Are ‘strikes’ as a bargaining tool making a comeback? 

The eclipse of trade unionism and the withdrawal of industrial action has been a post-liberalisation phenomenon.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

Two mass labour strikes are rattling economic planners and lawmakers in the US. In an era when unified action by labour is considered passe, the United Auto Workers (UAW) have launched strikes in several Detroit plants of the three big automobile companies – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler parent Stellantis from 15 September. 

A new hardline leadership of the UAW has been gunning for the ‘greed’ of the Big Three. Stagnant wages and a tiered salary system that underpays new employees are the issues. Other demands include a 4-day week, and protection against plant closures as electric vehicle production rises. 

US president Joe Biden has lent a hand to the protestors, but planners are worried if the strikes escalate to cover the entire 150,000 unionized auto workforce, it could disrupt supply chains and dent US growth. The 3 auto companies account for as much as 50% of US’ car production.  Meanwhile, Hollywood has been more or less paralyzed since May this year after screenwriters, banded under the Writers Guild of America, have stopped work.

sourav roy
sourav roy

The studios, streaming services and production companies have been brought to their knees as original content has virtually stopped flowing, leading to a world-wide entertainment drought.  The conflict is over perceived poor pay, the size of writing staffs on shows and the fear of becoming redundant due to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the creation of scripts. According to the WGA’s calculations, the entertainment industry profits have ballooned from $5 billion in 2000 to $28-$30 billion from 2017-2021. Spending on original streaming content grew from $5 billion in 2019 to $19 billion in 2023 — the lion’s share of it by Netflix, which reported $6 billion in operating profits in 2021 and $5.6 billion in 2022.

Labour unrest wanes 
Cut to India, and it seems ironical that despite rampant inflation, growing inequality and a hire-and-fire regime in industry, there is hardly any overarching industrial action that stands out in recent years. In fact, government data shows the number of strikes fell from 112 incidents in 2015 to just 59 in 2019 while lockouts were down from 29 to just 9 in the same period. The number of man days lost due to industrial action in this period also fell sharply from 4.6 million in 2016 to just 1.2 million in 2019. 

The eclipse of trade unionism and the withdrawal of industrial action has been a post-liberalisation phenomenon. Two important factors have played a part. First, is the lower weightage of mainstream ‘legacy’ industries like construction, mining, steel and textiles that had spawned militant unions in the post-Independence period.  

These sectors have been replaced by finance, information technology and ‘services’. These work with smaller groups of employees on flexible terms. This ‘tertiary’ sector in fact has become the mainstay, and has been a bulwark against unionization. On the legal front, the NDA regime has over the last few years, worked to ensure a ‘hassle-free’ environment for investors, and has largely succeeded. The legislation of the Industrial Relation Code, 2020 for instance consolidated three important labour laws that were earlier at the heart of industrial relations – the Trade Union Act, 1926, the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946 and the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. The new provisions, like a 60-day notice before one can launch a legal strike, is an effective deterrent against rash industrial action. 

Spillover of anger 
But those who have studied the history of working class militancy will understand that legal handcuffs or a repressive regime cannot stop anger from spilling over. Recent strikes by overworked delivery boys in food chains are a case in point. In April this year hundreds of employees of Blinkit, the 10-minute delivery service, went on a flash strike. 

Or take the case of nurses unions who paralyzed UK’s health services from October 2022 to June this year through strike actions. It was a first in their 109-year history, and triggered by the British government offering a humiliating 5% hike in salaries. 

In India, there have been several partially successful general strikes. The last one was on 26 November 2020 when an alliance of 10 national trade unions managed to bring at least a quarter of the organized labour force on the road. The pivotal demands – stopping privatization, the rolling back of the Industrial Relation Code and more government funds for the rural employment programmes – played a role; but it was the link up with hugely powerful farmers movement that had announced a march on Delhi’s Parliament for 30 November - that proved to be the morale booster. 

In days to come, more than the strictly ‘economic’ union demands, we will see more ‘political’ mobilization. In 1946, when Indian naval ratings in British war ships in Mumbai’s harbour went on strike for India’s independence, textile unions in Mumbai struck work and rallied in support of the ‘naval mutiny’.  Resistance to onerous living and working conditions comes in unexpected forms. Whoever thought Hollywood writers would sit out for 5 months and more. Refusing to work as a form of mass protest, will continue to be a tool in the arsenal of the deprived. 

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