Autonomy in India: Tactical and Strategic Considerations on the New Wave of Workers’ Struggles


Over the last decade or so, work­ers’ strug­gles in the indus­tri­al­ized Gur­gaon-Mane­sar region near New Del­hi have caught the atten­tion of polit­i­cal activists and trade union orga­niz­ers through­out India and abroad. Many on the Left have praised the work­ers, expressed aston­ish­ment at their per­se­ver­ance, and offered a sense of local sol­i­dar­i­ty. But a full analy­sis of the dynam­ics of the strug­gle, and the lessons it may hold for us, has yet to be pro­duced. There has hard­ly been any dis­cus­sion of this issue in places like West Ben­gal, where the Left was tra­di­tion­al­ly strong and with a mas­sive influ­ence in the trade unions  in part because it’s unclear what to say in such meet­ings beyond expect­ed words of sol­i­dar­i­ty and sym­pa­thy. We do not know how to respond and relate to a sit­u­a­tion, which is not of our own mak­ing, but resplen­dent with all the glo­ry and tragedy asso­ci­at­ed with labor strug­gles of the past. Is this unde­cid­abil­i­ty about the nature and orga­ni­za­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment relat­ed to what we call “auton­o­my”?

These local devel­op­ments in Gur­gaon-Mane­sar have a wider sig­nif­i­cance. Work­ers’ strug­gles around the globe are enter­ing a phase of recharged mil­i­tan­cy. This era of glob­al­ized pro­duc­tion and casu­al­ized work has giv­en rise to new forms of strug­gle. To make sense of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, com­men­ta­tors have adopt­ed neol­o­gisms, such as pre­car­i­ous work, pre­cari­at, and more famil­iar phras­es like unor­ga­nized and infor­mal work­ers, and infor­mal work con­di­tions. There have also been attempts to invent and impro­vise meth­ods of orga­niz­ing work­ers in these changed con­di­tions, where the orga­nized sec­tor is sup­pos­ed­ly being increas­ing­ly frag­ment­ed, with lean pro­duc­tion or just-in-time pro­duc­tion becom­ing the norm, and shop floors becom­ing increas­ing­ly redun­dant as a site of both pro­duc­tion and mobi­liza­tion. Even where the shop floor con­tin­ues to be impor­tant, as in the auto­mo­bile sec­tor, the work­er is now a mere appendage of the machine and has to tune their self to the iron rhythm of the robot. The ide­al work­er, it seems, is one who can trans­form into one of the cogs of the huge machine. Per­haps what we are wit­ness­ing now is not so much a clear divi­sion between for­mal and infor­mal work­ing con­di­tions, but a mix of the two and a grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion of the shop floor into a site of pre­car­i­ty. After all, the Gur­gaon-Mane­sar unrest hap­pened in a so-called orga­nized branch of indus­try – the auto­mo­bile sec­tor, where pro­duc­tion unfolds in high-tech shop floors, with cut­ting edge tech­nol­o­gy able to increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty to hith­er­to unseen lev­els, but marked and per­me­at­ed with the most rudi­men­ta­ry work­ing con­di­tions found at the house­hold lev­el.

Often auto­mo­bile parts have many tiers to pass through before they end up at the Maru­ti or Hero Hon­da main fac­to­ry. For exam­ple, rub­ber hoses for car­bu­re­tors arrive in the form of rub­ber blocks in Muje­sar, a vil­lage in Farid­abad sur­round­ed by indus­try. What remains of the vil­lage is the scat­tered lay­out of the small one-sto­ry shan­ty huts with cows and goats in front. The rest is trans­formed by the indus­try. Inside the huts peo­ple work on 1970s lath­es of Ger­man ori­gin, turn­ing met­al or work­ing on antique pow­er press­es. Maruti’s sup­ply-chain starts here.1 Gur­gaon-Mane­sar has trans­formed the entire area into a social fac­to­ry – not metaphor­i­cal­ly but in real­i­ty, thus turn­ing the bat­tle at Maru­ti as one for the com­mand and occu­pa­tion of the social fac­to­ry. The Maru­ti strug­gle showed the sig­nif­i­cance of the idea of the fac­to­ry and beyond.

In a sub­stan­tial sense, indus­tri­al­iza­tion at Gur­gaon-Mane­sar rep­re­sents the new type of indus­tri­al­iza­tion and cir­cu­la­tion of finance char­ac­ter­is­tic of this age of glob­al­iza­tion. In most of the fac­to­ries, unions were pro­hib­it­ed for a long time. In the plants pro­duc­ing auto­mo­bile parts, pro­duc­tion stan­dards have been set in tune with the pro­duc­tion needs of the car pro­duc­ing plants in the Unit­ed States and else­where. If work stops or sim­ply slows down at Gur­gaon-Mane­sar, it will ham­per wages, salaries, and the com­fort lev­el of the employ­ees there, and most impor­tant­ly, the glob­al prof­it mar­gin in the indus­try. Per­haps econ­o­mists will have to rack their brains to find out how much of the present rise in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty has been due to the devel­op­ment of machin­ery and how much due to an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the phys­i­cal efforts of the work­ers by tying them to the rhythm of the sec­ond, minute, and hour, and group­ing them in a way that the rhythm is not punc­tu­at­ed because of the absence of a work­er, how­ev­er small that peri­od of absence may be. But then, the cal­cu­la­tions of the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of the body have been always an impos­si­ble ques­tion for polit­i­cal econ­o­my.

This sit­u­a­tion rais­es a series of press­ing ques­tions: What are the chal­lenges in unit­ing work­ers who have been seg­ment­ed and marked by the vagaries and irreg­u­lar fre­quen­cies across the entire sup­ply chain? What should be the loca­tion and site for work­ing-class strug­gle when the shop floor con­di­tion shrinks or becomes pre­car­i­ous? How do the work­ers mobi­lize and orga­nize? What will meth­ods or approach­es will be adopt­ed by the polit­i­cal orga­niz­ers?

All these ques­tions, we want to argue, lead us to a crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of the call of “auton­o­my” of the work­ing class move­ment from cer­tain quar­ters. In this arti­cle we will ana­lyze two work­ers’ strug­gles in the peri-urban areas of Del­hi: the Maru­ti strug­gle and the strug­gle of work­ers in the unor­ga­nized sec­tor in Wazir­pur. These strug­gles, unfold­ing in two indus­tries with very dif­fer­ent con­di­tions, illu­mi­nate not only con­trasts, but also impor­tant sim­i­lar­i­ties. Indeed, these sim­i­lar­i­ties point to major, shared ten­den­cies in work­ing-class strug­gles today.

How­ev­er, before we begin our analy­ses of these two move­ments we have to rec­og­nize at the out­set that the state is ful­ly aware of the prob­lem of unruly work­ers in pre­car­i­ous labor process­es. In fact, one of the cen­tral prob­lems of state­craft today is pre­cise­ly how to gov­ern this unruly, often mil­i­tant, pop­u­la­tion work­ing in extreme­ly uncer­tain con­di­tions. Every oth­er day we hear news of work­ers mur­der­ing a fac­to­ry offi­cial, work­ers raid­ing a com­pa­ny or plant office, or the sud­den dis­ap­pear­ance of a work­er, or a labor­er in a pre­car­i­ous work con­di­tion com­mit­ting sui­cide. To man­age this sit­u­a­tion, the state has recent­ly devised a nov­el idea, pro­mot­ed in the Nation­al Com­mis­sion for Enter­pris­es in the Unor­ga­nized Sec­tor. The Com­mis­sion decid­ed to trans­form the ques­tion of work­ers into a ques­tion of the poor, dis­plac­ing the orig­i­nal prob­lem of the nature of work and work process. While the Com­mis­sion report con­cep­tu­al­izes both the infor­mal sec­tor and the infor­mal work­er from var­i­ous angles, it avoids the issue of cap­i­tal, ignor­ing the link­ages of infor­mal pro­duc­tion to the orga­nized and unor­ga­nized mar­ket of cap­i­tal and com­modi­ties.

There­fore it has no alter­na­tive but to turn to the con­cept of pover­ty as a way to solve the prob­lem. Instead of inquir­ing into pre­car­i­ous work­ing con­di­tions, or the pre­car­i­ous work­er, the Com­mis­sion goes on a sta­tis­ti­cal tan­gent, quan­ti­fy­ing the labor­ing poor. As a result, the cru­cial dis­tinc­tions between peas­ants and indus­tri­al work­ers, domes­tic work and fac­to­ry work, among many oth­ers, col­lapse. Even worse, the rec­om­men­da­tions essen­tial­ly boil down to anti-pover­ty ini­tia­tives, while the state’s own machin­ery to pro­tect the rights of unor­ga­nized work­ers remains woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate. This is a nov­el devel­op­ment in the art of gov­er­nance. The prob­lem for the state seems to be: how to gov­ern the unor­ga­nized con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion with­out pro­duc­ing a sub­ject called the orga­nized work­er or how to think of a nor­ma­tive phe­nom­e­non (pover­ty in this case) as a solu­tion to the prob­lem instead of defin­ing a work­er – unor­ga­nized work­er in this case – whose rights have to be pro­tect­ed by the state in face of an onslaught by glob­al cap­i­tal. To put the dilem­ma more con­crete­ly, the state is now try­ing to find ways to nor­mal­ize the fig­ure of the unor­ga­nized work­er through social mea­sures, while allow­ing – and in fact facil­i­tat­ing – the uncer­tain con­di­tions of work in the wake of glob­al­iza­tion.

It is pre­cise­ly this dilem­ma that has char­ac­ter­ized the state’s response to work­ers’ protests in Del­hi.

Struggles at Maruti: The Changing Face of Labor and Capital

The his­to­ry of Maru­ti is a fas­ci­nat­ing on two counts. It began oper­a­tion as a state-owned auto­mo­bile com­pa­ny (Maru­ti Udyog Lim­it­ed) with its mod­el Maru­ti 800 in 1983. In the final decade of the wel­fare state it was the car every mem­ber of the mid­dle class aspired to own. It acquired a brand loy­al­ty unmatched in the auto­mo­bile sec­tor. In oth­er words, it was one of the suc­cess sto­ries of state-owned enter­pris­es in the midst of the grow­ing per­cep­tion that such state-owned enter­pris­es were inef­fi­cient and only incurred loss­es. With the eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­iza­tion of 1991, Maru­ti saw a grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion from a pub­lic sec­tor under­tak­ing to a joint sec­tor com­pa­ny and final­ly to a pri­vate­ly-owned com­pa­ny. With Suzu­ki Motor Com­pa­ny of Japan now at the helm, Maru­ti not only saw a trans­fer of own­er­ship, but per­haps the first exper­i­ment with just-in-time pro­duc­tion, or what was called then the Toy­ota sys­tem of pro­duc­tion.2 Under this new sys­tem, a whole set of strin­gent reg­u­la­tions gov­erned the work­place. Work­ers were told how often they could take bath­room breaks, and how for long. Reg­u­la­tions deter­mined how often a work­er at the belt would need to drink water, or how long work­ers would be per­mit­ted to talk to one anoth­er on the assem­bly line.

In short, this regime of pro­duc­tion demand­ed the cre­ation of a new kind of pli­able work­force. It’s impos­si­ble to under­stand the sub­se­quent strug­gles at Maru­ti – which now has two man­u­fac­tur­ing units, one at Gur­gaon and anoth­er at Mane­sar – with­out tak­ing into account this attempt to forcibly trans­form the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class­es. Indeed, the first wave of strug­gle at Maru­ti explod­ed between 2000 and 2001, dur­ing a peri­od of tran­si­tion, so to speak, as old­er work­ers were try­ing to come to grips with the new pro­duc­tion sys­tem, which unleashed an unprece­dent­ed rise in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty at the fac­to­ry. This first strug­gle was impor­tant in the his­to­ry of the strug­gle because in many ways it set the tem­plate for sub­se­quent demands, as well as the ques­tion of strat­e­gy and tac­tics. The strug­gle began over incen­tive wages, which man­age­ment uni­lat­er­al­ly changed from the basis of sav­ings of labor-cost to the basis of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty per direct work­er. The agi­ta­tion began on Sep­tem­ber 8, 2000 with work­ers wear­ing black badges, shout­ing slo­gans, and meet­ing at the gates. After a gen­er­al body meet­ing, the union decid­ed on col­lec­tive action, which includ­ed a tool-down strike, assem­bly, and col­lec­tive hunger strike, as well as writ­ing to the man­age­ment to call for a union-man­age­ment meet­ing.

When there was no response from the man­age­ment the work­ers began their tool down strike of two hours in each shift. In response, the man­age­ment start­ed to dis­miss and sus­pend work­ers. On Octo­ber 12, 2000, the man­age­ment demand­ed that work­ers sign an under­tak­ing of good con­duct in order to enter the fac­to­ry. This par­tic­u­lar strat­e­gy was lat­er employed over and over again by the Maru­ti man­age­ment. A lock­out began on Octo­ber 12. By mid-Decem­ber the work­ers real­ized that their agi­ta­tion was being ignored. It was then that the union took the deci­sion to move their agi­ta­tion to Del­hi and start­ed a sit-in demon­stra­tion in the win­ter chill in front of Udyog Bhawan. This cre­at­ed a stir in Par­lia­ment and the gov­ern­ment had to inter­vene as Maru­ti was still was a joint sec­tor com­pa­ny. A set­tle­ment was reached and the good con­duct under­tak­ing was with­drawn but only a few work­ers who were dis­missed were tak­en back.3 It was through this strug­gle that man­age­ment exper­i­ment­ed with many of the tac­tics that would be deployed lat­er against future work­ers’ agi­ta­tion. Fur­ther, dur­ing this time, the work­force at Maru­ti became increas­ing­ly casu­al­ized with con­tract work­ers and appren­tices being recruit­ed in large num­bers. In fact, dur­ing this first phase of strug­gle they were used to con­tin­ue the pro­duc­tion at fac­to­ry to under­mine the strikes

The par­tic­u­lar labor process and the pro­duc­tion regime put in place in this peri­od were marked by the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of social con­trol of the work­ers. Apart from the usu­al man­age­ment steps, such as ban­ning unions, sus­pend­ing work­ers at will, hand­ing over rebel­lious work­ers to the police, and restrict­ing the phys­i­cal move­ments of work­ers in the plant, social con­trol was but­tressed from the out­side. The rur­al rich gen­try, the upper caste kulaks, and the wise elders of the near­by set­tle­ments all sup­port­ed the com­pa­ny boss­es. Not only did these social forces prof­it mas­sive­ly from the increas­ing finan­cial­iza­tion and con­se­quent sale of land for the spe­cial eco­nom­ic zone, the mon­ey was then invest­ed in build­ing up ties with the busi­ness­es. Thus, some invest­ed the mon­ey to build resorts for the super rich com­ing from out­side, while some built hut­ments for the work­ers of the area – all as mat­ter of busi­ness. Some invest­ed in high-end restau­rant busi­ness or in the sale of lux­u­ry items. Some became con­trac­tors to build roads, while oth­ers engaged in sup­ply­ing build­ing mate­r­i­al. Still oth­ers sim­ply became agents in the sale of land and oth­er prop­er­ty. This mon­eyed class is the main­stay of the maha­pan­chay­at (vil­lage gov­ern­ing body) of the Gur­gaon-Mane­sar area. In most cas­es the maha­pan­chay­at sup­port­ed the Maru­ti own­ers through­out these years. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, years lat­er, when the great Maru­ti unrest broke out and the flee­ing work­ers want­ed shel­ter in near­by vil­lages, some of the wan­der­ing work­ers were hand­ed over to the police by the local gen­try, par­tic­u­lar­ly if the work­er belonged to a low caste.

Indeed, the sur­round­ing region restruc­tured around the fac­to­ry. Some of the mem­bers of the local rich gen­try became con­trac­tors for Maru­ti and oth­er plants in that area. Oth­ers became can­teen sup­pli­ers. Still oth­ers sup­plied oth­er mate­r­i­al to the plant. All this was not a mere­ly spon­ta­neous con­se­quence of the sud­den avail­abil­i­ty of mon­ey. The com­pa­ny offi­cials delib­er­ate­ly decid­ed to turn locals into sup­pli­ers as a guar­an­tee for sta­bil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty in the region. On the oth­er hand as more and more tem­po­rary hands were engaged in Maru­ti the work­ers became casu­al, con­tract bound in spe­cial ways indi­cat­ed above,bereft of any social secu­ri­ty enti­tle­ment. These work­ers were most­ly Dal­its. They were kept invis­i­ble from the pub­lic pro­file of the com­pa­ny and the busi­ness so that lat­er the boss­es could say that only a minor­i­ty of the Maru­ti work­ers were trou­ble­mak­ers, large-scale work­er dis­sat­is­fac­tion was a lie, and the repeat­ed lock­outs at Maru­ti were aimed at pro­tect­ing the major­i­ty of loy­al work­ers. All these claims helped the state and the local gov­ern­ment frame its response: quick appre­hen­sion of the trou­ble­mak­ers, quick tri­al, and quick exem­plary pun­ish­ment.

How­ev­er, let us not antic­i­pate the full sto­ry here. Let us go back to the agi­ta­tion in 2000.

What fol­lowed the agi­ta­tion should be tak­en as a study in tran­si­tion the of regimes from a wel­fare state to a “reg­u­la­to­ry state.”4 First­ly, against the Maru­ti Union Employ­ee Union (MUEU) which had led the agi­ta­tion so far, a new man­age­ment con­trolled Maru­ti Udyog Kam­gar Union (MUKU) was found­ed, hold­ing elec­tion in 2001. A mas­sive retrench­ment process in the name of Vol­un­tary Retire­ment Scheme was under­tak­en and work­ers were laid off. In 2002, Suzu­ki increased its share to 54.2%. In 2006, the Mane­sar unit of Maru­ti was estab­lished. The grip of man­age­ment on the work­ers was tight­ened as nev­er before. There were reg­u­lar reports of dai­ly abuse of work­ers, most­ly on ground of caste and the impos­si­ble work­ing con­di­tions of the lean pro­duc­tion sys­tem.

In 2011, a new wave of strug­gle at Maru­ti brought it to the fore­front of work­ing class strug­gle in India and attract­ed glob­al atten­tion. The dis­con­tent with work­ing con­di­tions and the abu­sive atti­tude of the man­age­ment reached a break­ing point. On June 3, 2011, work­ers at the Mane­sar plant sub­mit­ted an appli­ca­tion to reg­is­ter their inde­pen­dent union Maru­ti Suzu­ki Employ­ees Union (MSEU).5 The next day a work­ers’ sit-in at the Mane­sar fac­to­ry began. The pri­ma­ry demands of the work­ers were the right to union­ize and to make all con­trac­tu­al and tem­po­rary work­ers per­ma­nent. On June 6, eleven work­ers were fired. On June 17, the labor depart­ment inter­vened and the work­ers were rein­stat­ed and a ver­bal assur­ance was giv­en that their union would be reg­is­tered. Dur­ing this entire peri­od the work­ers occu­pied the fac­to­ry. They had learnt their les­son from the ear­li­er struggle:it was unwise to leave the fac­to­ry as this allowed the man­age­ment to declare a lock­out. What fol­lowed was con­stant threat and abuse by the man­age­ment as well as dis­missals and sus­pen­sions. This con­tin­ued until August 28-29, when sud­den­ly a large con­tin­gent of police entered the plant and man­age­ment sealed the gate. When the work­ers arrived, the man­age­ment declared that they could enter only after sign­ing an under­tak­ing (a signed promise) of good con­duct. The work­ers refused to do so. Harass­ment and arrest of union lead­ers fol­lowed. On Sep­tem­ber 30, the work­ers agreed to sign the good con­duct under­tak­ing. How­ev­er, only per­ma­nent work­ers were allowed to enter while 1,100 con­tract work­ers were denied entry. They were told to take their dues and leave. From Octo­ber 7, per­ma­nent and con­tract work­ers occu­pied the fac­to­ry, and on Octo­ber 13, the High Court passed the order that the work­ers should vacate the fac­to­ry.

In the mean­time, the man­age­ment laid a siege on the fac­to­ry cut­ting the water sup­ply and clos­ing the can­teen. In a dra­mat­ic turn of events, still large­ly inex­plic­a­ble, the strike end­ed in Novem­ber as some lead­ers of the strike took com­pen­sa­tion from the man­age­ment and left the com­pa­ny. In any case, the man­age­ment promised that the union would be reg­is­tered by Decem­ber 13, 2011; but it was until Jan­u­ary 31, 2012 that the Maru­ti Suzu­ki Work­ers’ Union (MSWU) was final­ly reg­is­tered. The strug­gle, of course, con­tin­ued.

On April 18, 2012 the union pre­sent­ed a char­ter of demands to reduce work pres­sure, mod­i­fy the extreme­ly demand­ing work sched­ule, end of the incen­tive scheme, etc. In May, two union lead­ers were sus­pend­ed because of an alter­ca­tion with super­vi­sor, but they were rein­stat­ed due to col­lec­tive pres­sure from the work­ers. Mat­ters came to a head in June-July when talks between man­age­ment and the union broke down. Work­ers stopped report­ing ear­ly and worked for only eight and half hours. On July 18, 2012 a super­vi­sor abused a work­er with casteist remarks and the work­er was sus­pend­ed.6 Sub­se­quent events remain unclear. Work­ers said that bounc­ers were called by the man­age­ment and vio­lence broke out, result­ing in the death of an HR man­ag­er. Who killed the man­ag­er remains a mys­tery. Work­ers demand­ed an impar­tial probe into the inci­dent. In any case, the vio­lence and the death of the man­ag­er allowed the state to crack­down on work­ers with feroc­i­ty. Thus came to an end of the year long strug­gle of the Maru­ti work­ers.

Over this entire peri­od, the strug­gle remained autonomous in the sense that the direct inter­ven­tion of trade unions of the Left and oth­er par­ties was neg­li­gi­ble. How­ev­er, after the events of July 2012 as the strug­gle came under heavy state repres­sion, sev­er­al trade unions came to the sup­port of the work­ers. This peri­od is more inter­est­ing as it revealed a com­plete­ly new face of the trade union move­ment in India, marked by new meth­ods of nego­ti­a­tions between the work­ers and the unions. There were sev­er­al unions and work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tions rang­ing from var­i­ous shades of what is called the far-Left, to ones which were more like non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and labor sol­i­dar­i­ty asso­ci­a­tions than unions. It meant a shift in the orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple hith­er­to based on the con­cept of class to that of com­mu­ni­ty. This, as lat­er events showed, was to have seri­ous reper­cus­sions on the move­ment.

After the July 18 inci­dent, 546 per­ma­nent work­ers were ter­mi­nat­ed along with about 1,800 tem­po­rary work­ers and 147 per­ma­nent work­ers arrest­ed on charges of mur­der. To meet the con­se­quences of the crack­down of July 2012, the union reor­ga­nized itself through a pro­vi­sion­al com­mit­tee and a new move­ment began from Novem­ber 7, 2012. MSWU demand­ed that the arrest­ed lead­ers be released, dis­missed work­ers rein­stat­ed, tem­po­rary work­ers made per­ma­nent, and an impar­tial probe on the inci­dent of July 18,be insti­gat­ed.

The strug­gle this time, how­ev­er, was per­cep­tive­ly dif­fer­ent in terms of tac­tics and strat­e­gy. The new phase of strug­gle began on Novem­ber 7, 2012. While the ear­li­er move­ments rec­og­nized the impor­tance of sit-ins or occu­py­ing either the fac­to­ry or an impor­tant gov­ern­ment office, this time the work­ers moved around. An impor­tant rea­son for this was that a large num­ber of work­ers had been ter­mi­nat­ed and the tem­po­rary work­ers were look­ing for jobs, thus mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for the work­ers to orga­nize an occu­pa­tion of the fac­to­ry. How­ev­er, there was con­sid­er­able debate between the var­i­ous unions and MSWU to shift the site of strug­gle to the cap­i­tal (Del­hi) rather than cling­ing on to Gur­gaon-Mane­sar. This sug­ges­tion was not tak­en up. It is a bit sur­pris­ing as the expe­ri­ence of the strug­gle had shown the gains of stand­ing ground even if that meant shift­ing at times the loca­tion of the strug­gle. In this case, if the ter­rain of the mobi­liza­tion had been even par­tial­ly shift­ed to Del­hi, the kind of repres­sion pos­si­ble in Haryana may not have hap­pened, since that lev­el of repres­sion in Del­hi would have very like­ly attract­ed large-scale pub­lic inter­est. In any case, by this time the issue of the Maru­ti strug­gle was not a local one only, but a nation­al, even a glob­al issue. There was a greater chance of work­ers’ mobi­liza­tion from oth­er places as well as a greater dis­play of social sol­i­dar­i­ty. The sug­ges­tion had come from some groups involved in the move­ment with MSWU.

In the mean­time MSWU aligned itself with some cen­tral trade unions like CITU. On one occa­sion when the site of the move­ment shift­ed to Kaithal the work­ers sought help from the noto­ri­ous khap pan­chay­at (a coun­cil of elders of few vil­lages often emerg­ing as qua­si-judi­cial body and pro­nounc­ing harsh pun­ish­ments based on age old cus­toms of prac­tis­ing vio­lence on women and dal­its). In some cir­cles, this ten­den­cy of work­ers of choos­ing their own lead­er­ship is tak­en as a pos­i­tive phe­nom­e­non and a sign of auton­o­my. How­ev­er, the expe­ri­ence of Maru­ti showed that such alliances are nev­er sym­met­ri­cal in their pow­er rela­tions. In this case the pow­er was firm­ly in the hands of the khap pan­chay­at. After the police repres­sion of May 19, 2013 in Kaithal, the khap pan­chay­at with­drew its sup­port. With this came the end of this phase of the strug­gle. There was a sem­i­nar held at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Uni­ver­si­ty where MSWU asked for sug­ges­tions for con­tin­u­ing the strug­gle.

The lat­est notable sit­u­a­tion in Maru­ti strug­gle is that MSWU has been reor­ga­nized and a new body has been elect­ed. How­ev­er, this long his­to­ry of Maru­ti strug­gle has left the ques­tion of strat­e­gy and tac­tics of the work­ers’ move­ment open. How do we con­ceive of the auton­o­my of work­ers’ move­ment? Tak­ing into account that many of these work­ers belonged to vil­lages around Gur­gaon-Mane­sar, their impulse led them to fall back on the com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion of the khap pan­chay­at. They also tried to align them­selves with cen­tral trade unions of the par­lia­men­tary Left as well as orga­ni­za­tions belong­ing to the rad­i­cal Left. These forces were parts of and not mere­ly spec­ta­tors in the debates sur­round­ing the ques­tion of orga­ni­za­tion. A work­ing class move­ment, even as sophis­ti­cat­ed and led by what is called advanced work­ers such as those of Maru­ti, work­ing on the cut­ting edge of tech­nol­o­gy, can­not remove itself from its polit­i­cal and social back­ground. It might also be the case that this move­ment may not even want to do that. Thus, debates, quar­rels, par­ty align­ments, and var­i­ous pulls remained intrin­sic to the sit­u­a­tion.

It can­not be for­got­ten that to a large degree the strug­gle was sus­tained because of their links with the vil­lages. Per­haps the post­colo­nial con­di­tion not only does not com­plete­ly trans­form peas­ants into work­ers at least for now, but in this con­di­tion the work­ers have to tra­verse both spheres. In the case of Maru­ti the work­ers who were part of the strug­gle were only the first gen­er­a­tion who had giv­en up farm­ing and tak­en up tech­ni­cal edu­ca­tion to become part of the skilled work­force. Maybe that is the rea­son that forced them to look for suc­cour in their vil­lages rather than in their so-called autonomous self. Also, it must not be for­got­ten that after the col­lapse of strug­gle post-July 18, 2012, the unions and orga­ni­za­tions of the Left ral­lied in the sup­port of MSWU in the face of heavy state repres­sion, though not to the required extent. Cer­tain­ly more could have been done. How­ev­er the sup­port helped the move­ment remain alive both on the ground as well as in the pro­gres­sive cir­cles and media. The ques­tion is: Is auton­o­my even desir­able, at least in the way it is under­stood? Is there a new way to con­cep­tu­al­ize the issue?

There are good rea­sons to argue that the autonomous char­ac­ter of the work­ers’ move­ment in Maru­ti stems from the spe­cif­ic, pre­car­i­ous labor con­di­tions at the plant. Suzu­ki has become an increas­ing­ly glob­al­ized enter­prise since it start­ed its joint ven­ture with Maru­ti three decades ago, with its cen­ters of pro­duc­tion, invest­ment, and export sales now reach­ing into parts of Africa, Europe, and the Unit­ed States. But its Indi­an sub­sidiary still accounts not only a large por­tion of Suzuki’s for­eign sales (62 per­cent), but its total sales (48 per­cent). But increas­ing pro­duc­tiv­i­ty rates at Maru­ti have only been pos­si­ble due to changes in both the forces and rela­tions of pro­duc­tion: name­ly, the adop­tion of a just-in-time pro­duc­tion sys­tem and the sub­se­quent dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of the labor force into three cat­e­gories of work­ers – per­ma­nent, con­tract, labor, and appren­tice labor­ers. In 2012, of the total num­ber of Maru­ti work­ers, 1100 Maru­ti work­ers were con­tract labor­ers, 400 appren­tice labor­ers; and only 950 were per­ma­nent labor­ers. The num­ber of con­tract labor­ers has peri­od­i­cal­ly fluc­tu­at­ed. Com­bined with speed-ups in the pro­duc­tion process, this reor­ga­ni­za­tion of the labor force has helped the Maru­ti plant at Mane­sar to increase its annu­al pro­duc­tion capac­i­ty from 250,000 to 350,000 units.

Tech­no­log­i­cal adjust­ments and the imple­men­ta­tion of a flex­i­ble work regime have also had tan­gi­ble effects on the fac­to­ry floor. For instance , if Maru­ti work­ers pre­vi­ous­ly received two 15-minute tea breaks per shift, now they receive two tea breaks of 7.5 min­utes each. Like­wise, the time allot­ted for lunch was reduced from one hour to 30 min­utes. Strange­ly, while polit­i­cal econ­o­my speaks of inten­si­fi­ca­tion of pro­duc­tion, and thus the increase of pro­duc­tion through con­stant improve­ment of tech­nol­o­gy, it does not have the lan­guage to dis­cuss, or any means of mea­sur­ing, the role of the body and the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of its labor­ing capac­i­ties in the “Post-Fordist” regime of accu­mu­la­tion. This is the nec­es­sary back­ground, how­ev­er, for under­stand­ing the cur­rents forms of labor (per­ma­nent, casu­al, and appren­tice) and rela­tions of pro­duc­tion at the Maru­ti plant.

The fail­ure of the tra­di­tion­al trade union move­ment led by the clas­si­cal Left Par­ties to ade­quate­ly respond to the grow­ing salien­cy of labor mar­ket flex­i­bi­liza­tion and just-in time-pro­duc­tion sys­tem in glob­al cap­i­tal­ism today, and the con­stant blows against work­ing class insti­tu­tions inflict­ed by the neolib­er­al state, point to a cen­tral ques­tion: instead of the fight for wages, is the idea of auton­o­my the best con­cep­tu­al tool to under­stand today work­ers’ move­ments that are often dis­play­ing new forms of orga­ni­za­tion, mobi­liza­tion, and pro­le­tar­i­an pow­er? In 1970s Italy, a sec­tion of the the­o­reti­cians of work­ers’ move­ment argued that in con­trast to the cen­tral­ized deci­sions and author­i­ty struc­tures of mod­ern insti­tu­tions, autonomous social move­ments involved peo­ple direct­ly in deci­sions affect­ing their every­day lives. In this way democ­ra­cy would expand and help indi­vid­u­als break free of the polit­i­cal struc­tures and com­port­ments imposed by cap­i­tal from above. Such an under­stand­ing involved a call in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive for the inde­pen­dence of move­ments from polit­i­cal par­ties. Autono­mia in Italy sought to cre­ate a prac­ti­cal polit­i­cal alter­na­tive – a ter­rain of strug­gle – that evad­ed the traps of both cap­i­tal­ist democ­ra­cy and what they defined as author­i­tar­i­an social­ism.

This is not the place to dis­cuss in details the the­o­ry of the autonomous move­ment, for more often than not the prin­ci­ple of auton­o­my has been dis­cussed the­o­log­i­cal­ly; at times a par­tic­u­lar con­text has been uni­ver­sal­ized, and at times pol­i­tics has been tak­en out of work­ing class move­ment, with the result that the expe­ri­ences of work­ers’ move­ments have not been giv­en ade­quate impor­tance in the­o­riz­ing the issue of auton­o­my. This has been respon­si­ble for a lack of dialec­ti­cal under­stand­ing of what we should mean by auton­o­my of work­ers’ move­ment. In this back­ground the recent work­ers’ move­ments in Del­hi deserves impor­tance, and sure­ly it will be nec­es­sary to look dialec­ti­cal­ly into the issue of auton­o­my in the work­ers’ move­ment in the con­text of the strat­e­gy and tac­tics of pro­le­tar­i­an pol­i­tics.

To arrive at that dis­cus­sion we have to now move on to the sec­ond expe­ri­ence that we pro­pose to nar­rate here.

Struggle of Hot Roller Workers in Wazirpur: Who Organizes the Unorganized and How

The labor con­di­tions in Wazir­pur in Del­hi are as far removed from the Maru­ti case as one can pos­si­bly imag­ine. In Wazir­pur, work­ers toil in hot rolling steel fac­to­ries under the most dan­ger­ous con­di­tions. The tem­per­a­tures of the blast fur­naces in the fac­to­ries, reach more than 2700 degrees. The labor process involves direct expo­sure to these extreme tem­per­a­tures: one group of work­ers will attend to the fur­naces in 30 minute shifts, before tak­ing a rest for the next 30 min­utes while anoth­er group of work­ers takes over, and the process repeats. The 30 min­utes rest peri­od is not rec­og­nized by the fac­to­ry own­ers, and thus goes unpaid.

Migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar provinces com­pose the major­i­ty of the work­force. The migra­tion pat­tern of work­ers is incor­po­rat­ed into the process of pro­duc­tion itself: dur­ing the sum­mer, migrants return to their vil­lages in the sum­mer for the sow­ing and har­vest­ing sea­son, per­ma­nent works tend to the fur­naces; in the win­ter, when the weath­er in Del­hi is often unbear­ably cold, new, inex­pe­ri­enced migrants are often con­tract­ed to work on the fur­nace, as it is pur­port­ed­ly more “com­fort­able.”

Migra­tion is thus a deci­sive ele­ment in the for­ma­tion of the work­force at Wazir­pur. Most work­ers come through a well-formed migra­tion net­work based on kin­ship rela­tions. The oth­er alter­na­tive for work­ers from oth­er provinces is to come through a labor con­trac­tor, who is often the super­vi­sor or fore­man at the same fac­to­ry. How­ev­er, as in Maru­ti, the per­cent­age of per­ma­nent work­ers who live in Del­hi and work at the plant year-round is rel­a­tive­ly low.

These struc­tur­al con­di­tions are essen­tial for ana­lyz­ing the steel­work­ers’ strug­gle at Wazir­pur in June-July 2014. Our analy­sis draws on the detailed chronol­o­gy of this polit­i­cal sequence post­ed on a blog cre­at­ed by a fac­to­ry com­mit­tee involved in the strug­gle, which is a valu­able first­hand account in its own right. What is impor­tant in this dis­cus­sion is how Wazir­pur work­ers cre­at­ed nov­el forms of col­lec­tive action in and through their strug­gle – a strug­gle often marked by intense, yet gen­er­a­tive, polemics between the dif­fer­ent groups involved. But what was at stake in this month-long bat­tle? What issues were the most con­tentious issues for work­ers, and what were the tac­tics and out­comes of the Wazir­pur con­fronta­tion?

As is so often the case, one must first turn to the issue of wage. Most of the work­ers at Wazir­pur are not even paid the min­i­mum wage. There had been pre­vi­ous agi­ta­tion around low pay and lack of ben­e­fits dur­ing 2012 and 2013, which result­ed in a par­tial suc­cess in terms of wages and hol­i­days, but prob­lems around work hours, work con­di­tions, and the absence of any legal­ly-required social secu­ri­ty pro­vi­sions remained major fault lines.

More­over – and this is a sig­nif­i­cant depar­ture from the Maru­ti case – the expe­ri­ence of col­lec­tive action and the his­to­ry of mil­i­tan­cy among work­ers was fair­ly low. In Maru­ti, there was a his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry of strug­gle which was read­i­ly avail­able to the work­ers; not so for work­ers in Wazir­pur. This was due not to a lack of antecedent strug­gles to draw upon: there was, for exam­ple, a hero­ic week-long strike of 1988, which was unfor­tu­nate­ly all but for­got­ten. This dynam­ic should rather be attrib­uted the spe­cif­ic obsta­cles of orga­niz­ing in the infor­mal sec­tor, and the depen­dence of this sec­tor on migrant labor. Due to the con­stant shifts in the inter­nal com­po­si­tion of the labor force, it becomes dif­fi­cult for a work­ers’ move­ment to have a con­tin­u­ous his­to­ry and cul­ture of mil­i­tan­cy, or a robust tac­ti­cal reper­toire to return to. This his­to­ry is inter­rupt­ed by the ebbs of migra­to­ry flows: long peri­ods of inac­tiv­i­ty means that the strug­gle has to begin anew, so to speak.

One of the most effec­tive inter­ven­tions devel­oped dur­ing the strug­gle was that of the com­mu­ni­ty kitchen. In itself, this may not have been a com­plete­ly new tac­tic, but it had not been used for a long time. The prob­lem of orga­niz­ing infor­mal sec­tor work­ers is large­ly a con­se­quence of the lack of any finan­cial secu­ri­ty for migrants; the own­ers have thus always used hunger and food aid as a strat­e­gy to break the work­ers. Almost 20 days into the strike strik­ing work­ers estab­lished a com­mu­ni­ty kitchen, and the own­ers were tak­en aback and forced to nego­ti­ate. Some even were forced to close their fac­to­ries as they could not have run it prof­itably accord­ing to the new set­tle­ment.

The strug­gle also made the gov­ern­ment labor depart­ment, which was till now most­ly inac­tive, sud­den­ly active and rel­e­vant. Once the set­tle­ment was reached, the onus of the imple­men­ta­tion fell on the labor depart­ment.7 The offi­cials of the labor depart­ment were gen­uine­ly sur­prised to find the kind of pow­er they still had over these infor­mal units. All these may change how­ev­er after new labor reforms are put in place. But for the time being the strug­gle have forced them to take up inves­ti­ga­tions of the fac­to­ry and the work­ing con­di­tions pre­vail­ing in these fac­to­ries.

The strug­gle in Wazir­pur and its par­tial vic­to­ry is an encour­ag­ing sig­nal that even the most unor­ga­nized sec­tor, where the par­lia­men­tary Left’s union activism has only a lim­it­ed pres­ence, has the poten­tial to become a thriv­ing ground for exper­i­ments in rad­i­cal forms of work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tion. This is a vital sup­ple­ment to the Maru­ti case, which demon­strat­ed that even in the orga­nized sec­tor – at the cut­ting edge of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion in the work­place – the rad­i­cal Left has an impor­tant role to play. With the rise of casu­al­iza­tion of labor, it is true that work­ers have become more geo­graph­i­cal­ly mobile and con­trac­tu­al­ly flex­i­ble; but the upshot may be that they are now more amenable to the kind of pol­i­tics artic­u­lat­ed by the rad­i­cal Left.

The strug­gle did, how­ev­er, bring an impor­tant ques­tion to the fore. Who orga­nizes the work­ers at sites that have not been pre­vi­ous­ly orga­nized or where trade union influ­ence has been min­i­mal? Here the his­to­ry of the Left move­ment in India needs to be con­sid­ered. The chang­ing cir­cum­stances have forced the rad­i­cal Left, which emerged after the move­ment of the late 1960s, to look at their pro­gram, and strat­e­gy and tac­tics anew. Con­trary to the belief that rad­i­cal Left is in ter­mi­nal decline or at best only active in iso­lat­ed spaces or dis­tant forests, there is a great deal of ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal fer­ment tak­ing place with­in this cir­cle. As a mat­ter of fact, the lev­el of polemics is sim­i­lar to the 1960s, if not more intense. This renewed activ­i­ty has been brought about pre­cise­ly because of the ques­tions raised and meth­ods of orga­niz­ing devel­oped by the work­ing class strug­gle, mak­ing it more mil­i­tant and sus­tain­able. The rad­i­cal left is now forced to recon­sid­er the ques­tion of the par­ty form, trade union tac­tics, and the pos­si­ble new forms of asso­ci­a­tion that can and must be elab­o­rat­ed through work­ing class strug­gle. Those are no longer ossi­fied or arcane con­cepts, but liv­ing, urgent strate­gies to be con­sid­ered.

Con­cepts like war of posi­tion, mobile war, and pro­tract­ed war (enun­ci­at­ed by Anto­nio Gram­sci and Mao Zedong) have not escaped the polit­i­cal under­stand­ing of the rad­i­cal Left in India, and these con­cepts can per­haps lead the way in artic­u­lat­ing new forms strat­e­gy and tac­tics in work­ers’ strug­gles.

Concluding Remarks

Both the expe­ri­ences sug­gest that the prob­lem­at­ic of “auton­o­my” and the received notions of work­ers’ auton­o­my need to be seri­ous­ly inves­ti­gat­ed. After all, we have to ask our­selves, what are the issues, forces, or insti­tu­tions that the work­ers’ strug­gles have to be autonomous from? What kind of eman­ci­pa­to­ry pol­i­tics will such autonomous forms engen­der? Final­ly, through the look­ing glass of auton­o­my, will the work­ing class stum­ble upon only its own inter­ests, or will it com­plete the his­tor­i­cal task Marx so elo­quent­ly expressed when he said, in the after­math of the Paris Com­mune, that the work­ing class has final­ly dis­cov­ered the “polit­i­cal form” under which it can achieve the “eman­ci­pa­tion of labor”?

We have stressed the need to con­sid­er the ques­tion of auton­o­my in a dialec­ti­cal fash­ion. In oth­er words, the issue can­not be framed as an either/or choice: between the par­ty-form or the union form, the union form or the autonomous orga­ni­za­tion­al form, polit­i­cal move­ment or the self-orga­ni­za­tion­al move­ment of work­ers, or final­ly, between a polit­i­cal upsurge or social move­ment. Every instance of work­er-led resis­tance has shown strong marks of auton­o­my, a swell of con­scious­ness on the ground, and a large degree of spon­tane­ity. At the same time, every upris­ing of work­ers has demon­strat­ed fea­tures of strate­gic lead­er­ship, effec­tive orga­ni­za­tion, wide social net­works, and a strong trans­for­ma­tion­al desire.

As Stephen Sherlock’s 2001 study (The Indi­an Rail­way Strike of 1974: A Study of Pow­er and Organ­ised Labour) and Ran­abir Samaddar’s recent study (The Cri­sis of 1974: Rail­way Strike and the Rank and File) show, the great Rail­way Strike in India in 1974 was one of the clear­est instances of a cur­rent of “auton­o­my” devel­op­ing with­in a move­ment. But the for­ma­tion of the great autonomous insti­tu­tion of the NCCRS (Nation­al Coor­di­na­tion Com­mit­tee of Railwaymen’s Strug­gle) was a polit­i­cal deci­sion and an agreed deci­sion of the polit­i­cal par­ties lead­ing the strug­gle. NCCRS was backed by the tremen­dous upsurge of the rail­way work­ers. Mass ini­tia­tive was cre­at­ed through strug­gle: its advances and suc­cess­es, but also errors and fail­ures. It is also impor­tant to note that the craft unions were cru­cial in the wave of sec­tion­al protests and strikes by rail­way work­ers across the coun­try in 1967, 1968, 1970, and 1973, lead­ing up to the great Rail­way Strike. In all these sens­es, there­fore, one can say that the 1974 strike was based in a sig­nif­i­cant sense on the rank and file, par­tic­u­lar­ly the new­ly emer­gent crafts unions among the rail work­ers. While labor his­to­ri­ans gen­er­al­ly regard craft unions as being lim­it­ed in their expres­sions of class con­scious­ness, and prone to the pulls of sec­tar­i­an rather than wider class loy­al­ties, such crafts unions broke the stran­gle­hold that the large fed­er­a­tions had on work­ers’ ini­tia­tives. There­fore, in the papers relat­ing to the Strike of 1974, we find repeat­ed ref­er­ences to the loco-run­ning staff (loco­mo­tive dri­vers, train guards, etc.) Who­ev­er has stud­ied, for instance, the leg­endary rail­road work­ers’ move­ment in the Unit­ed States will know the strate­gic impor­tance of the loco-run­ning staff because of their work con­di­tions, long work­ing hours, high-pres­sure work for days with­out a break, and the sol­i­dar­i­ty that the loco-men forge through their work.8 The ascen­dan­cy of the Loco Run­ning Staff Asso­ci­a­tion (LRSA) was cru­cial in mobi­liz­ing the work­ers for the strike. In some sense, with the fire­men join­ing the rank and file, the rail­way­men were now ready for action because they had found their lead­ers.

In 1968, the Fire­men of South­ern and South Cen­tral Rail­ways walked off the job for twen­ty-one days, demand­ing an eight hour day. While nego­ti­a­tions with the Deputy Rail­way Min­is­ter to find a solu­tion were going on, the lead­er­ships of two major unions, the AIRF and NFIR, entered into an agree­ment with the Rail­way Board for a four­teen hour work shift from punch-in to punch-out. This com­pro­mise broke the strike and dec­i­mat­ed the strength of the work­ers. How­ev­er, the Loco Run­ning Staff learned an impor­tant les­son: they decid­ed to stand on their own feet and orga­nize them­selves. A num­ber of fire­men coun­cils, besides oth­er exist­ing run­ning staff unions, were estab­lished through­out the coun­try. These fire­men coun­cils and run­ning staff asso­ci­a­tions formed the All India Loco Run­ning Staff Asso­ci­a­tion in 1970, at Vijayawa­da. The loco-men agi­tat­ed per­sis­tent­ly, and orga­nized a nation-wide strike begin­ning on August 2, 1973 which result­ed in an agree­ment on a ten-hour work­ing day. The strug­gle boost­ed the self-con­fi­dence of the rail­way­men, and had a direct impact on the sub­se­quent for­ma­tion of NCCRS (Nation­al Coor­di­na­tion Com­mit­tee of Rail­way Men’s Strug­gle) and the his­toric strike of May 1974.9

Oth­er nodal points in this sub­merged his­to­ry of autonomous work­ers’ move­ments in India bear men­tion­ing. First, there is the well-known move­ment for fac­to­ry self-man­age­ment in the Kano­ria Jute Mill in West Ben­gal in the 1990s. This move­ment was mobi­lized after an autonomous group of work­ers – with a very par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal per­spec­tive – led a fac­to­ry occu­pa­tion with the sup­port and sol­i­dar­i­ty of dif­fer­ent Left orga­ni­za­tions.10 There was also the Dal­li-Rajhara min­ers’ move­ment in the late 1970s, led by late Shankar Guha Neogy, a case once again marked by strong orga­ni­za­tion, a keen sense of tac­tics and strat­e­gy, and active involve­ment of the rank and file. This his­to­ry of autonomous orga­niz­ing on the part of work­ers exhibits the dialec­ti­cal dynam­ics we described above. Strong­ly poised between the two poles of insur­gent self-activ­i­ty and estab­lished polit­i­cal and social insti­tu­tions, work­ers in India are now learn­ing to strate­gi­cal­ly and tac­ti­cal­ly use the con­cept of auton­o­my.

Auton­o­my, as a move­ment and as a the­o­ry, chal­lenges the notion that cap­i­tal­ism is an irra­tional sys­tem. Instead, it priv­i­leges what it takes to be the work­ers’ view­point, empha­siz­ing their activ­i­ty as the lever of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pas­sage as that which alone can con­struct a com­mu­nist soci­ety. The eco­nom­ic lev­el and the polit­i­cal lev­el are inter­twined; eco­nom­ic rela­tions are direct­ly polit­i­cal rela­tions of force between class sub­jects. And it is in the self-activ­i­ty of the social work­er – not in what is con­sid­ered as an alien­at­ed polit­i­cal form like the par­ty – that the ini­tia­tive for polit­i­cal change resides.

But can the rich expe­ri­ences of work­ing class move­ments in India be com­pre­hend­ed through the con­cept of auton­o­my if the lat­ter is the­o­rized in non-rela­tion­al terms? We are not indulging in seman­tic dis­pute here; at stake is our under­stand­ing and sed­i­ment­ed con­cep­tions of pol­i­tics.

The idea of auton­o­my today is under­go­ing a revival in India; it is doubt­less one impor­tant mode of resis­tance to post­colo­nial cap­i­tal­ism. There is clear­ly a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of forms of depen­dent labor oper­at­ing glob­al­ly, with fac­to­ries turn­ing into sweat­shops, the most vir­tu­al forms of accu­mu­la­tion com­bin­ing with the most prim­i­tive, the wage ques­tion link­ing up with the issue of work con­di­tions, and labor process­es becom­ing enmeshed with the issue of casu­al­iza­tion of labor. While admit­ted­ly the old trade union move­ment failed to revise its strat­e­gy in light of the changes in the labor regime ush­ered in by neolib­er­al modes of accu­mu­la­tion, the answer does not lie in mak­ing auton­o­my the holy panacea to the impass­es of trade union poli­cies; the upsurges of work­ers’ auton­o­my must be treat­ed dialec­ti­cal­ly.11 This means bring­ing back the three great ques­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment: orga­ni­za­tion, trans­for­ma­tion, and eman­ci­pa­tion. The ques­tion of orga­ni­za­tion is cru­cial, when we see that while in 1980-81 the share of wages and salaries in gross nation­al income was 40.5 per cent, in 2011-12 the share had come down to 22 per cent.12

On the oth­er hand, the Indi­an state has no illu­sions about the autonomous char­ac­ter of these recent work­ers’ move­ments, and the threat they pose. As Maru­ti showed, the state came down vio­lent­ly on the strike and the entire move­ment, jus­tice was sum­mar­i­ly denied, crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­vi­sions were abused, trade union rights were tram­pled upon, and every gov­ern­men­tal step was tak­en to ensure that Maru­ti does not become the sym­bol of a pol­i­tics of the work­place and beyond.13 The employ­ers, pub­lic author­i­ties, local elites, the mon­eyed gen­try, and the machin­ery of law and jus­tice – all of these agents allied against the work­ers. In this instance, the imper­a­tive for the work­ers’ strug­gle was not to be autonomous, but be more and more con­nect­ed to the exist­ing polit­i­cal rela­tions with­in soci­ety, the real­i­ty of the social fac­to­ry, which called for rig­or­ous think­ing and debate about strat­e­gy and tac­tics.

Work­ers have come a long way from ear­li­er forms of resis­tance. From being rick burn­ers, machine break­ers, hum­ble peti­tion­ers, sober trade union­ists, stew­ards of unions, to trade union mil­i­tants lead­ing gen­er­al strikes and team­ing up with oth­er strug­gling sec­tions of soci­ety – this is the tor­tu­ous his­to­ry of the work­ers’ move­ment. Yet this inspir­ing and often trag­ic his­to­ry has to be revis­it­ed again and again in order to deter­mine the strat­e­gy and tac­tics of the work­ing class move­ment in the con­text of our con­tem­po­rary time. Strat­e­gy and tac­tics are cru­cial con­cepts – as cru­cial as the imper­a­tive of auton­o­my. While auton­o­my is a con­cept, strat­e­gy and tac­tics are prin­ci­ples of wag­ing class war, and are in fact essen­tial com­po­nents of all wars. They indi­cate rela­tion­al judge­ment, eval­u­a­tion of bal­ance of forces, com­mand, stew­ard­ship, mobi­liza­tion, deploy­ment of forces, logis­ti­cal plan­ning, mea­sure­ment of time, etc. Once work­ers have gone beyond the bound­aries of work­place trade union­ism, which they know and under­stand nat­u­ral­ly, they often become reliant on nation­al insti­tu­tions like polit­i­cal par­ties and nation­al trade unions. Since the par­ties and unions have very lit­tle idea of work­ing out­side the nation­al insti­tu­tion­al sphere, work­ers grope for a way out of the insti­tu­tion­al con­fines. This is the time when they cry out “treach­ery!” They say lead­ers have sold out. Yet they can­not find the exit route.

This is where the two expe­ri­ences we have cit­ed are indica­tive of new think­ing and new modes of orga­ni­za­tion, how­ev­er faulty and hes­i­tant the ini­tial steps may look to us. These move­ments have con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly addressed the real­i­ty of the social fac­to­ry and they have com­bined an autonomous char­ac­ter – mobi­liza­tion from below and mass ini­tia­tive – with the need to for­mu­late an appro­pri­ate strat­e­gy and effec­tive set of tac­tics, which only polit­i­cal lead­er­ship can pro­vide.

As long as indus­try catered to local mar­kets, served local areas, and drew from local pop­u­la­tion to form its labor force, sec­tion­al­ism and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion among work­ers was not a major prob­lem for union orga­niz­ers. But now in the age of glob­al­ized cap­i­tal­ism, pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions of work have accen­tu­at­ed the prob­lem of sec­tion­al­ism and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, which can bring back some of the mal­adies evi­dent in work­ers’ move­ments dur­ing the pre-mass indus­tri­al­iza­tion era, with reverse effects. One thinks of cas­es where union orga­niz­ers from Europe and the Unit­ed States (the AFL-CIO, for instance) vis­it work­ers’ move­ments and activists in the so called devel­op­ing coun­tries (for instance Chi­na, India, or South Africa), encour­ag­ing the for­ma­tion of “autonomous unions” there, while unions in their own back­yard have been dras­ti­cal­ly weak­ened, even destroyed. The slo­gan of auton­o­my reflects the desire to exit insti­tu­tion­al con­fines and out­mod­ed polit­i­cal forms; and as such it reflects the dual­i­ties and para­dox­es in the present sit­u­a­tion.

The sit­u­a­tion calls for a dialec­ti­cal think­ing of auton­o­my and orga­ni­za­tion. While there has been a gen­er­al con­sen­sus on the decline in union mem­ber­ship and sev­er­al oth­er fea­tures asso­ci­at­ed with a strong labor move­ment, there has also been a recent surge of activ­i­ty in many areas, includ­ing the for­ma­tion of unions, asso­ci­a­tions, sol­i­dar­i­ty forums, mil­i­tant groups, and the wag­ing of local bat­tles that involve polit­i­cal choic­es at every step. We might say that the slo­gan of auton­o­my is the appear­ance of a dif­fer­ent real­i­ty, con­nect­ed to the ques­tion of pre­car­i­ous work and the labor process, inas­much as the wage rela­tion may become under par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances what Marx called the “form of appear­ance” of the “true state of affairs.” Yet, as Marx said apro­pos of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­o­my, it is absolute­ly essen­tial to work beyond the form of appear­ance: “The forms of appear­ance are repro­duced direct­ly and spon­ta­neous­ly, as cur­rent and usu­al modes of thought; the essen­tial rela­tion must first be dis­cov­ered by sci­ence. Clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­o­my stum­bles approx­i­mate­ly onto the true state of affairs, but with­out con­scious­ly for­mu­lat­ing it. It is unable to do this as long as it stays with­in its bour­geois skin.”14

The task, then, is the fol­low­ing: instead of spon­ta­neous­ly giv­ing one­self over to the trend of pro­vid­ing an ide­o­log­i­cal name to a new or emerg­ing real­i­ty, we have to pro­ceed in a dialec­ti­cal man­ner towards find­ing out what is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing in work­ers’ strug­gles today. Ques­tions of orga­ni­za­tion, tac­tics, and strat­e­gy are there­fore essen­tial; and they can be dis­cov­ered (at least in ele­men­tal forms), dis­cussed, and elab­o­rat­ed only through a sci­ence of rela­tion­al analy­sis.

  1. Gur­gaon Work­ers News, Newslet­ter 3, May 2007. 

  2. Peo­ples Union for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rights, Hard Dri­ve: Work­ing Con­di­tions and Work­ers Strug­gles at Maru­ti (Del­hi: Hin­dus­tan Print­ers, 2001). 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. This is how the new role of the state is artic­u­lat­ed in a paper pub­lished by the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion in 2008. See Approach to Reg­u­la­tion of Infra­struc­ture. New Del­hi: Sec­re­tari­at for the Com­mit­tee on Infra­struc­ture, Plan­ning Com­mis­sion , Gov­ern­ment of India, Sep­tem­ber 2008. 

  5. Peo­ples Union for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rights, Dri­ving Force: Labour Strug­gles and Vio­la­tion of Rights in Maru­ti Suzu­ki India Lim­it­ed (Del­hi: Pro­gres­sive Print­ers, May 2013). 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. For details of the set­tle­ment see Peo­ples Union for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rights, “Wazir­pur Strug­gle Con­tin­ues, As Fac­to­ry Own­ers Refuse to Hon­our Writ­ten Agree­ment,” (accessed Sep­tem­ber 15, 2014). 

  8. Rank and File: Per­son­al His­to­ries by Work­ing Class Orga­niz­ers, ed. Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd (Chica­go, Illi­nois: Hay­mar­ket Books, 1973); see in par­tic­u­lar, Wayne Kennedy, “An Absolute Major­i­ty,” 233-52. 

  9. For a detailed dis­cus­sion on the role of the rank and file, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Locomen in the Gen­er­al Strike of 1974, see Ran­abir Samad­dar, “Forty Years After: The Great Indi­an Rail­way Strike of 1974,” Eco­nom­ic and Polit­i­cal Week­ly vol­ume 50, no. 4, Jan­u­ary 24, 2015; Ran­abir Samad­dar, “The Indi­an Rail­way Work­ers and the Cri­sis of 1974,” Work­ing USA: The Jour­nal of Labor and Soci­ety, Decem­ber 18, 2015. 

  10. Kushal Deb­nath, “West Ben­gal: The Neo-Lib­er­al Offen­sive in Indus­try and the Work­ers’ Resis­tance,” Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Democ­ra­cy (accessed on Octo­ber 16, 2014). 

  11. On the para­dox­i­cal play of auton­o­my, mass ini­tia­tive, and polit­i­cal lead­er­ship of the move­ment in the orga­ni­za­tion of the 1974 Indi­an Rail­way Strike, cf. Stephen Sher­lock, The Indi­an Rail­way Strike of 1974: A Study of Pow­er and Orga­nized Labour (New Del­hi: Rupa & Co., 2001). 

  12. From respec­tive Annu­al Eco­nom­ic Sur­veys, cit­ed in a report, “Maru­ti Karkakha­nar Sramik Andolan­er Shikkhoniyo Kichu Dik,” Char­cha, August 2013, 54-8. 

  13. On the legal dimen­sions of the vio­la­tions of Maru­ti work­ers’ rights, see “Mer­chants of Men­ace: Repress­ing Work­ers in India’s New Indus­tri­al Belt: Vio­la­tions of Work­ers’ and Trade Union Rights at Maru­ti Suzu­ki India Ltd,” Report of the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mis­sion for Labour Rights, New York, n.d. 

  14. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Lon­don: Pen­guin Books, 1990), 682. 

Authors of the article

is political activist and analyst. A PhD student at Western Sydney University, he works in the area of logistics and labor. He is an honorary associate of the Calcutta Research Group.

is the Director of the Calcutta Research Group. His particular researches have been on migration and refugee studies, the theory and practices of dialogue, nationalism and post-colonial statehood in South Asia, and new regimes of technological restructuring and labour control.