Robin Alexander, UE Director of International Affairs
When President Bush arrived in India in early March, he was greeted by hundreds of thousands of protesters. Fortunately, when I arrived in India a few days later, I received a much warmer welcome. As a representative of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), I was greeted by trade unionists who had come together for the founding conference and convention of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI). Challenges (gr2)The NTUI faces enormous challenges. India is approximately one- third the size of the U.S. with a population of over one billion people– more than three times the size of our population. Hindi is the first language of 30 percent of the population, while English is also widely spoken, but there are 14 other official languages. Most people from one area of India have no common language to communicate with someone from another area.
Politically the challenges are also tremendous: There are six major national parties, along with a variety of national and regional parties of varying sizes and strengths. India’s trade union federations have historically aligned with political parties. As the political parties divided, so did the trade union movement, leaving one right wing, one nationalist, one social democratic, and three left wing federations.
Beyond Party Politics
One of the resolutions adopted at the NTUI convention addresses the deficiency of a purely political response to globalization, concluding: The focus and gravity of labor’s opposition has to shift away from being limited to a parliamentary engagement with government. Asserting rights in a democracy requires that not just representatives of people, but people themselves, in direct relationship to the forces of capital, have to build a sustained and in-depth opposition, in every factory and every field, in every industry and every sector, and at the national level.
Organize, Organize, Organize Oraganizing is really the bottom line. The NTUI must be able to organize, as unity alone will not be sufficient. And it cannot limit itself to the seven percent of workers in the organized sector, given the extent of subcontracting and unemployment, increasing working hours, and even the return of slavery in some instances.
Yet the beginning seems auspicious. The new leadership reported that approximately 200 unions have affiliated from many different parts of the country. They are of various sizes, and range from unions in industrial plants owned by well-known corporations such as Siemens and General Electric, to unions of workers from the informal sector, from agriculture, construction, mining, and even those workers considered volunteers with government anti-poverty programs.
Together, the NTUI estimates that they represent some 500,000 workers. However, this does not include the unions that have not yet completed their internal processes of affiliation, which will most likely increase these figures by many hundreds of thousands. Nor does it include the associated organizations that also have the right to join the NTUI, although with more limited voting rights. Unity, Democracy, Militancy Among those present at the founding congress were representatives of indigenous organizations and dalits. The breadth of the NTUIs vision was also evident in international organizations present: ranging from prominent trade unions such as the CGT from France to unions from Turkey and Sri Lanka; from Jobs with Justice in the U.S. to the Committee of Asian Women.
The NTUI slogan is Unity, Democracy, Militancy. The challenges they face and the serious and creative way in which they have begun to address them should serve as an inspiration to all of us.