The Guardian August 22, 2001


Communists and the trade union movement

Chittabrata Majumdar is a member of the Communist Party of India 
(Marxist) (CPI (M)) Central Committee and General Secretary of the West 
Bengal state unit of the Congress of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). He 
represented the CPI (M) at the international meeting of Communist and 
Workers' Parties held on June 23 and 24 this year at Athens. "Communists 
and the Trade Union Movement" was the theme of the discussion at the 
meeting where the paper, published below, was presented.

We are going through a period marked by complexities. On the one hand, the 
trade union movement the world over has become stronger. Nationally, the 
role of the trade unions in resisting the encroachments made on the hard-
earned rights of the working class is making the capitalist classes turn 
increasingly to wider forms of resistance as the trade union movement goes 
forward.

Internationally, working class solidarity is clearly seen in the manner in 
which the trade unions across the continents have joined hands. And they 
have been engaged in thwarting the designs of international corporate 
capital and its adjuncts by setting warning bells ringing for the ruling 
classes on such landmark occasions as those witnessed in Seattle, Ottawa, 
Washington, and Davos.

On the other hand, the unpleasant truth elsewhere must be faced. Resistance 
notwithstanding, corporate capital has gone on impoverishing the working 
people and has been amassing wealth, by forcing the dictates of the worst 
features of the so-called "market economy" on the people of the world in 
general and of the developing nations in particular.

Role of the party

The capitalist intervention has produced jobless growth, poverty has 
increased manifold. Imbalance in economic growth is seen even among the 
developed nations.

More alarmingly, the transnational corporations (TNCs) have started to take 
on the cloak of political control by taking full advantage of the weakening 
of the economic and financial base of such countries as the United States, 
where economic recession is proving a huge embarrassment for the ruling 
classes.

In this complex scenario, the role of a Communist Party becomes extremely 
important as far as the functioning of the trade unions is concerned. We 
believe that a Communist Party has a well-defined role to play in the 
struggle of the working class.

The foremost task comprises the raising of the level of political 
consciousness of the working class and going on from that to the more 
critical task of inculcating revolutionary socialist class-consciousness.

Trade unions function as organs of daily struggle for an effective defence 
of the economic interests of the working class under specific conditions.

While defending the daily interests, a Communist Party aims at providing 
the correct leadership in drawing the trade unions into the wider realm so 
that they can play their historic political role in the revolutionary 
struggle.

Indices of success

A Communist Party attaches vital importance to the defence of the daily 
economic interests of the working people. Also, it firmly believes in the 
building of trade unions as mass organisations. But most of all, a 
Communist Party must measure its own success and the success of the working 
class movement by three indices:

First, the level of revolutionary consciousness created during the course 
of the daily struggles of the trade unions;

Second, the advancement of the Marxist-Leninist party among the workers;

Third, the ability of the party to provide trade union leaderships with 
correct directions as far as the development of the trade union movement as 
such is concerned.

We recall in this connection V I Lenin's remarks about the trade unions 
being "a school of administration, a school of economic management, a 
school of communism". (Lenin, "Collected Works" Vol 32, p 20).

A worker can be said to have developed class consciousness when he or she 
believes that their struggle is a struggle of emancipation not just against 
a particular employer. It is a part of the larger struggle against the 
capitalist system that must be overthrown by launching a consistent 
political struggle as well.

It is this class consciousness that a Communist Party has to inculcate in 
its activists working on the trade union front in the course of the 
struggles.

The task of a Communist Party in the trade unions is to lead the workers 
from the elementary trade union consciousness to this higher consciousness. 
The communists achieve this goal by forming the vital, living link between 
the economic and the political struggles.

Indian scenario

In India, the dysfunctional economic scenario has become more and more 
depressing as the Bharatiya Janala Party (BJP)-led central government bows 
to the dictates of not merely the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO but also 
to the encroachments organised by the TNCs in the core sectors of the 
national economy.

The Indian ruling classes, led by big bourgeoisie, are actively 
collaborating with the imperialist-dominated globalisation process.

The economy is opened up in the widest form imaginable to the powerful 
forces of corporate capital. The state-run sector is being allowed to be 
taken over by the private sector. Attempts are made to launch wide-ranging 
attacks on the hard-earned rights of the working class.

In this gloomy backdrop in the States where the Left Front is in office, 
i.e. in Tripura and West Bengal and until recently in Kerala, the trade 
union movement, with the correct guidance from the communists, has been by 
and large successful in at least partly frustrating the anti-worker designs 
of corporate capital.

The electoral triumph of the Left Front government for the sixth straight 
time in West Bengal has been backed by the manner in which the bulk of the 
working class decided to exercise their franchise in favour of a pro-
people, especially pro-poor, Left Front.

Another important example nation-wide has been the united struggle of trade 
unions against the attempt at privatising the Bharat Aluminium Company 
(BALCO) by the BJP-led central government. Among the trade unions active in 
the BALCO struggle were those that owe political loyalty not only to the 
BJP, but also to some of the partners of the BJP in the union government.

Problems ahead

Then again, nationally as well as internationally, the enthusiasm with 
which the trade unions have been engaged in organising movements piecemeal 
against what are the effects or fall-outs of the capitalist system, has not 
been matched so far by a concomitant and sustained campaign against the 
cause, i.e. against the capitalist system itself, which has to be 
overthrown to clear the way towards the greater tasks ahead.

The danger of separatism and religious fundamentalism interferes seriously 
with the unity of the working class. In countries like Spain, Belgium and 
Greece, the emergence of ethnicity as a counter-productive thrust has 
certainly harmed the unity of the trade union movement.

Here too, the role of the communists is of considerable significance. We 
are proud that, under the guidance of the Communist Party of India 
(Marxist), the trade union movement in India has partly negated the attempt 
made by BJP, RSS et al to disunite working class struggles.

We are glad to announce that even the trade union owing political loyalty 
to the BJP has chosen to describe the liberalised economic policy of the 
BJP-run union government as the "handiwork of criminals".

An important aspect

There is another aspect. The street level actions against the forays of 
corporate capital have been partly dominated, at least numerically, by the 
myriad of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) the world over.

The NGOs that are engaged in such laudable activities as protection of the 
environment and the upholding of the rights of men and women need all the 
praise and help they can get.

But there is increasingly, another group of NGOs that seek to usurp the 
rights of the trade unions by making strenuous efforts to appear "on behalf 
of the trade unions" in organising street demonstrations.

By seeking to push the movements and struggles right into the Iap of 
provocative actions, the NGOs offer the ruling classes the weapon with 
which to crush the same movements by resorting to wanton violence.

The lethal plastic bullets and the liberal use of a virulent variety of 
"tear gas" in Vancouver and Quebec that in total claimed the lives of 16 
trade union activists, is an important pointer in this direction.

In India too, struggles against the neo-liberal economic policies are being 
met with increased repression.

In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, three people were killed in police 
firing on those protesting against the World Bank-sponsored hike in power 
tariffs.

Here the role of the communists assumes important dimensions.

By correctly guiding the trade union movement against the big danger being 
posed by international corporate capital, the communists can and should so 
shape the struggles as to emphasise the overall strength of the movement 
rather than the occasional adventurist foray that may win the accolades of 
an irresponsible media but will also send wrong slogans to the working 
class.

This has to be borne in mind when we discuss the role of the communists and 
the trade unions in the context of the defence of trade union rights, in 
particular.

To conclude, we reiterate that a Communist Party has a positive role to 
play in the functioning of the trade unions.

By linking the daily struggles with the major political issues looming 
before us, a Communist Party has a historic role to play in helping the 
trade union movement to come out of the confines of economism and 
reformism, and lead it to play the historic role in the days ahead towards 
bringing about changes in the existing capitalist system and eventually for 
its overthrow.

* * *
People's Democracy, paper of Communist Party of India (Marxist) Abridged.

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