation have created a situation whereby migrant labour can no longer dream of permanently settling in the urban centres. With low wages and frequent hiring and firing it is impossible to build any such dream. In these conditions, the huge majority of workers think that they have to finally go back to their home district and hence they keep maintaining their links and properties back home. In these situations, they do not become voters in the urban centres, rather, they remain as voters in their home districts. Hence, even when the trade unions may have a strong presence in particular industrial regions, it is not possible for them to win parliamentary or assembly elections
Autocratic state undercover of democracy
The BJP government which came to power in 2014 has been unique in three aspects: 1) in the process of coming to power the party was cleansed by removing all democratic distortions and the supremacy of a single leader was established by removing the prospective challengers within; 2) democracy within the structure of government was reduced to the minimum by creating a system similar to a presidential form of government wherein the prime minister and the prime minister’s office exercise all real power, different ministers and ministries being reduced to the propagandists and implementers of the policies and directions of the prime minister’s office, gradually the autonomy of all autonomous institutions was erased or reduced to the minimum in various ways.
It was during this period that the media also exerted almost full control of the big corporates allying with the government and acted as the government’s propaganda arm. This created a situation whereby the government was able to comfortably ignore the voices of the people and suppress the voices of dissent. It is against this background that we can understand why and how the government was able to ignore such great trade union protests like the general strikes and never bothered to even listen to them. There has rarely been any media coverage of any general strikes, other than small news items in some media outlets. The situation is such that often the majority of citizens in many metropolitan cities may not even know that there was a general strike.
How does an “autocratic state undercover of democracy” work? It is constitutionally mandatory to have tripartite consultations involving trade unions on any policy matters related to labour. The government formally complied by organising tripartite consultations wherein CTUOs were invited, but in the consultation meetings, the issues raised by the trade unions were not taken seriously and not even recorded, except in some cases respecting and recording the points raised by the BMS.
The situation was such that the trade unions other than the BMS, have no other option but to boycott the consultations. Even the BMS, which continued to be part of the consultations, was compelled to say that the government has disrespected the tripartite tradition that the country has followed before any labour-related decisions are taken (Shyam Sunder 2021).
The government gives the false impression that it is open to dialogue with trade unions; it holds cursory meetings with all of them but purposive meetings only with the BMS; moreover, it has also been introducing anti-labour reform measures through government notifications instead of through debates in parliament.
Constitutionally it is required that any debatable policy changes must be referred to the standing committee of parliament on that subject, which also includes leaders of opposition parties. The government again formally complied by referring the proposed changes in labour laws to the parliamentary standing committee on labour, but silently ignored their major recommendations.
The recent trends in general strikes in India appear to present a paradox: a consistent increase in the strength of trade unions but a decline in their political power.
To understand this paradox, it is important to note that while the growth in union membership in recent decades reflects the growth in union strength, the growth in membership is located in informal sectors, like agriculture and construction, rather than in formal sectors. The nature of this growing membership is such that it does not increase the mobilising power of the unions.
Moreover, informalisation of labour in formal sectors has decreased the bargaining power of trade unions. Migrant labour now forms the majority of the workforce in industrial regions. These factors have decreased the overall mobilising and political power of trade unions.
The declining political power of trade unions is also reflected in the almost complete loss of representation of trade unions in parliament. Moreover, the state under the BJP has been transformed into ‘an autocratic state undercover of democracy’.
All these factors have contributed to trade unions recognising the necessity to come together and form a joint platform that enables them to call for general strikes almost every year. Yet the general strikes, while impressive in the display of worker power, have only achieved limited success in forcing the state to negotiate with them, a paradox which the Indian labour movement needs to confront.
- Before 2011, unions were required to have a verified membership of 0.5 million spread over four provinces and four industries; but since 2011 they are required to have a verified membership of 0.8 million spread over eight states and eight industries, in order to be qualified for CTUO status. The last verification was done in 2002, and the results were published in 2008. The new verification of membership started in 2011 and results are not yet published. It is interesting to note that in the 2002 verification 13 trade unions claimed CTUO status and 12 were successful. Three new CTUOs emerged in the 2002 verification: The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU- affiliated to CPI ML-Liberation), and the Labour Progressive Front (LPF-affiliated to regional party in Tamil Nadu-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-(DMK). The thirteenth trade union applying for CTUO status was the National Federation of Indian Trade Unions-Kolkata (NFITU-KOL). It could not get CTUO status as its verified membership came below 0.5 million. This is just to make clear that there are many more trade unions, other than existing CTUOs, both politically affiliated and independent, having significant membership and aspiring to CTUO status.
- Shyam Sunder, KR (2019). “Dynamics of general strikes in India.” Economic and Political Weekly, India, 54, issue no. 3
- Overall, the general strike was more successful only in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tripura, Assam, Haryana and Jharkhand; it also had a substantial impact in particular industrial regions of the states of Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.
- The major demands of the general strikes around 2010 included: a) curb price rises; b) stop the violation of labour laws; c) universal social security for all; d) stop contractual/temporary labour in jobs of a permanent nature; e) equal wages for contractual/temporary workers and permanent workers; f) universal coverage of minimum wages which must not be less than INR 10,000 per month; g) pensions for all; h) removal of all ceilings on eligibility for bonuses, provident funds, employees state insurance etc; and i) compulsory registration of the trade unions within a time frame of 45 days. The major demands of the recent 2022 general strike included: a) scrap the four Labour Codes and the Essential Defence Services Act (EDSA); b) accept the six-point charter of demands of Samyukta Kisan Morcha; c) abandon all privatisation and scrap the National Monetisation Pipeline (NMP); d) provide income support of INR 7,500 per month to all non-income tax-paying families; e) increase allocation for MGNREGA and extend the employment guarantee programme to urban areas; f) provide universal social security for all informal sector workers; g) provide statutory minimum wages of INR 26,000 per month and extend coverage of Anganwadi, ASHA, mid-day meals and other schemes for workers under minimum wage and social security cover; h) provide full protection and insurance cover to frontline workers serving the people in the midst of the pandemic; i) increase public investment in agriculture, education, health and other crucial public services by raising resources from higher taxation of the rich in order to revive and revamp the economy; j) substantially reduce central excise duty on petroleum products and take concrete steps to arrest price rises; k) regularise all contract workers and scheme workers, and ensure equal pay for equal work for all; l) cancel the New Pension Scheme (NPS) and restore the old scheme; increase the minimum pension under the Employees’ Pension Scheme.
- Badigannavar, Vidu, Kelly, John and Kumar, Manik (2013). “Turning the tide? Economic reforms and union revival in India.” Ind. Relat. 2021,52, pp. 364–385.
- Membership of Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC-affiliated to Indian National Congress Party) increased from 3.9 million to 33.3 million; that of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS-affiliated to Bharatiya Janata Party) increased from 6.6 million to 17.1 million; that of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC-affiliated to the Communist Party of India) increased from 3.4 million to 14.2 million; that of Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS-not affiliated to any political party) increased from 3.2 million to 9.1 million; and that of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU-affiliated to the Communist Party of India-Marxist) increased from 3 million to 5.7. Membership of other CTUOs have also increased, for example, the current claimed membership of the United Trade Union Centre (UTUC) has reached 4.7 million, that of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) has reached 2.5 million, that of the Trade Union Coordination Centre (TUCC) has reached 1.6 million, and that of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has reached 1.3 million.
- Datt, Ruddar (2008), “Regional and industrial spread of trade unions in India.” The Indian Journal of Labour Economics 51, no. 4.
- The membership in the construction industry forms more than 4.3% of the total CTUO membership. Other informal sectors also contribute significant membership including the brick kiln sector (1.8%), personal services (1.8%), local bodies (1.2%), and food and drinks (1.2%)
- KR Shyam Sunder (2019). “Dynamics of general strikes in India.” Economic and Political Weekly, India, 54, no. 3.
- Mehrotra, Santosh, Sinha, Sharmistha, Parida, Jajati, K. and Gandhi, Ankita (2014). “Why a turn around in employment despite slowing growth.” IAMR Occasional Papers 1/2014.
- FICCI (2020). “Rehabilitation of migrant workers in India, a preliminary report 2020.” FICCI Skill Development Committee Task Force, India.