India’s Autoworkers Behaving Like the Old UAW

The union stories coming out of the huge Maruti Suzuki auto plant in Manesar, Haryana (approximately 30 miles south of New Delhi) fall into the classic “good news-bad news” categories.

First, the bad news:  Approximately 3,500 workers have been on strike for a week, occupying the Maruti plant, insisting, among other things, on a larger share of the pie, that the company reinstate 44 suspended workers, cut back on the use of “contract” workers (perma-temps), and allow Manesar employees to break away from the CITU (Centre for India Trade Unions) and AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress), and form their own union, the MSEU (Maruti Suzuki Employees Union).  This is a gross simplification of what’s happening in Manesar, but catches the essence of the situation.

India is experiencing a labor glut, a weakened economy, 10 per cent inflation, anti-union resentments and jealousies, and because the CITU and AITUC (both of which are affiliated with the CPI—the Communist Party of India) have a complicated relationship with the Indian government—which is to say they are aligned with both the Haryana state government and the Indian federal government.  The Manesar workers are definitely up against it.

Now the good news:  As markedly different as India (where I used to live and work) is from the U.S. and Europe, these union guys are behaving in much the same way that the Longshoremen under Harry Bridges—and the Autoworkers under Walter Reuther—behaved back in the glory days of the American labor movement, demonstrating that working people all over the world do, indeed, share a common bond.

This gives hope to those who have always maintained that the only way the world’s working class is ever going to succeed is by mobilizing, that unless international workers get organized, they’re going to continue to be marginalized, victimized, and picked off, one by one.

Their argument goes like this:  Every unit of cargo in every ship in every port in the world is handled by a worker.  No CEO, lawyer or accountant ever touches it.  If the world’s dockworkers decided to join forces, all they’d have to do is make sure nothing moves. [JoAnn Wypijewski had a great piece  on this site about this, last year. Eds.]  The media (are you listening Tom Friedman?) can gush all they like over the virtues of “globalization” and so-called “free trade,” but until product is actually unloaded and sold to a customer, it doesn’t “exist.”  That’s the mobilization argument.

The conventional counter-argument to this scenario is the assertion that it will never happen—that you’ll never get such disparate work forces as the South Koreans, the Indians, the Mexicans, the Brazilians, the Estonians, etc. to join together, to coalesce, into a viable workers’ collective.  There are simply too many obstacles—cultural, economic, and the purely logistical.  That’s the counter-argument.

But when you see what’s going on in Northern India, you’re flabbergasted by the solidarity and sophistication of these union workers.  Even though it’s been many years since I left India (Punjab), I’ve been in contact (through their newsletter) with the union leadership in the “Gurgaon-Manesar corridor,” the region that produces most of India’s cars and motorcycles.

These guys are the real deal.  They’re astonishing.  The things they say and do—the plots they hatch, the tactics they use—are utterly reminiscent of worker activism in Europe and the U.S. during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  And there’s no reason to think the workers in South Korea, Britain, or Portugal are any less hip to the problem or any less committed.

While it’s true that international banks and corporations have their slimy tentacles in everything from foreign governments to foreign armies, the world’s workers have two weapons of their own.  One is the crippling, paralyzing effect of no-go dockworkers.  The other is the logistical potential of the Internet.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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