The Brief Origins of May Day – By Eric Chase – 1993.
In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places and inspired such books as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jack London’s The Iron Heel. As early as the 1860’s, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay, but it wasn’t until the late 1880’s that organized labor was able to garner enough strength to declare the 8-hour workday. This proclamation was without consent of employers, yet demanded by many of the working class.
At this time, socialism was a new and attractive idea to working people, many of whom were drawn to its ideology of working class control over the production and distribution of all goods and services. Workers had seen first-hand that Capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers’ lives for profit. Thousands of men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties in some industries, and little hope but death of rising out of their destitution. Socialism offered another option.
[…] an estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight hour work day, including the Trades and Labor Assembly, the Socialistic Labor Party and local Knights of Labor. As more and more of the workforce mobilized against the employers, these radicals conceded to fight for the 8-hour day, realizing that “the tide of opinion and determination of most wage-workers was set in this direction.” With the involvement of the anarchists, there seemed to be an infusion of greater issues than the 8-hour day. There grew a sense of a greater social revolution beyond the more immediate gains of shortened hours, but a drastic change in the economic structure of capitalism.
[…] Eight anarchists – Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg – were arrested and convicted of murder, though only three were even present at Haymarket and those three were in full view of all when the bombing occurred. The jury in their trial was comprised of business leaders in a gross mockery of justice similar to the Sacco-Vanzetti case thirty years later, or the trials of AIM and Black Panther members in the seventies. The entire world watched as these eight organizers were convicted, not for their actions, of which all of were innocent, but for their political and social beliefs. On November 11, 1887, after many failed appeals, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher were hung to death. Louis Lingg, in his final protest of the state’s claim of authority and punishment, took his own life the night before with an explosive device in his mouth.
[…] Over one hundred years have passed since that first May Day. In the earlier part of the 20th century, the US government tried to curb the celebration and further wipe it from the public’s memory by establishing “Law and Order Day” on May 1. We can draw many parallels between the events of 1886 and today. We still have locked out steelworkers struggling for justice. We still have voices of freedom behind bars as in the cases of Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier. We still had the ability to mobilize tens of thousands of people in the streets of a major city to proclaim “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” at the WTO and FTAA demonstrations.
Words stronger than any I could write are engraved on the Haymarket Monument:
THE DAY WILL COME WHEN OUR SILENCE WILL BE MORE POWERFUL THAN THE VOICES YOU ARE THROTTLING TODAY.
Mayday in India
The first May Day celebration in India was organised in Madras (now Chennai) by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan on 1 May 1923. This was also the first time the red flag was used in India. The party leader Singaravelu Chettiar made arrangements to celebrate May Day in two places in 1923. One meeting was held at the beach opposite to the Madras High Court; the other meeting was held at the Triplicane beach. The Hindu newspaper, published from Madras reported,
The Labour Kisan party has introduced May Day celebrations in Madras. Comrade Singaravelar presided over the meeting. A resolution was passed stating that the government should declare May Day as a holiday. The president of the party explained the non-violent principles of the party. There was a request for financial aid. It was emphasized that workers of the world must unite to achieve independence
UNION, MOVEMENTS AND STRIKES!
(Armed guards ensuring that the trains run during the strike of 1974.)
Chronicle of a strike – By V. SRIDHAR (2001)
[…] the Indian Railways strike of 1974 continues to evoke images of the heroism of ordinary railway workers, their families and those who dared support them against the might of the Indian state. Although much has been written about the Emergency which followed a year later, the most widespread revolt by the working class in independent India has received comparatively little attention from labour historians.
The 1974 rail workers’ strike was a unique event for several reasons. It occurred at a time when labour militancy was at its highest in independent India: the number of workdays lost owing to all industrial disputes in India touched 40 million in 1974, more than double that recorded in any single year during the preceding decade. The strike and the manner in which it was put down marks a turning point in labour’s leverage with the Indian state. The 1974 strike forced political parties across the spectrum to spell out their stand clearly. In fact, parties which were ambivalent or inconsistent in those heady days are still trying to come to terms with the position they took then. The strike also provided a stunning launch pad to mass appeal for those like George Fernandes who, as the president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), was the main leader of the strike. Although portrayed as a failure, the strike achieved later what it sought to achieve then. For these reasons the strike marks a milestone for labour historians.
[…] The Railways bureaucracy and the government preferred to deal with “tamed” leaders of the Railways’ working class. In doing this, it thwarted all attempts by workers to establish “their own” unions. Sherlock points out that before the strike the AIRF leadership had “accepted and adjusted to that reality” which demanded that they keep the workers on a tight leash. The government stubbornly refused to allow union recognition on the basis of election of representatives by secret ballot. While the government, as employer, perceived the unions as devices with which it could “discipline” the workers, the unions, over a period of time, had grown into bureaucratic structures alienated from ordinary workers. The 1974 strike was symbolic of the workers’ refusal to accept the “patron-client” character of the two major unions which claimed to work for their behalf.
In the Railways, government patronage of the two dominant unions led to two developments that provoked the upsurge of workers in 1974. One, the distance between the officially recognised unions and the rank and file widened because workers no longer saw the unions as representing their interests before the government. Secondly, the government’s patronage of the officially recognised unions, at the exclusion of all other voices of the working class, led to a complete blockage of possibilities of the redress of the grievances of ordinary workers. The situation was thus fertile for an explosion of anger from below. Although on paper more than 70 per cent of the 1.4 million rail employees (permanent ones) were members of the two official unions on the eve of the strike, they led the leadership to the strike. In fact, the strike was the plank on which Fernandes was elected president of the AIRF a few months before the strike.
[…] The 1974 strike, contrary to popular belief, was not a sudden action. It was preceded by strikes by rail workers across the country in 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1973. These strikes indicated that the workforce was restive and on the brink of exploding into revolt.
The 1974 strike was led by rank and file workers, particularly the newly-emergent crafts unions among the rail workers. Labour historians generally regard crafts unions as being restrictive in their class consciousness, and prone to the pulls of sectarian rather than wider class loyalties. Although this has been borne out by the decline of the crafts unions after the 1974 strike, such crafts unions broke the stranglehold that the two main unions had built for themselves.
Sherlock provides an exciting flavour of the turbulent 1970s when rank and file workers, fed up with the bureaucratic ways of the two officially recognised unions – the pro-Congress National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) and the Lohiite Socialist-inspired AIRF – forced the leadership to address their long-pending demands. The long working hours of rail crew – “loco running staff” in industry parlance – was one such demand. For instance, loco drivers had often to be on the high-pressure job for days without a break.
Historically, many of the British-run rail networks had termed the work of the loco staff as “continuous”, implying that workers would have to remain at work as long as the train ran on its trip, often for several days at a stretch especially on the goods trains. Independence did not change this. The spread of diesel engines and the consequent intensification of work in the Indian Railways since the 1960s created much resentment among the workers. The Railways, although government-owned, remained an island in which the accepted worldwide standard of an eight-hour working day was violated with impunity. In fact, when the crafts unions raised the issue, they demanded a 12-hour working day for loco running staff. Besides this, there were other issues. Pay scales in the Indian Railways had remained stagnant, unlike those in the public sector companies and in departmental undertakings. The officially recognised unions stayed aloof in the wake of the rising tide of protests in 1973. The die was cast for the biggest confrontation between the Indian state and the working class.
[…] The Railways was one of the earliest vehicles of industrial capitalism in India. The railway industry was also the first in which industrial workers launched collective action. In 1862, more than 1,200 workers struck work at Howrah station demanding an eight-hour working day. Waves of strikes by railway workers occurred in the privately-owned rail networks of British India and culminated in the great wave of unrest on the eve of Independence. Sherlock provides an inspiring account of the unionisation in the Indian Railways and the militant struggles of ordinary workers.
In Bombay, electricity and transport workers as well as taxi drivers joined the protests. In Gaya, Bihar, striking workers and their families squatted on the tracks. More than 10,000 workers of the Integral Coach Factory in Perambur, Tamil Nadu, marched to the Southern Railway headquarters in Chennai to express their solidarity with the striking workers. Similar protests erupted across the country. Not a single important rail centre in India was immune.
The brutal methods adopted by the government against the striking workers and their families have been fairly well-documented. The railway colonies were practically under siege. For instance, in Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh, which has one of the biggest railway yards in the world, women were assaulted and even children were not spared. The Border Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Provincial Armed Constabulary were deployed in the labour township. There were also instances of workers forced by terror to work. Instances of train drivers who were shackled in their cabins were reported at the height of the strike.
Neoliberalism And Hindutva – By Shankar Gopalakrishnan (2008)
Partha Chatterjee (1998) and Corbridge and Harriss (2000) have argued that the planned mixed economy was a “passive revolution” initiated by the Indian bourgeoisie, a result of its inability to tackle the continued power of the landlord classes in the first decades after Independence. Certain elements of these policies, many of which still continue, had a clear relevance not only to the landlord classes but to spheres of petty commodity production. Some measures appeared intended to “protect” and perpetuate these systems of production: for instance, reservations for small-scale industries, the peculiarities and numerical limits of Indian labour law, some aspects of priority sector lending and the promotion of cooperatives. These had the net effect of erecting barriers to transformation into capitalist enterprises, hence encouraging capital and most producers to either disguise themselves as petty commodity producers or engage in ‘outsourcing’ of production to such producers. Yet, simultaneously, various other mechanisms operated to ensure the continued extraction of surplus from such sectors: unequal exchange through agricultural price fixing, the relative failure of institutional lending, the allocation of space in urban areas, etc. Such surplus extraction at times shaded into the forms now described as “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2003), but not to the extent of threatening the continued existence of petty commodity production.
The result has been an active state contribution to the perpetuation of a large but dominated sphere of petty commodity production. The reason why this occurred is out of my scope here, but for the purposes of our present argument it is sufficient to consider its consequences for India’s polity. In particular, the persistence of petty commodity production has been a major contributing factor – though not the sole one – in the prominence of “social structures of accumulation”, namely institutions such as caste, gender, religious community, geography and kinship networks, in the regulation of Indian capitalism (Harriss-White 2003). Indeed, petty commodity production in India is marked by the relative absence of direct, formal state intervention in most production processes. State action plays a key role in shaping such production, but does so indirectly, or at times “perversely.”
[…] The 1980s were a period of major upheaval in the Indian polity, witnessing an upsurge of new political forces. These included the “social movements”, the new regional parties, the armed uprisings in several major areas of India’s periphery (Kashmir, Assam, and Punjab) and eventually the Mandal mobilisations. In some ways these mobilisations shared nothing in common except that they exploded into the “vacuum” left by the declining coherence of the Indian state and the Congress party. Yet the largest of the movements in the Indian mainland – the regional parties, the “new farmers’ movements” and the Mandal mobilisations – did have one common characteristic. This was the dominant, or at least leading, presence of “rich peasant” groups.
Zamindari abolition and the Green Revolution had contributed by the early 1980s to the creation of a small class of capitalist farmers and a larger, though less clearly defined, class of ‘rich farmers’ in most States in India (excepting the Northeast). The impact of such trends was already visible in the fragmentation and organisational decline of the Congress from the late 1960s (Vanaik 1990). In the 1980s, these classes formed the bedrock of regional parties such as the TDP, the INLD, the SAD or the Samajwadi Party, as well as the leading sections of both the farmers’ movements and the subsequent OBC mobilisations.
In the terms of the argument here, these were social groups at the upper end of petty commodity production, often either having become fully capitalist or on the verge of doing so. These groups faced two primary problems in the 1980s. First, the gradual shift in terms of trade against agriculture through the decade threatened their ability to transition to capitalist agriculture, and in some cases even their ability to reproduce their current conditions of existence. Second, the rise of these communities was not reflected in a concomitant change in political power – which remained in the hands of the urban bourgeoisie.
AGAINST THE NEOLIBERAL ASSUALT
Some voices from Delhi NCR – Interview with members of FARIDABAD MAJDOOR SAMACHAR
“Whenever there is a power-out or we are working with new machines, we step back. It is a high level of risk for life. It is stupid to be a cog in a machine which can cut through flesh and bone,” said a worker as he collected a copy of FMS. He works in a metal cutting unit, and was reacting to a news item in FMS, February 2015 edition we’d read together: workers of Maxop Engineering work in two twelve hour shifts over the entire week, and the shift changes on Sundays, which means on Sundays, the first shift workers work for 24 hours straight.
Temperatures inside the factory are really high. Workers frequently quit here, but there are always others to replace them. On 16th January, 2015, there was a sudden stop in production due to obstruction by a machine part. Kaleem Ansari tried removing it by getting inside the machine. Usually there are auto-plans to stop machines when workers are inside, part of its safety mechanism. But production pressures are so high that factory management shuts these off. Due to this, as soon as the machine started Ansari lost his head inside the machine and died on the spot. Workers unanimously halted production for two days, returned on the third.
One way to understand this drudgery would be to say that the workers are helpless victims; those publishing FMS insist that this is both strategically unhelpful as well as factually an inaccurate understanding of the situations we find factory workers in. It is an accepted fact that wage-labour is drudgery, so much so that it should stop shocking us anymore. Damaged limbs are statistically high, so much so that they are visible to the naked eye. More universal, even if less visible, is the damage due to hidden fumes, radiation, etc., or even the dehumanization of mechanical fruitless work. When this dehumanization is no longer shocking, wage-workers are faced with one simple question: what can be done? The idea of the helpless victim is a road-block to the emergence of this question, and thus runs contrary to the spontaneous self-activity that the question leads to among workers. http://libcom.org/library/self-activity-wage-workers-kamunist-kranti
Michael Aram Exports Pvt. Ltd. has an office in Khan Market, and a factory in Noida (at the time workers’ agitations began, the factory was in Okhla). Conditions in the Michael Aram factory had always been bad, but in 2005 a dispute between Aram and another of his partners led to stoppage of work in the Okhla factory. Despite promises, management put off giving work to those employed there, but also began delaying their payments. Diwali bonus was not given. Workers from the factory got together and set up placards, which they carried and held up at the factory and later at Connaught Place, a busy junction in New Delhi (well-documented here https://firstname.lastname@example.org/msg00120.html).
At the same time, a few friends in the US put up banners before the clientele of Michael Aram. This led to what Sher Singh refered to as “an issue of one factory becoming one of many factories.” There was widespread shaming of the company, and they were forced to cede to the demands. Michael Aram workers had, since 2004, begun meeting as a group on Sundays. Each week they’d discuss what they would go through the working days, and thrash out possibilities of how they could face the management as a collective. Even those workers who were not initially with them turned towards them; some got suspended for doing so. Because they were permanent workers, they were still on the rolls. That group of Michael Aram workers which met regularly then still holds its weekly meetings in park even now in 2015.
Management has been trying all ways possible to throw them out of work. The latest method has been to pressurize them by claiming their standard produce to be thicker and in need of more polishing; when they make it thinner, it ends up getting damaged. They came to Majdoor Library with these worries at the weekly taal-mel organized by FMS. Sher Singh and Bhupinder ji suggested they should start producing substandard designs if they were disapproving of the standard ones, so that when they return with the parts they’d have at least a legitimate correction to make upon them. “Hava mey cut maaro” – pretend to polish (cut) parts when in fact you are doing nothing.
These are management attempts to discredit workers to remove them eventually from work (Michael Aram has been pissed for long now). Workers use their weekly taal-mel to find ways to counter this. Also on the agenda is: how to use the discovery that Michael Aram holds a Swiss Bank account with unaccounted wealth? (do check ‘Many Straws Make a Nest'; a documentary made on some of the themes discussed here http://visions-of-labor.org/edition.php?clipId=89)
The G4S security guard was against workers’ unrest by what his job demands from him; but he is part of the wage-work system by what his job-conditions are. When left to himself, he acts like a security-guard would, trying to work for the management, being in the good books, etc. But when he realizes his real conditions, he loses all his loyalty towards his bosses. Even if he stays in a dilemma, which he expresses by asking ‘what if the workers go out of control?’, at least he knows that he is also entering relations within the factory system that are precarious and against his interests. These are relations that publishers of FMS refer to as “new kinds of bonds”. Not based on any prior identity like family, region, caste or so on, these relationships are based on empathy arising from daily circumstances.
Workers of Michael Aram have shown how sustained and revolutionary these relations can be. In Sher Singh’s words, these are steps towards a “new community” that we can at best facilitate, ourselves being outside the wage-system; we can only add to the taal-mel by “making issues of one factory those of many factories” and figuring out methods of resistance keeping in mind the daily compulsions upon wage-workers.
Wildcat strike at Maruti Suzuki
From 4th to 17th of June  around 2,000 young workers engaged in a wildcat sit-down strike at Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar . With the following text we hope to contribute to the necessary debate about this important strike and invite friends and comrades, particularly in Delhi area, to share their experiences and views. Before we go into chronological details of the strike we try to provide a rough political summary.
It was an important strike in local terms. The two Maruti assembly plants coordinate hundreds of local supplying factories , the Manesar plant dominates a new industrial area of major importance. There has been silence at Maruti Suzuki for more than a decade: the workers in Gurgaon plant have been silenced by the lock-out in 2000/01 , and they did not join the strike in June. The Manesar plant was opened in 2006/07, but the young and casualised work-force had not found their voice as yet.
It was a hard strike. The workers gave no notice to management, they stopped production completely and around 2,000 workers stayed inside the factory for nearly two weeks. The strike ‘postponed’ the production of 13,200 cars and caused a loss of about 6 billion Rs. (133 million USD / 100 million Euro). Maruti Suzuki’s June sales figures dropped by 23 per cent, the sharpest fall in two and a half years. In July management announced to shift one production-line back from Manesar to Gurgaon plant. Workers continued the strike despite the police stationed within the factory premises and despite strike having been officially declared illegal by Haryana government on 10th of June.
Management and state did not dare to attack the workers inside the factory – a lot of workers’ struggles in the area had been attacked physically once workers left the factory. This is partly due to the management’s fear that plant and machinery could be damaged during the course of a police intervention, but mainly due to a fear of the state that – in the current local and global social situation – repression could cause unpredictable trigger effects. While state and management did not know how to deal with the situation, the main unions repeatedly emphasised, that ‘the workers are victimised’, that the workers, and not the company, are in a difficult spot.
Despite the young workers’ courage and the fact that the company was hit at times of full-capacity the strike ended in a defeat for the mass of workers: they did not enforce any betterment of conditions and wages, which was their main concern. Instead the agreement included a ‘punishment wage cut’ of two days’ wages per day of strike – something rarely seen in industrial relations in India. Another element of the agreement states that the 11 workers (union leaders) sacked during the strike were taken back, though they have to undergo an ‘inquiry’. We are not able to say whether workers at large felt demoralised after the strike, but we can imagine it.
The strike could have spread. The initial demands and underlying motivations of the Maruti workers matched the atmosphere of the young work-force in the area: more money, less work. In Manesar more than a hundred thousand young workers have similar concerns . The strike stopped production at around 200 local supplying factories, but no active connections were established between Maruti workers and the wider work-force in the territory. This might be one of the main differences to the Honda strike in China last summer and main reason for the fact that the strike was very underrepresented in both mainstream and left-wing global media – despite the ‘emerging’ position of Maruti Suzuki and ‘India’ in the global market.
The focus on ‘formal representation’ choked the dynamic of the strike. During the course of the strike, the direct demands of the workers were reduced to the question of which union-flag should be put up at the gate. We could summarise the main reasons for the defeat of the strike as follows: workers raised direct demands, but early on these demands were ‘integrated’ in the workers’ hope that by formal recognition of an independent union their material situation would improve; we then saw an attack both by management and state, cutting of electricity, isolation of workers by army of security guards, declaring the strike formerly illegal and last but not least by sacking the 11 ‘leaders’; the main unions then offered ‘support’ and at the same time focussed the struggle on the question of ‘taking back the leaders’ and ‘workers’ rights’ for representation. Workers did not manage neither to break out of the material encirclement set-up by company management and state nor to escape the ‘embrace’ by the main unions.
The fate of the strike was handed over to the ‘negotiating forces’. It is naïve to repeat the phrase of ‘betrayal’ of the main unions. It evades the question of what gives them the power to betray in the first place. Instead we should focus on the question how workers can struggle in a way, which leads both to an immediate material gain and to ‘political’ experience of self-organisation and generalisation beyond the company walls – the latter becoming increasingly a precondition for the former.
(TOI, April 30)
Claiming that countrywide strike against Centre’s Road Transport Safety bill was “successful”, Left parties and affiliated organizations today appealed to the NDA government to hold consultations over the proposed legislation.
Congratulating employees and workers of transport sector for their day-long “massive” protest, the outfits asked the government to invite representatives of the demonstrators for discussion to hear their views.
(The Hindu, May 1)
Commuters in different parts of the city had a difficult time in the morning hours on Thursday as auto and taxi operators in the city stayed off roads as they joined the 24-hour strike called by transport unions against the proposed Road Transport and Safety Bill, 2015.
Public transport was partially hit as commuters faced difficulty in getting autos and taxis, especially from railway stations and the airport.
Rajendra Soni, President of the Delhi Pradesh Taxi Union, which is part of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh – an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swaymesewak Sangh (RSS) claimed success stating that members of all registered unions in the city irrespective of political affiliations joined the protest. The strike was supported by some of the contractual DTC employees also.
“The strike was a complete success as auto and taxi drivers stayed off roads most part of the day. We went to meet Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari to apprise him about our concerns. Though we could not meet him, we have been assured that soon a meeting of the stakeholders will be called soon,” said Mr. Soni.
While the unions claimed success, auto-rickshaws and taxis were seen operating normally, especially post noon.
Issues relating to police brutality, caste segregation, economic policies and other anti-working class tendencies cannot be discuses in length within one discourse. My aim was to provide some accounts of workers struggle in India as a lively and active movement. As for the future there are signs indicating in both directions: towards a rise in class conscious mass struggle that could eventually scathe capitalism. Another, towards rise in class hatred towards working class by the middle classes mixed with increasing state control and state coercion in daily life and economic instabilities that might result in a proto-fascist state-corporate system.
The speculative analysis of movement’s future will be extremely lengthy and most likely be off the mark, like most speculations on these matters. I can only talk about what I hope to see in the future of workers struggle towards self emancipation.
“India”, apart from being a geographical division has no unified identity. It is divided between extreme poor and “super rich” and a strata of middle class working people trying not to fall in the abyss. If there is anything binding everyone together it is the market economy. Nine out of ten fighting for becoming “super rich” will fail and the one will go on and boost how he worker hard and exploited workers to reach there and hundred more rise. The working poor is the evidence that class war is real.
Freedom is relative, and for lives trapped in chains of poverty there is still very little of it. If there is anything patriotic i can say today is – Workers of India and the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.
This text contains excerpts from various books and article. Titles and Authors are mentioned accordingly. I do not claim any legal right over these works. I am willing to remove any section if the owners have any objections.