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A Moment in Worker's Self-Organisation in India

Class Attack at Maruti

by PRATYUSH CHANDRA

Recent years have seen militant labour unrests in Indian industries which have startled not just the management and the Indian state, but also the established unions. This article analyses the most recent and perhaps most significant of these struggles that happened in the biggest automotive company in the country, Maruti Suzuki India Limited. This struggle culminated into a violent incident on July 18 in which an HR manager was killed and many executives were injured.

The Chairman of Maruti Suzuki, R.C. Bhargava, himself described the July 18 incident as a “class attack”. The management, which learnt from the Japanese how to instrumentalise unions as tools to educate and regulate workers in work discipline, are now learning a new lesson from their own Manesar workers – they want their own voice, which is in their control not in the control of the masters, whosoever they may be. They will tear away every interface if that obstructs their organic collectivity to emerge – then they will speak in their own voice, which will definitely be harsh and brutal, as it will be organic to the very core. They will speak in their own language, without any creative translation into a language that has systemic legitimacy.

The lesson that the Indian corporate sector learnt from the Japanese is graphically retold by Bhargava himself in his recent book, The Maruti Story. It is not just revolutionaries who called trade unions a school, even the Maruti management found them to be so – a necessary means for “continuous training of workers…if their attitude towards work, the company and its management was to be changed…. We understood the logic of their [the Japanese] system and so wanted to completely reverse the traditional culture and bring about a mutually beneficial relationship between workers, the union and the management.”(302) So the management “promoted a trade union at Maruti, before political parties and outsiders could establish”. The founder-Chairman of Maruti Udyog, V Krishnamurthy, “brought” even a union leader from BHEL. “The importance of the union was highlighted by ensuring that the president and general secretary of the union were seated on the dais at every Maruti function. They would, along with the top management of Maruti, receive all VVIP guests and garland them.”

Time and again, the Maruti workers have tried to build their unity beyond promoted, brought, bought unionism and its ritualism. Each time such unity has been institutionalised into a legal form, the management has either destroyed or bought it over, and promoted enterprise unionism. Since the last year, however, things have drastically changed. Maruti workers have understood the meaning of legitimacy, its functions and limits. This remarkable understanding is evident in what a Maruti worker expressed just after the worker-leaders were ‘bought’ and sidelined in 2011:

“Sahibs don’t understand the situation…. In these past few months, a handful of workers had risen to the position where they could control the workers…. By dismissing exactly those men, the management has thrown away a valuable tool.” (Aman Sethi, “Down and out on India’s shop floor”, The Hindu, July 29, 2012)

And again after the July 18incident, in an interview recorded by a mainline news channel, a worker said:

“Our workers did not have faith in the union body. They were apprehensive about the union cheating them again…. [Yet they wanted that] the management should at least value and listen to the union body.” (NDTV, August 11, 2012)

They understood the limits and dangers of legality and representation, and the need to have extra-legal vigilance of their institutionalised body. Something the workers ensured by evolving shop-floor networks of line and departmental coordinators, and by frequent assertion of the general body. While the representative trade union, in accordance with the legal regulations and norms, included only the permanent workers, this organisational form was organic to the daily shop-floor coexistence of all segments of workers.

Defying every attempt to fragment and subalternise their collective consciousness, the Maruti workers forged a youthful (in a literal sense) unity among themselves beyond all kinds of regulatory and identitarian divides (including the caste and regional), demonstrating their uselessness, except for the purpose of regulating workers in favour of capital. This unity was remarkably visible during the 2011 strikes. They defied every agreement and manipulation from above that tried to break that unity, and they struck three times against them, and surprised the unions and their legitimate sense. Hence, even the need to form a sectionalist union (of permanent workers) – which the legalese and the prevailing industrial political culture compelled them to adopt for negotiations with the management – was continuously overwhelmed by the unity below that questioned the very basis for such unionist sectarianism and economism.It was this collectivity that could not be destroyed by the management’s union busting, and it did form another union.

But its easy registration and semi-recognition by the management made the workers evermore apprehensive, and they enforced constant vigilance on the representatives. However, the management misconstrued this collective apprehension as a distance between the general workers and the union, not understanding that its collective nature in fact tightens the workers’ grip over the union leadership. It is unlike the generalised yet fragmented weariness that leads to helplessness. The management miscalculated and thought its intransigence in dealing with the union will increase the distance and delegitimise the union in the eyes of the general workers. It could not anticipate that such an act was thinning the legal shield that protected it. And, so, what could have passed for the time being as another “class action” got transformed into a “class attack”, as Bhargava calls it. The management should not complain that it didn’t get the warning – workers themselves gave out sufficient signals.

However, one must grant that not just the Maruti management, the suddenness of the July 18incident at Maruti astounded everybody – where was this anger among workers residing for the past one year? Nothing similar happened during the remarkable “non-violent” strikes in 2011. And prior to the incident nothing happened that could give a hint towards it. Therefore, a plethora of explanations and conspiracy theories has come up.

Interestingly, we can easily identify a basic logic behind the catalogue of ex-, post-facto explanations that various institutional and non-institutional bodies – the state, management, media, unions and radicals – are putting forward. A central thesis runs through all of them, which is that workers as a mass cannot have any coherent plan. Hence, those who see incoherence in the incident, either blame it on reactive spontaneity in the absence of (correct) leaders (radicals), or mob-like nature of the workers action (media elites). For many of these responses, there is some kind of pre-planning that must have come from outside (from Maoists/political unions, as the state and management maintain, or provocation from the side of management through their intransigence or by employing ‘bouncers’, as all the pro-workers institutions or groups opine). However, in the end no one is willing to concede general workers a coherent critical subjectivity that reasons them into taking things (read law) into their own hands, because for all the groups mentioned above, a rational subjectivity can emerge only through the repression of the inner nature  (in the present case that of the mass).

All that even the pro-worker forces are willing to grant, and at most, is if the workers were accomplices in the July 18 incident, they were merely reacting to something the management wrongfully did that day (by calling the bouncers or by not resolving the issue of the suspension of a fellow worker) or have been doing lately (by not going for a speedy wage settlement or union recognition). All these self-actions by the workers are arrogantly clubbed together as spontaneity or spontaneous actions, which are generally considered to be reactive, and can have a political meaning only if harnessed by the organised political forces. It is interesting to note how these competitive forces, doing organisational shopkeeping, or at least advertising, among workers, have found workers’ direct actions erratic and even anarchic. They find the workers sensible and tractable only in those moments when they are led or when the consciousness of defeat and victimhood dawns over the workers – when “victim” workers are looking for respite and rights, and for experts who can represent them in the courts of law and negotiations.

These so-called political forces have a notion of politics that comes directly from the civics classes of the (post)modern schools that define politics in terms of institutions (or tangible forms of organisation) and their activities. Even the movements must be located among these activities, or else they are apolitical and even mere riots. Class struggle is reduced to the interplay of these institutions, ideologies and activities. They are unable to locate this representative interplay and their own activity as (re)originating in a continuous class struggle between capital and labour – in the daily imposition and subversion of the process by which capital acquires and incorporates living labour as merely an agency for its self-valorization. They are unable to see that recent unrests on the labour front in India have been largely political – i.e., they are related to a constant recomposition of class collectivity that short-circuits the re-segmentation of labour – the ever real-ising subsumption of labour by capital. In other words, this collective urge is not simply a wont to vocalise the aggregate demands of individual or sectional workers, as in a demand charter. Rather, it relates to their concern to transcend the segmentation on which the capitalist industrial polity thrives – the division between permanent, contractual, casual and interns. It is a marvelous experience to hear from general workers about these real divisions made on false premises. It is this open vocalisation that constitutes workers politics today. The Maruti workers’ struggle clearly is a finest example in this regard.

In one of the discussions that we had with workers in other industrial regions about the Maruti ‘violence’, a worker expressed how they work for the fear of the daily hunger and for feeding their family. Otherwise who would like to work under iron discipline and invisible eyes constantly watching over you, reprimanding you for every small mistake? Workers continuously look for every small opportunity that would enable them to dodge and abuse this system of surveillance.

The (more-or-less) open violence of primitive accumulation that joins the fate of labour to capital readies it for the inherent violence in the active imposition of work that capital as social power with its various apparatuses seeks to ensure. There is nothing reactive about workers’ actions to break out of this panoptic circuit which is now expanded throughout the society. The diverse immediate forms that these actions take are meant to surprise capital.

It is not the question of defeat or success of these forms or agitations that should concern us. In fact, our every success makes our actions predictable, increasing the reproductive resilience of the hegemonic system. Who knew this fact better than Karl Marx? He stressed on the need to watch out for opportunities to stage sudden radical leaps away from the guerrilla forms of daily resistance against the encroachments of capital, or else workers will be evermore entrenched within the system of wage slavery despite – and because of – frequent achievements in their everyday negotiations with capital. Those radicals suffer from the same Second International reformism and co-option politics, of which they accuse everybody, when they visualise class maturation as a linear succession of successes and achievements, not in the increased activity of the working class to catch capital off-guard by its volatile, yet collective thrust.

Today, the dynamism of this workers politics poses a crisis not just for capitalist strategies but also for itself as it constantly outmodes its own forms. The significance of the Maruti struggle and the July 18th incident lies in this process – they demonstrate the increasing inability of the legal regulatory mechanisms and existing political forms to ensure “industrial peace”. This means:

1) For capital, every crisis is an opportunity to restructure labour relations for its own advantage. Many times, it carefully shapes an industrial conflict to seek such restructuring. The recent conflicts have shown the limitation of the legal framework to generate industrial consent/peace, which has time and again forced capital to resort to coercion.

2) The automotive sector has been central to capitalist accumulation, so the needs of this sector have time and again restructured the industrial polity and economic regime globally. In India too, this sector has been in the leadership of pushing economic reforms in a pro-capitalist direction. The high-handedness and intransigence of the managements of Maruti and other automotive companies in recent conflicts is representative of the determination of Indian capitalists to force pro-capital labour reforms.

3) Legal unionism and existing organisational practices to compose and regulate working class assertion are becoming increasingly redundant. The labour movement must look out for new incipient forms in this self-assertion, as older forms are unable to lead working class consciousness, which is much more advanced than these forms, to its political end. The direct action of Maruti workers last year and this time cannot be simply explained by the crude notion of unorganised spontaneity, rather it shows their political will to transcend the segmentation perpetuated by the capitalist industrial polity.

Pratyush Chandra edits Radical Notes.