Mumbai All of the large national union federations in India argue that they are independent, autonomous labor federations, but all of them are individually aligned to major political parties and formations whether on the right, left, or middle. No finger pointing is involved, because the same thing is true in the US, Canada, Mexico, and scores of other countries, especially when, as in India, the bulk of the membership is employed in state-owned and directed enterprises. It’s not simply “going along to get along,” the way many unions see the situation, the party tie-ups are also about the only way to “go along to get ahead.”
Depending on the state, the rules to create a union, even for informal workers, can be impossibly hard or very easy. The problems start later though. Unions with 70% representational strength within an employer in a place like Mumbai, can negotiate a collective agreement. With less you can still operate and represent your members on discipline and other matters, but can’t directly negotiate wages, which allows multiple unions in the same workplaces. Political party alignments can then ebb and flow as well.
In the informal sector without direct employers it’s a “walla-world” based on occupations not general categories. In Bengaluru our union of street vendors is just that. Our pending union of food vendors is just that as well, though some of them are obviously also street vendors if they are selling food in that way, but most are only working the three major mealtimes. I heard of a union that was just mid-day meal workers, and the name of their union was therefore, MDM, for mid-day-meals. Though India may seem like an exotic world of work, many of the demands of informal worker unions resonant globally as citizen wealth campaigns directed at income security (a place to work, freedom from harassment, and the promise of a future) and living wages. Not unlike so many campaigns we have mounted in the United States and elsewhere, the demands are often for the state to establish standards of minimum wages and working conditions, which here is translated as rupees per day, rather than dollars per hour.
Informal worker unions, operating more autonomously, can also be more fluid in making the demands within the context of emerging local formations and regional parties in the states. In fact discussing some of this with Vinod Shetty of ACORN India who is a labor advocate, he cautioned that often the problem for independent unions is politicians and political parties trying to take them over, rather than it being the other way around.
All of which made it even more fascinating to read of the historic, breakthrough decision for informal workers in the United States when the Regional Director of the Chicago National Labor Relations Board issued his opinion that college athletes playing football for Northwestern University in Evanston were de facto employees of the university and had a right to vote to establish a union under the Act. Of course the NCAA was aghast and the university will appeal, but the exploitative big paydays of big time college athletics are now on deathwatch. The athletes were getting help from the United Steelworkers, so good for them, because what is easy to see in India and the developing world, and might be increasingly obvious in the US and elsewhere is that the world of work is changing and the old alignments and formations of workplaces, unions, parties, and the role of the state itself are also now up for grabs amidst tectonic shifts and a fight for survival.