This article was initially published on December 9, 2020 on Workers World. We are reprinting it here with light edits and updates.
“There cannot be, nor is there nor will there ever be ‘equality’ between the oppressed and the oppressors, between the exploited and the exploiters. There cannot be, nor is there nor will there ever be real ‘freedom’ … as long as there is no freedom for the workers from the yoke of capital, and no freedom for the toiling peasants from the yoke of the capitalists, landlords and merchants.” – V.I. Lenin, “Soviet Power and the Status of Women” (1919)
Constitution Day in India, November 26, witnessed one of the biggest strikes in history. More than 250 million Indian workers put down their tools to protest the government’s new Labor Codes, which are designed to escalate the plunder of resources and exploitation of the Indian people.
Ten central trade unions gave the clarion call for the strike. Four of these are Marxist-led, affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) Liberation (CPI [ML]), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), and the Socialist Unity Center of India (Communist).
Why are the trade unions and workers angry? On September 23, the Indian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), passed three new Labor Codes on Industrial Relations, Social Security and Occupational Health and Safety. These codes are pro-corporate and anti-worker. They overturn 29 hard-won labor laws going back a half century.
The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 mandated that any company employing more than 100 workers was required to obtain permission from the local government before laying workers off. This threshold has now been increased to 300 employees. Trade unions are concerned this change will promote a “hire-and-fire” mentality.
The Industrial Relations Code will also make it more difficult for workers to exercise their right to strike, and thereby weaken the most powerful weapon unions have. It demands that workers give 60 days’ notice to strike!
The Employees Provident Fund (a form of social security) will now be offered only to establishments with 20 or more workers. Instead of increasing social security and pensions for millions of unorganized workers—long a demand of communist parties and trade unions—this new policy will deny social security to millions of workers in micro enterprises.
There are no provisions in the new code for the most vulnerable migrant workers, who were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 shutdown that was imposed by the Modi/BJP government in March with only four hours’ notice.
During colonial rule, the British government used a “contract labor system” to exploit workers by denying them benefits available to permanent employees. Instead of creating permanent jobs, the current BJP regime is further entrenching this contract labor system, which continued after independence in the form of fixed-term contracts. Under the new code, workers can be terminated without just cause even if there is a need for their services. The government is hell-bent on destroying collective bargaining and trade unions, which currently represent less than 10 percent of all workers.
Success of November 26 strike
On November 26, workers in banks, transport, steel mills, ports and docks, telecommunications, plantations, power plants, mines, oil and natural gas corporations, financial services, railways, post and telegraph services, and unorganized sectors all participated in the strike. Tens of thousands of women health care workers and mid-day meal cooks joined the strike. The charter of strike demands included direct cash transfer to the families who earn less than the income tax threshold, food for those in need, and pensions for all.
Strikers demanded the withdrawal of all anti-worker labor codes and anti-farmer laws. They also demanded an end to the privatization of public sector units (PSUs), including those in the financial sector. Several of India’s PSUs continue to earn profits regardless of what happens in the international markets. In the petroleum industry, over 90 percent of India’s fuel needs are met by three PSUs: Indian Oil, BPCL, and HPCL.
The BJP government wants to sell the people’s assets to Indian and multinational corporations. According to Billionaires Insights Report 2020 (published by UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers), the net worth of Indian billionaires increased 35 percent between April and July, to $423 billion. According to the Forbes’ India Rich List 2020, the net worth of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, rose 73 percent over the past year, to nearly $89 billion.
Farmer and worker solidarity
On November 26, workers and farmers converged in solidarity.
Farmers are protesting three farm bills (passed on September 20) that dismantle government-controlled agricultural markets that guaranteed a minimum support price. Now, big corporations will be able purchase produce directly from farmers, whose already dire economic situation will certainly become worse. More than 80 percent of India’s farmers own less than two hectares (or five acres) of land. These small and marginal farmers will have very little negotiating power with big corporations. The corporatization of agriculture will be the result.
More than 300 farmers’ organizations from Punjab and across northern India have come together to demand that the farm laws be repealed. As this article goes to press, close to 200,000 farmers are encircling New Delhi and are camping on the major national highways. Women and Dalit farmers, as well as farm laborers, along with left-leaning Dalit workers’ unions, have joined the struggle, red flags held high.
Many of the demonstrations against the agricultural bills over the last several months have raised slogans like “Long live labor-farmer unity.” Historically there has been a strong opposition between the largely upper-caste farmers and the farm laborers, who are mostly landless Dalits.
Shreya Sinha, researcher on the political economy of development and agrarian change in India, writes in India Forum on November 28: “Contradictions of class, caste and gender are known to undermine, if not completely paralyze, progressive agrarian politics across India. … But there is much to celebrate in the efforts of the farm and farmer labor unions and other organizations towards overcoming these contradictions. … They recognize that expanding and sustaining this effort not only needs continuous political work on the ground but also the involvement and support of other sections of society. This is reflected in the alliances they have built with other kinds of progressive organizations such as students’ unions, teachers’ unions … the forging of these solidarities not only creates hope for progressive change within Punjab but also holds lessons for social movements beyond the state.”
The farmers called for Bharat Bandh (India Shutdown) on December 8 if a special parliament session does not repeal the laws. The CPI, CPI (M) and CPI (ML), Revolutionary Socialist Party and All India Forward Bloc joined in the bandh, releasing a statement saying: “The Left parties extend their solidarity with and support to the ongoing massive agitation by Kisan (Farmers) organizations from all over the country against the new Agri laws. The Left parties extend their support to the call given by them for a Bharat Bandh on December 8.”
On December 5, demonstrations in solidarity with the farmers were held in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia.
This is indeed a very challenging yet exciting time for labor in India. Workers and farmers produce India’s wealth, but its land and resources are owned and controlled by the capitalist class. Bhagat Singh, the Indian revolutionary hanged by the British in 1931, wrote: “The only forces you can rely (upon) to bring about that revolution whether national or the socialist are the peasantry and the labor.”
As communists, we agree with Lenin when he wrote in his essay, “The Proletariat and the Peasantry,” that “The struggle for land and freedom is a democratic struggle. The struggle to abolish the rule of capitalism is a socialist struggle.” (“The Proletariat and the Peasantry,” 1905)