On the 4th of June, the workers at Maruti Suzuki India Limited plant at Manesar went on an indefinite strike. They demanded the recognition of the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU) and the reinstatement of the 11 sacked workers who led this new union who had been dismissed two days before.

By the 8th day the strike had gained enough momentum to make it through to prime time on several national news channels. It was a struggle of immense strategic significance which could fundamentally alter industrial relations on a national scale. Maruti Suzuki is the largest automaker in India, and autoworkers have been playing a pivotal role in the reemergence of workers struggle.

Once the strike began it received tremendous support from all the workers of the region. All 65 unions functioning in the industrial belt extended their support to the striking workers at Maruti Suzuki. A two-hour tool down strike was announced first on the 15th then deferred to the 20th, by which time the strike was over.

The strike was called off in its 13th day in a deal brokered by the Haryana Government, run by the Congress party with the AITUC. The agreement was non-committal towards the recognition of the MSEU and included a problematic clause for making the workers compensate for the man-hours lost during the strike by deducting wages for 26 days for 13 day strike. Workers returned to work on the 18th of June. The silver lining to this however, was the fact that 11 of the sacked workers were re-instated in the plant, which is a landmark achievement in the history of worker’s struggles at Gurgaon.

Nevertheless the management strengthened by the end of the strike sacked the 11 MSEU leaders once again in July 29th, together with the suspension of 38 other workers.

The workers could not accept the bosses’ backlash and production was halted since then. In September 1st, five thousand workers gathered in the entrance of the plant. This included workers from many factories in the Gurgaon- Manesar-Dharuhera-Bawal industrial belt in Haryana, including workers from Maruti Suzuki Gurgaon plant, Suzuki Powertrain Manesar, HMSI, Hero Honda, FCC Rico, Rico Auto Dharuhera, Rico Auto Manesar, Omax, Lumex, Sona Steering and others. Various Unions from the independent factory-based ones to central trade unions AITUC, HMS, CITU, INTUC, NTUI, AICCTU have expressed solidarity with the strikers. People from surrounding villages, students from colleges in Haryana and Delhi and many intellectuals also participated in the meeting.

The strength of the strike and the solidarity it generated is indicative of the potential of the movement. What emerged from Manesar may develop into a strike of national proportions striking at the very highest echelons of power of the bourgeoisie.

Longtime Privileged Corporation in the Heart of Auto Industry

Maruti-Suzuki which is owned 54% by Suzuki Motor Corporation of Japan is the largest producer of passenger cars in India and has had a shady history of linkages with the top leadership of the Congress party. It is no secret that the company, which was nothing more than a small scale manufacturer before 1985, owes its present existence primarily to the nepotism of the Indian bourgeois state and the Congress Party. It was after all Sanjay Gandhi who was the brainchild behind the Maruti 800 car which was the de facto people’s car’ of India. It was this car that propelled the Indian automobile industry from its nascent stages. The plant at Manesar sits at the heart of Maruti Suzuki India Limited.

The workers movement in Manesar is nascent but incredibly powerful and is one of the products of the proletarianization of the peasantry last 10 years in India. The focal point of these struggles has been in the automotive industry. The industry constitutes 6.5% of the Indian GDP and has a heavy presence of foreign manufacturers and together with strong domestic manufacturers like Tata, Mahindra and Bajaj.

Workers Strikes on the Agenda

The strike at Manesar revealed some of the most critical dynamics of the Indian labor movement and established some of the main hurdles in the road of the furthering the revolutionary struggle of the masses. In the recent past major struggles developed in the national level: BSNL in December 2010, the dock workers in February and Air India pilots both in 2011.

Locally major struggles unfolded across the country. In Madras the workers of the Taiwanese FoxConn went on strike for the right of organization and agitation as well as against state repression.

In Maharashtra the sugar industry workers strike was in fact one of the largest uprisings of workers in the recent past in Maharashtra involving 200,000 workers across the industry.

They won a massive concession from the government in lieu of payment of wage arrears. They succeeded primarily due to the massive pressure exerted by the sheer scale of the struggle as well as its occurrence in a politically strategic sector of the Maharashtrian economy which relates directly to the top echelons of the ruling political clique of the Congress Party and its offshoot the NCP.

In the auto industry, there were strikes in Honda, Rico and Maruti-Suzuki in the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt. In all cases they reached magnanimous proportions with the Rico workers strike having an international impact. In Haldia dockworkers went on strike against the dismissal of contract workers which were reversed.

The most active sectors were the workers hired by public companies followed by foreign private corporations. In the public sector the opposition to privatization is at the center. Among foreign owned companies, wages and the right to unionize are the main issues.

The air India strike in particular turned out a significant victory which achieved the recognition of the Air India Pilots union as well as the reinstatement of fired employees. They are now at a position to start for a new struggle against the mismanagement of the public carrier.

The same cannot be said neither for the dockworkers nor the BSNL struggles. The latter has particularly created an air of frustration as it was called off by union leaders with no positive results despite its strength. The dockworker’s strike has been pacified till now by deferring the struggle almost endlessly till the point of dragging the workers into negotiations with the government and the port management. This is done in stark contrast to the victories the dock workers had achieved in 2007. Wherever necessary state repression was employed to benefit corporations like in FoxConn, Honda and now, Maruti-Suzuki. 

What was common in the victories of these struggles was the consistent and uninterrupted struggle waged by the workers against the forces of the bourgeoisie and kept on a consistent pressure upon the bureaucratic leadership to perform in their interests. Whilst in Air India, we are only dealing with a nascent trade union where the degenerating tendencies of a union bureaucracy have yet to emerge. This has allowed a greater scope for militancy amongst the employees of Air India. The struggles of recent times have revealed the dialectical relationship existing between trade union bureaucracy and worker’s militancy where they naturally tend to go against each other.

The bureaucrat usually seeks more power and perks whilst the workers seek better living conditions and working conditions. The victories of the class in recent struggles affirm this interrelationship in the positive whilst the defeats affirm this in the negative. However, the defeats not withstanding their immediate consequence which is negative are not permanent/historical defeats but only temporary in nature.

More than the negative aspects of eventual immediate defeats, these struggles nonetheless showed the strength of the working class and the potential for their further development in working class militancy. In some cases, the class militancy and strength is strong enough to go against the most bureaucratized of leaderships they receive, and secure concessions despite their constrictions.

The Necessity of a New Militant Unionism

The strike at Manesar hit at the heart of the automobile industry and a critical branch of political-industrial matrix that is a defining feature of Indian Capitalism. Its fate will have a lasting influence in the coming struggles.

The first strike last June showed a negative role played by AITUC. The strike was powerful but the AITUC played down local and national solidarity that could force the bosses to recognize the union and to reinstate its leaders, with no compensation for the non worked days. The potential for solidarity was evident in the course of the struggle from the willingness of the workers in the region to go for a tool-down strike. This, however, was deliberately stalled by the leadership of the AITUC.

The failure of the solidarity action paved the way for the isolation of the struggle and gave the management and the government an upper hand to deal with the workers and their representatives. Now, however the situation has changed. Having learnt their lesson from the defeat of the last strike, a better effort has been undertaken to generate solidarity among the workers at other plants which has added strength to their present struggle which started from 29th of August.

The focal point of the last strike was the non-recognition of the worker’s union the MSEU. The management’s alternative is the company’s own yellow union. The bourgeois in times of crisis has a preferred alternative to directly crushing the workers. This alternative involves pacifying, and deceiving the working class into submission. Who better to do it than the bourgeoisie’s own pet bureaucrats of the yellow unions? The bureaucrats of the company’s yellow union perform precisely this function namely, that of pacifying the workers and disorienting them from struggle and militancy into contemptible submission. The main demand of the workers has remained unchanged in the present struggle as the last strike had failed to resolve this issue.

The trade union albeit rudimentary is still an organization of the working class, and an organization of the class is useful only when it’s a fighting organization. All forces of revolution must be steadfast in resolutely fighting against any tendency that deprives a union its fighting teeth and turns them into passive organizations or worse, into direct stooges of the bourgeoisie. With the existing bureaucratized union at Maruti, this has been the case.

The success of the present struggle at Maruti will become an inspiration to the working class all across the nation and pave the way for liberating the working class from the stranglehold of compromising pet unions of the bourgeoisie. It is thus, necessary for all counter revolutionary forces to join hands in dousing the militancy of the striking workers. The struggle is not over and the fight must continue till the preferred union of the workers is recognized by the management and the government. The workers need to develop an alternative militant body to take the lead, to build solidarity locally and nationally in order to develop an uncompromising struggle till victory which will have a tremendous impact in the national political arena. 

Source: New Wave n. 3, September 2011