The Great Indian Mail Strike of 2000
two weeks in December 2000, almost all of the 600,000 postal workers in India
struck work, on behalf of 300,000 part-time workers. From Cyberabad to Silicon
Galli computers tried in vain to send packages to each other, as the Sensex sang
a dirge for the uncertain whims of the investor class of India's 'new economy.'
Executives fretted and fumed, managers pounded their desks with taylorized rage,
economists poured vitriolic scorn on the aspirations of the million who
literally <carry> the goods and services, the love notes and junk mail of
the billion Indians. Dot.Com India was rudely reminded of the world of
Dot.Comrade, the mirthful reality of labor solidarity.
workers stood on strike for two weeks despite any number of threats and
temptations. The agitation was nothing new. Four months after the BJP-led
coalition came to power for the first time in mid-1998, the postal workers went
out on an eight-day strike. That time the government broke the strike when it
threatened to bring out the Army and when it made a series of empty promises.
This time the promises did not work, nor did the fulmination of physical force.
If unity amongst the various trade union groups held the first time, in 2000 the
right betrayed the left as well as the heroic workers whose strike was as much
political as economic, a sigh against the Economy of the Temporary, of the logic
collapse of the fragile Keynesian consensus (nurtured in Bretton Woods) and the
birth of the Washington Consensus (codified in 1989 by former IMF adviser John
Williamson) discounted for working people the 'enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy
world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame le Terre do their ghost walking
as social characters and at the same time as mere things' (Marx, Capital, vol.
3, p. 830). Over the past few years, working people in decisive actions around
the world, unmasked the arrogance of Wages-Interest-Rent, and showed them for
what they are, Labor-Capital-Land. The Washington Consensus demands an Economy
of the Temporary, where workers abdicate the gains of the labor movement for
part-time work, just-in-time production, privatization of benefits. Adjuncts on
college campuses, maquiladoras in Mexico, half-day workers in India -- these are
the manifestations of the logic of capital, and their presence sends a message
to all of us: this is not 'cowboy' capitalism or 'turbo' capitalism, but simply
CAPITALISM itself. Some may rest within the bosom of a less developed form of
ruthlessness, but all of us are under the sway of the Part-Time, the Temporary,
either by fear of being exiled to that island or else to find oneself stuck
there forever. The Economy of the Temporary enforces discipline (stop this
nonsense, or else you're back on the island), and it allows for more efficiency.
'What, more efficiency,' you say?! Yes, more efficiency for capital, for whom
flexibility allows it to use labor when it requires it, and to keep on reserve
an army of workers whose creativity is to be held in check by the fear of
Teamsters 1997 action against UPS was a salvo in the fight against the
Temporary. The Indian postal workers fight is along the same grain. For decades
the left wing labor movement has called for an intensive push to organize the
unorganized. Communist leader B. T. Ranadive noted in 1983, for instance, that
'if the trade unions do not pay attention to this widespread section they will
be damaging the movement by alienating a section that is militant, heroic and
has become a strong contingent of the common movement.' Among postal workers the
problem of the part-time became acute in the 1990s. The State classifies 300,000
workers as 'Extra-Departmental Employees,' most of whom work in rural post
offices. Bold actions by the workers and by Left political parties forced the
Parliament to convene the Justice Charanjit Talwar Committee to study the
problem. On 30 April 1997, just as the UPS workers in the US came close to their
strike, the Talwar Committee submitted its report to the Indian Parliament. The
Report asked the government to give full benefits to all workers (including
pensions) and to classify all postal workers as civil servants. Government tried
to mollify the unions, saying that it would meet the recommendations. Nothing
moved, so the workers struck in 1998. The Communications Minister of the Hindu
Right told Parliament that the recommendations would be implemented post haste,
and the workers withdrew. A few weeks later the Ministry of Finance reneged on
the agreement, citing overwhelming fiscal reasons. No doubt word must have come
from the IMF to the willing ears of the Hindu Right's Finance Ministry: Point #8
of the Washington Consensus says, 'privatization of state enterprises, leading
to efficient management and improved performance,' and Point #1 promises 'a
guarantee of fiscal discipline, and a curb to budget deficits.' When it comes to
labor, Washington and its minions are so very fussy.
May Day, 2000, the new minister of Communications, Ram Vilas Paswan (of an
opportunist social democratic formation in alliance with the Hindu Right)
conducted hectic negotiations and pledged to settle the issue within four
months. Again, nothing moved. The unions called for a strike and went forth
without any illusions about governmental promises. Comfortable with the rhetoric
of a strong State, the Hindu Right bound to break the strike by recourse to the
old colonial standby, the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA).
'Extra-Departmental Employees,' those who struggle on Ephemeral Island, suddenly
found themselves essentialized. But five decades of nation construction, borne
partly of anticolonial sentiment, had reduced the central government's ESMA
power. Only five states in the Indian union have the capacity to enforce ESMA,
but since the Congress Party ruled over these five states the Hindu-Right led
coalition could not even work its authoritarian magic there. The Communist-led
states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura refused to enforce ESMA, and several
bourgeois-regional formations followed suit. The government had no avenues left
to crush the strike.
finds its way by unexpected means. Indian workers are not organized into one
federation, but they are organized at the worksite into a number of union
formations all of whom are affiliated to political parties. While the workers at
a worksite win the right to a union, the several unions jockey for power over
the leadership in the unions. The Communists have two unions, the CPI's
All-India Trade Union Congress and the CPM's Centre of Indian Trade Unions,
while the Congress controls the Indian National Trade Union Congress and the
socialists have a stake in the Hind Mazdoor Sangh. The Hindu-Right's trade union
formation, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, walks the line of the Right, but it did
fall out with its parent organizations during the 1998 strike. The main strikes
have been conducted under the framework of the Joint Action Committee, a
confederation of the postal version of the party unions (the BMS' Bharatiya
Postal Employees Federation -- BPEF; the Left's National Federation of Postal
Employees -- NFPE; the Congress' Federation of National Postal Organisations).
The BPEF represents only 6% of the workers and the FNPO only 15%, with the Left
having organized the rest of the workers. The weakness of the Right within the
postal unions was not to deter its machinations.
the 17th of December the leadership of the Hindu-Right union (BPEF/BMS) and the
Congress union (FNPO/INTUC), both beholden to the Washington Consensus, accepted
a tepid offer from the government. With the pledge of 'unions' for an end to the
strike, the government declared victory. The Left held fast at first, and it
seemed as if the agitation would continue. But, in an unenviable position, R. L.
Bhattacharya, secretary general of the Communist-led NFPE, noted that the
workers should return to the job, after one more day on the picket line. Chander
Pillai, a leader of the NFPE, said that 'the next action will be done on our
strength. We will not rely on the other two federations as they are prone to
leave the struggle mid-way. We have asked our members to join duty.'
Bhattacharya wrote that the postal workers 'have become victims of this naked
betrayal of BPEF and NFPO.' But 'to preserve the unity of the workers and to
build up a militant united movement to carry on the struggle further, the [NFPE]
Secretariat decided to call off the strike action for the present.' The
Communists asked the workers 'to preserve and strengthen the unity already
achieved for safeguarding their interests in the future.'
are won drop by drop. This is not a retreat, but only an interruption. The flood
of history brings us Ephemeral Island, but we are not tempted by the Temporary.
A respite to regroup, but onward. That is the message of the Indian postal