On "Autonomy in India"

On "Autonomy in India"

"What we see the workers doing, and what we hear of from other places today, gives the impression that some great churning is taking place which we dare not try to fit unthinkingly into existing moulds bequeathed to us by past experience."

A response to ‘Autonomy in India: Tactical and Strategic Considerations in the New Wave of Workers’ Struggles’ by Mithilesh Kumar and Ranabir Samaddar.

I help a few friends in publishing and distributing every month a newspaper – Faridabad Majdoor Samachar – in the Delhi-NCR area, in which we try to present to workers an image of their own activities which we think are full of transformative possibilities. We also keep these activities of workers at the center of our discussions by consistently trying to interpret their implications anew. What we see the workers doing, and what we hear of from other places today, gives the impression that some great churning is taking place which we dare not try to fit unthinkingly into existing moulds bequeathed to us by past experience.

It is in this context that I place this response to the article “Autonomy in India”. My chief criticism is that apart from the many erroneous commissions and omissions, it presents workers as a “fragmented”, hapless lot, and by trying to place them in bygone frameworks, completely misses their present radical potential. This essay will point out how, in their characterization of workers today, the authors of ‘Autonomy in India’ place the irrelevant in the spotlight, exceptionalize the normal, and thus manage to get away with presenting an image of workers which is, even by the examples they invoke, less representative of their activities.

Making the irrelevant relevant

1.“State’s machinery to protect the rights of unorganized workers”
The authors inform us that “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.” Whatever the “normalization” of 80%-90% of the workforce means, we find that this age-old distinction between “organized-unorganized” workers is coming into question in churnings in the factory mode today that make laws, legal redress, labour commissions, etc. increasingly irrelevant. This is amply evident when we consider even the cases of “organized” workers today, as at Munjal Kiriyu (Sec-4, IMT Manesar), Haryana:

Quote:
“…A union was established in the Munjal Kiriyu factory at the beginning of 2013. As per law, only the permanents took membership of the same. In present conditions, actual workers’ organization is made possible by the inter-mixing between permanents, trainees, apprentices and temps. On 26.11.13, the union signed a three-year agreement with the management that sought to weaken and break this actual workers’ organization. But the bonds between permanents, trainees and temps proved resilient, and even before a month was over since the legal agreement was signed, all workers stopped production on 18.11.13 in support of three trainees (?). After production was stalled for 25 days, the union and the management made an agreement with elusive traps involving provisions for dismissal and discharge…. The real meaning of this “victory” of the union-management agreement of 15.1.14 (after 25 days of stalled production) was revealed to the permanents later in April that year. Permanents broke ties for the first time from a big union in May to join hands with another big union. At that time, the company straight away attacked the permanents, whose collective strength was already depleted by weakening of their ties with the temps due to management-union interventions. 195 permanents were removed from the factory on 24.9.14, as 400 temps, 100 diploma trainees, and 43 permanents continued production within. The debarred permanent workers then, on 25th September, returned to take shelter under the roof of the former big union. A month, two months, three months passed since the 195 workers debarred from the factory were sitting outside it. Hearings-after-hearings took place at the Labour Department. Initially, big unions were very active, but then grew lax, and finally became completely distant from the workers. Apart from those removed from work, the company added to the numbers of those suspended. Workers sitting-in at the factory gates since 25th September accepted the management’s conditions on 15.1.15 when they saw that resistance wasn’t bearing fruit. Leaving the 9 who were terminated, and 20 who were suspended, the rest of the workers returned inside the factory. Reports about Munjal Kiriyu workers will be found in the 2014 September, October, November and January 2015 newspapers of Majdoor Samachar…” (FMS, Feb 2015)

Or, let us look at the more recent case of the Honda (Tapukara) factory in Alwar district (Rajasthan),

Quote:
“…On 16th February, in order to stem the upsurge of temporary and permanent workers, the workers were evicted from the factory by means of police action. Following that, a huge number of new temporary workers were recruited, and the factory was kept operational through them and a few permanent workers. Meanwhile, the workers evicted from the factory were made to run around Gurgaon, Jaipur, Alwar by mediators/brokers (middlepersons) for obtaining relief.

On 6th June, there was a settlement between the Honda management and unions in the presence of the Labour Commissioner of the Rajasthan government. Out of more than 4000 workers evicted from the factory, 256 permanent workers were to go back to work at the factory starting the 8th of June. As for the rest, it was decided to have talks on the 13th of June at the Labour Department.

The union thanked the Honda management and the Labour Department of Rajasthan Government in press releases. On the 8th of June, the permanent workers went into the factory to work in accordance with the settlement.

And then, come 13th, the Honda management never showed up for the talks scheduled at the Labour department. The company bluntly said that it would not recall even a single worker of the thousands of temporary workers evicted from the factory. 102 permanent workers of Honda Tapukara have been dismissed and 47 have been suspended.

With the Honda management “going back on its words”, the union has once more started a series of protest-demonstration-appeals since 20th June.” (FMS, July 2016)

And from recent events at the Bellsonica factory in Sec-8, IMT Manesar,

Quote:
“The union keeps saying : workers will benefit from peacefully keeping up regular production at the factory, abiding by the Labour department and the Courts. Far from the workers gaining anything through these proceedings going on since one and a half years, the company has instead fired many permanents, trainees and workers hired through contractor companies.” (FMS, July 2016)

These are only a few cases among many – Bridgestone IMT Manesar (Hindi report in FMS, Nov 2015), Napino Auto IMT Manesar (Hindi report in FMS, May 2016), Omax Auto IMT Manesar (Hindi report in FMS, May 2016), and so on – in which: first, the “organized-unorganized” distinction has proved unhelpful and a hindrance to workers’ activities vis-à-vis managements and work, and second, “organized” workers bear witness to the breakdown of the “state machinery” that is supposed to “ensure their rights,” to say nothing about the vast majority of cases in which “unorganized” workers witness this breakdown as a matter of course. We observe, rather, that laws, legal redress, the rights-framework have become irrelevant for workers, and any attempt to channelize workers’ activities through these means is only harmful for workers’ expressions of agency. In contradistinction to this, consider the possibilities thrown out of workers organizing themselves beyond this statized “organized-unorganized” distinction. For example, Maruti Suzuki (which “Autonomy in India” misrepresents)

Quote:
“…In 2011, in the factory in Manesar, there were 950 permanent workers, 500 trainees, 200 apprentices, 1200 workers hired through contractors for work in the direct production process; around 1500 workers were hired through contractors for various auxiliary functions. The pace of work was such that a car was being assembled in 45 seconds. Some permanent workers attempted to organise another union against the existing union. Strong arm tactics of the management to make permanent workers (most of whom were not even aware of the attempt at another union formation) accept the existing union gave rise to a charged atmosphere. All around discontent coalesced into sudden stoppage of work. On 4th June 2011 when A and B shift workers were together in the factory, they took over entry and exit points. Most workers in factories today in the subcontinent are temporary workers — the percentage of permanent workers varies from 0 to 5 to 25% of the work force. On 4th June permanent workers, trainees, apprentices, and workers hired through contractors came together, and in this way a workers’ organisation appropriate for the current conditions took shape, transcending the legal framework wherein only permanent workers can be members of the factory trade union. What started on 4th June and continued for 13 days should be termed a ‘deoccupation’ of the factory. Around 3000 workers stayed in an atmosphere of freedom inside the factory premises during those days.

The company and the government were taken aback. During the deoccupation many more bonds developed between the various categories of workers. The company was forced to take a step backwards and revoke the termination of 11 workers for production to restart. 

There was a dramatic change in the atmosphere in the factory. The bonds between workers continued to grow and management officials were increasingly on the defensive. The company was forced to plan and prepare to re-establish its control. It went to far away industrial training institutes and secretly recruited hundreds of “ladke” (young boys). On 28th August, a weekly day off, 400 police men came to the factory overnight. The company staff had arrived earlier. With metal sheets, the factory was secured in military fashion. On the morning of the 29th when workers arrived for their 7:00 am shift, there were notices announcing dismissals and suspensions, and entry for permanent workers was conditional on signing of good conduct bonds.

All the workers, both permanent and temporary, stayed out of the factory. Inside the factory were the new hires and workers brought from the company’s Gurgaon factory, with a few permanent workers from the Manesar plant. Arrangements for their stay inside the factory had been made. Managerial and supervisory staff members also had to work in the production process with the workers in 12 hour shifts. This was a well rehearsed chess game to soften workers and impose conditions.

Repeated attempts were made to instigate workers to violence. The workers refused to be instigated, even when some of them were called by the state government for negotiations and were arrested there.

More than 3000 workers organized themselves into two 12 hour shifts outside the factory. At any time, there were more than 1500 workers spread out near the workers’ entry gate. This continued for the whole of September 2011. Many kinds of discussions took place. Bonding between different categories of workers acquired new dimensions.” (See the entire report ‘An Account of Factory Workers Today’)

Workers’ activities run contrary to the discourse on dwindling rights; rather, we note that the weakness of workers lies not in “precariousness” due to ineffective labour regimes, but rather in holding their activities hostage to those labour regimes. We need only recall the mass upsurge among workers in Bengaluru, in which the role of the state-machinery became more than clear: suppression, or diffusion by giving concessions, of workers’ activities. This was also seen in the recent mass-absence of workers from factories in Bangladesh.

2. “How do the workers mobilize and organize? What methods or approaches will be adopted by the political organizers?.. 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… Who organizes the workers at sites that have not been previously organized or where trade union influence has been minimal?”
What the authors present as a victory of Maruti Suzuki workers in 2000 (victory in the form of a tripartite negotiation) seems reminiscent of the “organized” workers-unions-organizations’ appeals in 2016 from Jantar Mantar to the parliamentary conscience for the workers of Honda Tapukara, which was followed by a photo-op with Delhi’s Labour Minister, a continuing court case, and a dead end which was not even spoken about.

At a time when it has become amply evident that representative frameworks are dysfunctional in supporting workers’ organization, is there any case for the good vs. bad representative argument? Is there any case for the “radical Left” better than the “classical Left” idea? We can ask workers from ASTI Electronics (Sec-8, IMT Manesar),

Quote:
“Temporary workers depended on the strength of their backs. We were approached by all – IMK, KNS, Bigul Mazdoor Dasta – to hijack our struggle, but we didn’t let them. We agreed that they could give us suggestions, and we did take suggestions, but made it clear from the first day onwards that acting or not acting upon suggestions was up to us. A leader from AITUC said the HMS does this kind of politics every time, you should trust us, we will fight your struggle. A temporary worker replied, “It was good of you to come, but we’ve seen what you did in Napino Auto. You may leave, thank you.” A CITU leader then said many things against Modi, that he is bringing laws that will spoil the workers’ future, that we have to stop those laws from coming into action. A temporary worker replied, “You are senile now, have gained immense knowledge, but this is not a platform for election mongering.” It is a platform of workers; the laws you speak of haven’t yet come, and already we are doomed. You haven’t been able to implement laws presently in place, but still speak of a future. When somebody from Bigul came to speak, IMK protested, demanding they not be permitted to speak. They were told that this platform isn’t IMK’s, but of the contract workers. It is our decision whom to allow or disallow from speaking.” (FMS, April 2015)

Or we could also test the validity of these claims against certain “militant” tactics of the Bellsonica Union:

Quote:
“In June, workers at the factory bluntly told the union leaders that the union should right away do something for immediate relief, failing which the workers would act on their own.

The union which had been holding out hopes for months for the decisive date of 12 July at the High Court, taxed its brains and made a plan : as the saying goes, kill the snake without breaking the stick. To ensure that the production does not suffer, the company does not face losses, the company does not get annoyed – the weekly off day in the factory was chosen. A lot of thought also went into the “action” – to act without putting the government authorities under pressure, without being a bother, without angering them. A Sunday was found to be the best choice. 6000 handbills were printed for distribution. 1500 posters were printed for Dharuhera, Bawal, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Delhi University and IMT Manesar. Towards the end of June, the union kept many workers busy working in the Bellsonica factory and their colleagues outside the factory.

Sunday is a holiday at the factory. Government offices are closed on Sundays. Hence, the middlepersons/brokers calling for revolution-vevolution announce
“Program : Collective Hunger Strike
Venue : Mini Secretariat, Gurgaon
Time : 9 AM – 5 PM
Date : July 3 2016”” (FMS, July 2016)

The bankruptcy of radical Left politics was visible already in the events around the Maruti Suzuki de-occupation, of which our authors present only incomplete fragments, using the same obfuscatory lens of the “radical”. A more detailed account:

Quote:
“Permanent workers, trainees, apprentices, workers hired through contractor companies, new workers who had been hired to run the second assembly plant — all these workers, around 4000 workers, in a meticulous operation on the evening of 18 July 2012 attacked two symbols of the wages system : managers and factory buildings. It was not this or that bad manager who became the target but rather any and every manager; hundreds of managers, MANAGERS AS SUCH WERE A TARGET. It is this that makes happenings in the Maruti Suzuki Manesar factory one of global importance. Suppression that triggers explosion is well known, but concessions being rejected en masse is a new phenomenon. It is a radical point of departure. Maruti Suzuki Manesar is a good example, but what is more important is that amongst factory workers in the national capital region in India, similar things at different stages and levels are gaining currency.

In the following days, the two thousand factories in IMT Manesar offered a significant ground for workers to meet other workers and to bond with them. In place of that…central trade unions acted fast and shifted the venue 25 km away to Gurgaon by constituting a committee of 16 trade union leaders who would decide what steps are to be taken. Of the discharged permanent workers numbering 546, those remaining outside the jail were pushed into becoming an audience for this committee. Other workers’ representatives/supporters, critical of central trade unions, but who also see workers as victims and as lacking consciousness, erased the active role of the workers on 18th July. They made out the company to be the active force that had conspired and hired bouncers to attack workers to instigate them. Poor workers only reacted to the bouncers’ attack and so were caught in the management’s trap. 60-70 thousand leaflets with these falsehoods were distributed amongst workers in IMT Manesar, Gurgaon, Delhi and Faridabad. Knowingly or unknowingly these do-gooders encouraged the workers to set out on paths that were tiresome and exhausting. Petitions, demonstrations, protests by the family members of the jailed and sacked workers; hunger strikes, bicycle protest tours…steps which gave some support to the workers’ cause, but which, if relied upon solely, only made workers tired and exhausted. Because of the ineffectiveness of the committee of 16, those more to the left gained ground. And the venue was shifted 200 km away to a peasant dominated area.

By July 2013 the complete bankruptcy of all those who considered workers as poor, exploited victims, had reached a stage where these ‘struggles’ came to an ignominious end — on 18 July 2013 in a candlelight protest in daylight in a park provided by the government, a portrait of the manager who died in 2012 was carried…” (From ‘An Account of Factory Workers Today’ cited above)

To suggest that a tendency working against the direction of workers’ activities ought to play a decisive role in mediation, and even organization of workers, follows the same line of argument by which a dysfunctional state machinery is expected to become functional in regulating workers’ activities. In this mode of thinking, the organization of workers’ activities not just complements their regulation, but becomes its means too.

3. “The rural rich gentry, the upper caste kulaks, and the wise elders of the nearby settlements all supported the company bosses….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.”
Following on their inadequate characterisation of workers as “precarious,” “fragmented,” or otherwise weakened by “globalization”, the authors turn to add more “local” qualifications pertaining to remnants (or fables) of earlier social structures (e.g., the management vs. the Dalit worker; the local contractor vs. the migrant labourer; “Taking into account that many of [the Maruti Suzuki] workers belonged to villages around Gurgaon-Manesar, their impulse led them to fall back on the community organization of the khap panchayat.” and so on).

Notwithstanding the absence in history of a worker completely bereft of baggages, whether of past identities, or of present links to non-worker habitats (e.g., to a rural community), this approach fails to look at the factory (or the neighborhoods) as a space in which churning takes place between people of very varied such experiences, under very new, unprecedented conditions. Rather than look at the links and discussions that emerge between workers in a new space like this, the authors try to reduce everything to the play of old themes and remnants. Thus, they fail to even imagine the possibility of something new and different to emerge from workers’ activities.

Quote:
“Maxop, Sec-6, IMT Manesar: 12 hour shifts for the manufacture of automobile parts for export. .. Work load is a lot, workers keep leaving, there are always vacancies.. High temperatures in the factory.. On the night shift of 16th January, Kaleem Ansari was working on a pressure die casting machine. At 2:10am in the night, a casting part got stuck in the machine. When Kaleem attempted to remove the part from the machine, it suddenly sprung into action due to being on auto-plan. His head got sucked into the casting machine, and he died immediately. Workers stopped work. Left the factory premises. The factory was shut on the 17th, on the 18th January too. Work commenced on the 19th.” (FMS, February 2015)

We find among factory workers a trend wherein even one person on the factory floor becomes a focal point of concern for every other worker. In this process, the force of past identities, or specific differences, to set apart collectivities is challenged by the workers’ understanding of their common situations. This trend is repeated again and again: to take another example, in Udyog Vihar in February 2015 one garment worker was beaten up, but it provided a trigger for a widespread anger against many factories and cars of management. More than 2000 policemen refused to act on seeing the sheer number of workers having a go at the factories (Hindi report in FMS, March 2015). We also heard from workers of a Micromax factory at Mayapuri, Delhi (FMS, December 2016),

Quote:
“There are about 450 workers in the Mayapuri Micromax factory, with 9 hours long duty in a day, paid 9000 (after deduction of esi/pf) rupees a month. As soon as workers spend sometime in the factory, they begin to refuse overtime. Hence, the Micromax management is concerned at all times with enlisting new workers. In Novermber 2016, the management removed 4 workers from 13 in a small department. The 9 remaining workers in the department halted work. The management had to take back the four removed workers.”

Where even one worker becomes a focal point of discussion among tens of thousands and an invitation for collective action, we infer that many differences, specificities, and the so-called baggages no longer hinder action and, therefore, become irrelevant. This is an indication that we need to look at workers’ activities as something radically different and irreducible to old identities.

This emergence of new tendencies is particularly marked in how the gender question manifests itself among workers. More than half the participants in events such those witnessed in Bengaluru (Apr 2016), Udyog Vihar (Feb 2015), Okhla Industrial Area (Feb 2013), etc. were, firstly, women, and secondly, migrants. Both these identities are considered, in hegemonic discourses as well as in dominant counter-hegemonic discourses, as socially weak and vulnerable. In this context, look at this about the workers’ sit-in at ASTI electronics:

Quote:
“from the 4th November, 60 male and 250 female workers began a continuous sit-in outside the factory…” (FMS, Dec 2014)

Or from JNS & Jay Ushin (Sec 3, IMT Manesar):

Quote:
“Women wage-workers from all over Gurgaon, Jhajjar, Rewari, Pataudiin packed buses. Many also walk down to work daily from Manesar, Kasan, Khoh, Naharpur. Like on other days, on 10th February too – a Monday – women workers coming by buses and on foot gathered outside the factories at 8:45 am. Entry into both factories is through one gate alone and duty begins at 9 am. However, on 10th February, the gathered women workers refused to enter the factories. For about two whole hours they stood outside the factory gate and discussed promises by the Haryana Chief Minister to raise the minimum wage to Rs. 8100. The police arrived. In buses, senior staff members accompany the women workers to keep an eye, and so the women don’t talk as freely. Despite all this, the company didn’t have a clue when on 10th February more that 2000 women workers acted collectively. JNS Instruments is a strong partnership between Nippon Seiki, Japan and J P Minda from India. Autometers for Honda, Bajaj, Hero, Suzuki, Yamaha two-wheelers and Maruti Suzuki and Honda cars are manufactured here. Jay Ushin is a joint-venture between Ushin Ltd., Japan and J P Minda. It manufactures car-keys and automatic-locksets. JNS annually produces goods worth about Rs. 5 billion, while Jay Ushin produces goods worth Rs. 6 billion annually. Male wage-workers working in these factories work for two shifts of 12 hours each. Shifts change every 15 days, whereupon workers from the first shift work 16 hours straight. The factories run 24 hours a day, every day of the month. The only holiday is 26th January (National Republic Day). Overtime rates are below single-rate: Rs. 22/h for male and Rs. 23/h for female workers. Those directly employed on the company rolls are given their salaries directly in their bank accounts, they number 500-600; their role is to get work done by the contract workers, and they boss around inside the factories. Men and women contract workers are hired through eight to twelve contractors.

Workers are told about their wages around the 9th of every month, but they are only paid around the 20th . Workers who have quit are made to jump hoops for a long time to get their dues, women workers often enter arguments at gates, swear at the management, even pick up their shoes to thrash somebody when they come to collect their dues.” (FMS, March 2014)

Clearly, new kinds of relationships are taking shape between the men and women who share factory spaces, who stop work together, pelt stones together, share neighborhoods. As more households become multiple-earning, what becomes of the gender hierarchies within households that are part of the “social factory” that the authors point to? If we return to some scenes from the Maruti Suzuki de-occupation in this light (of which our authors inform us that workers, being tied to local villages, “sought succor” outside “their autonomous self,”

Quote:
“It has been observed that important questions dealing with life, time, relations, representation, articulation and factory life were brought to the fore by the deoccupations of June and October 2011. In the words of a worker:

‘Inside the Maruti Suzuki factory, 7-14 October was the best of times. No tension of work. No agonizing about the hours entry and exit. No stress over catching a bus. No fretting about what to cook. No sweating over whether dinner has to be eaten at 7 or at 9 pm. No anguish over what day or date it is. We talked a lot with each other about things that were personal. During those seven days we drew closer to each other than we have ever been before.’

In the same vein, when the issue of 30 workers being bought-over by the management made the rounds at the end of October, a worker said:

‘Earlier we used to pass on the issues to the president, general secretary, department coordinator — they weres supposed to tell us what to do. But now every worker answers for himself. On every issue, every one gives his opinion. The atmosphere has changed.’”(An Account of Workers’ Activities)

Exceptionalizing the norm

1. “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… transforming the shopfloor into a site of precarity”
In the above quote, the authors have merged multiple claims in a rather complicated unity: one claim is that due to production techniques now in motion, workers’ have become bootstrapped in acting at the site of production; then there is the claim that the shop-floor’s importance today remains only in the automobile sector, which, too, highlights the “hapless” existence of the worker. And in order to challenge this, there “have been attempts” to improvise methods, which are obviously not the methods “improvised” by workers, since they are “a mere appendage of the machine.”

This view would prevent us from understanding a large number of workers’ activities vis-à-vis the factory today. Let us look at some instances:

Quote:
“Sebros Auto (Sec-5, IMT Manesar): Due to the breaking of a die-part of the die-casting machine, while being paid wages on 11th July, they were deducting Rs. 3000 from the salaries of the pressure die-casting workers. Workers refused to take wages, and 9 machines in the department were shut…” (FMS, Sep 2014)

“At Munjal Kiriyu… all workers stopped production on 18.11.13 in favor of three trainees who were removed. After production was stalled for 25 days, the union and the management made an agreement with elusive traps involving provisions for dismissal and discharge.” (FMS, Feb 2015)

“JNS Instruments (Sec-3, IMT Manesar): Line leader, in a school-like fashion, orders a worker to stand in place for 10-20 minutes. What shame in standing so? Gets some relief from work. Older workers disclose to new ones how to deal with supervisors and line leaders. Girls from two lines got together to beat up a line leader. The supervisor had to come to secure release.” (FMS, Apr 2015)

And so on. An interesting trend seen in garments factories is product rejection. Pants manufactured in Indo-British Garments had legs of different sizes; 13,000 pants returned to the factory, without anybody getting a whiff of how this happened (FMS, Sep 2014). Similar rejections were produced by workers at Modelama and Precision Prints. Workers of the two factories of Wearwell in Okhla Industrial Area kept machines shut for several days over non-payment of wages, and stayed in de-occupied factories in September 2014 (FMS, Oct 2014). And there are numerous instances of workers having clashes at the factory site; in many cases, such as Udyog Vihar (Feb, 2015) and Orient Craft, Manesar (Oct, 2015) for example, these happened in the middle of a shift. One then looks at garments workers’ activities in Bengaluru in April, 2016, and more recently in Bangladesh in December 2016. Further off, one recalls collective fainting by garments workers in Cambodia, and so on.

2. “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.”
This “unruly, often militant” worker, for the authors, is a by-product of “unorganized” “precarity” that is at the same time a liability for everyone from the state to the management; s/he contributes nothing to the “struggle.” This upstart, in all manifestations of this syndrome, is capable only of sporadic acts, bordering on a pathology. Even when in a group, their acts have nothing to do with the pace of factory production, or to causing hindrance in the same. It is to “govern” this “unorganized subject without producing a subject called the organized worker” that is the task of regulation as well as organization. We shall leave this claim to find its corner to die.

3. The Struggle of Forms?
The authors of the article submit their analysis, broadly outlined and discussed above, to a rigmarole of forms from the world history of the left, and to its more localized Indian counterpart: from the party, to the union, to the autonomous organizational form (as epitomized by the Italian theorists of workers’ movements). They find that “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.” Apart from the fact that their discussion of the wage-worker today leaves no scope for workers’ autonomous activities to be understood in any meaningful sense, and that their notions about organization and autonomy provide no clarity about how the two mesh together, we find that workers’ activities elude any attempts to fit them in such grids. Sometimes this rejection is immediate, as during an ongoing gathering or a sit-in where existing organizations of various hues often arrive; this is also because the results of deciding in favor or against a form are immediate. But in a large measure, this is also because the temporary worker, knowing that s/he is outside the scope of the legal, sidesteps all such regulation.

Conclusion

In “normalizing” or conceiving the image of the wage-worker today from the lens of organizations of bygone times, an inversion takes place: the worker appears weak, a mere “cog in the machine.” This inversion is only achieved by emphasizing the most irrelevant aspects of the workers’ being and doing, and by circumscribing their regular frictions with the production process, and how they learn and act upon the same. Hence, the fact that theories and theoreticians frequently lag behind the practice of the working class is reconfirmed.

[The translations from the originally Hindi reports have been made available due to the participation of a number of friends.]

Originally posted on the Radical Notes website.