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The Great Indian Mail Strike of 2000


Vijay Prashad

For

two weeks in December 2000, almost all of the 600,000 postal workers in India

struck work, on behalf of 300,000 part-time workers. From Cyberabad to Silicon

Galli computers tried in vain to send packages to each other, as the Sensex sang

a dirge for the uncertain whims of the investor class of India’s ‘new economy.’

Executives fretted and fumed, managers pounded their desks with taylorized rage,

economists poured vitriolic scorn on the aspirations of the million who

literally <carry> the goods and services, the love notes and junk mail of

the billion Indians. Dot.Com India was rudely reminded of the world of

Dot.Comrade, the mirthful reality of labor solidarity.

Bold

workers stood on strike for two weeks despite any number of threats and

temptations. The agitation was nothing new. Four months after the BJP-led

coalition came to power for the first time in mid-1998, the postal workers went

out on an eight-day strike. That time the government broke the strike when it

threatened to bring out the Army and when it made a series of empty promises.

This time the promises did not work, nor did the fulmination of physical force.

If unity amongst the various trade union groups held the first time, in 2000 the

right betrayed the left as well as the heroic workers whose strike was as much

political as economic, a sigh against the Economy of the Temporary, of the logic

of capital.

The

collapse of the fragile Keynesian consensus (nurtured in Bretton Woods) and the

birth of the Washington Consensus (codified in 1989 by former IMF adviser John

Williamson) discounted for working people the ‘enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy

world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame le Terre do their ghost walking

as social characters and at the same time as mere things’ (Marx, Capital, vol.

3, p. 830). Over the past few years, working people in decisive actions around

the world, unmasked the arrogance of Wages-Interest-Rent, and showed them for

what they are, Labor-Capital-Land. The Washington Consensus demands an Economy

of the Temporary, where workers abdicate the gains of the labor movement for

part-time work, just-in-time production, privatization of benefits. Adjuncts on

college campuses, maquiladoras in Mexico, half-day workers in India — these are

the manifestations of the logic of capital, and their presence sends a message

to all of us: this is not ‘cowboy’ capitalism or ‘turbo’ capitalism, but simply

CAPITALISM itself. Some may rest within the bosom of a less developed form of

ruthlessness, but all of us are under the sway of the Part-Time, the Temporary,

either by fear of being exiled to that island or else to find oneself stuck

there forever. The Economy of the Temporary enforces discipline (stop this

nonsense, or else you’re back on the island), and it allows for more efficiency.

‘What, more efficiency,’ you say?! Yes, more efficiency for capital, for whom

flexibility allows it to use labor when it requires it, and to keep on reserve

an army of workers whose creativity is to be held in check by the fear of

Ephemeral Island.

The

Teamsters 1997 action against UPS was a salvo in the fight against the

Temporary. The Indian postal workers fight is along the same grain. For decades

the left wing labor movement has called for an intensive push to organize the

unorganized. Communist leader B. T. Ranadive noted in 1983, for instance, that

‘if the trade unions do not pay attention to this widespread section they will

be damaging the movement by alienating a section that is militant, heroic and

has become a strong contingent of the common movement.’ Among postal workers the

problem of the part-time became acute in the 1990s. The State classifies 300,000

workers as ‘Extra-Departmental Employees,’ most of whom work in rural post

offices. Bold actions by the workers and by Left political parties forced the

Parliament to convene the Justice Charanjit Talwar Committee to study the

problem. On 30 April 1997, just as the UPS workers in the US came close to their

strike, the Talwar Committee submitted its report to the Indian Parliament. The

Report asked the government to give full benefits to all workers (including

pensions) and to classify all postal workers as civil servants. Government tried

to mollify the unions, saying that it would meet the recommendations. Nothing

moved, so the workers struck in 1998. The Communications Minister of the Hindu

Right told Parliament that the recommendations would be implemented post haste,

and the workers withdrew. A few weeks later the Ministry of Finance reneged on

the agreement, citing overwhelming fiscal reasons. No doubt word must have come

from the IMF to the willing ears of the Hindu Right’s Finance Ministry: Point #8

of the Washington Consensus says, ‘privatization of state enterprises, leading

to efficient management and improved performance,’ and Point #1 promises ‘a

guarantee of fiscal discipline, and a curb to budget deficits.’ When it comes to

labor, Washington and its minions are so very fussy.

On

May Day, 2000, the new minister of Communications, Ram Vilas Paswan (of an

opportunist social democratic formation in alliance with the Hindu Right)

conducted hectic negotiations and pledged to settle the issue within four

months. Again, nothing moved. The unions called for a strike and went forth

without any illusions about governmental promises. Comfortable with the rhetoric

of a strong State, the Hindu Right bound to break the strike by recourse to the

old colonial standby, the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA).

‘Extra-Departmental Employees,’ those who struggle on Ephemeral Island, suddenly

found themselves essentialized. But five decades of nation construction, borne

partly of anticolonial sentiment, had reduced the central government’s ESMA

power. Only five states in the Indian union have the capacity to enforce ESMA,

but since the Congress Party ruled over these five states the Hindu-Right led

coalition could not even work its authoritarian magic there. The Communist-led

states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura refused to enforce ESMA, and several

bourgeois-regional formations followed suit. The government had no avenues left

to crush the strike.

Betrayal

finds its way by unexpected means. Indian workers are not organized into one

federation, but they are organized at the worksite into a number of union

formations all of whom are affiliated to political parties. While the workers at

a worksite win the right to a union, the several unions jockey for power over

the leadership in the unions. The Communists have two unions, the CPI’s

All-India Trade Union Congress and the CPM’s Centre of Indian Trade Unions,

while the Congress controls the Indian National Trade Union Congress and the

socialists have a stake in the Hind Mazdoor Sangh. The Hindu-Right’s trade union

formation, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, walks the line of the Right, but it did

fall out with its parent organizations during the 1998 strike. The main strikes

have been conducted under the framework of the Joint Action Committee, a

confederation of the postal version of the party unions (the BMS’ Bharatiya

Postal Employees Federation — BPEF; the Left’s National Federation of Postal

Employees — NFPE; the Congress’ Federation of National Postal Organisations).

The BPEF represents only 6% of the workers and the FNPO only 15%, with the Left

having organized the rest of the workers. The weakness of the Right within the

postal unions was not to deter its machinations.

On

the 17th of December the leadership of the Hindu-Right union (BPEF/BMS) and the

Congress union (FNPO/INTUC), both beholden to the Washington Consensus, accepted

a tepid offer from the government. With the pledge of ‘unions’ for an end to the

strike, the government declared victory. The Left held fast at first, and it

seemed as if the agitation would continue. But, in an unenviable position, R. L.

Bhattacharya, secretary general of the Communist-led NFPE, noted that the

workers should return to the job, after one more day on the picket line. Chander

Pillai, a leader of the NFPE, said that ‘the next action will be done on our

strength. We will not rely on the other two federations as they are prone to

leave the struggle mid-way. We have asked our members to join duty.’

Bhattacharya wrote that the postal workers ‘have become victims of this naked

betrayal of BPEF and NFPO.’ But ‘to preserve the unity of the workers and to

build up a militant united movement to carry on the struggle further, the [NFPE]

Secretariat decided to call off the strike action for the present.’ The

Communists asked the workers ‘to preserve and strengthen the unity already

achieved for safeguarding their interests in the future.’

Triumphs

are won drop by drop. This is not a retreat, but only an interruption. The flood

of history brings us Ephemeral Island, but we are not tempted by the Temporary.

A respite to regroup, but onward. That is the message of the Indian postal

workers.

 

 

 

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