WHERE HAVE ALL MAY DAY RALLIES GONE?
Yesterday was MAY DAY. International Labour Day. A day to greet all the workers of the world irrespective of their nationality, race, religion, language, gender and occupation. Also, irrespective of whether they are engaged in manual, intellectual or creative work. In this sense, all those who serve society through any kind of work ─ even, and especially, homemakers ─ belong to the labour class.
Human labour is what keeps society alive and going. It is what makes us human, because it separates us from other animal species. None of the riches of the world ─ material, cultural, artistic or spiritual ─ could have come into existence without the collective and coordinated labour of human hands, intellect, heart and soul.
Therefore, it is a great tradition to salute, celebrate and honour working people all over the world on a particular day of the year.
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MAY DAY RALLIES IN MUMBAI
Nevertheless, a slightly troubling question nags my mind today: Where have all May Day rallies gone?
There was a time, until a couple of decades ago, when almost all the cities and big towns in India would witness workers’ rallies on May Day. Of course, this was also true about many countries in the world. I have vivid memories of participating in May Day marches and meetings in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s in Mumbai, a city that had a vibrant working class movement. It was a time when I was closely associated with the communist movement.
Shivaji Park, Kamgar Maidan and Jamboree Maidan were some of the popular maidans in Mumbai where thousands of workers would gather, holding flags and banners announcing the names of the trade unions to which they belonged and also carrying slogans showing solidarity with working class movements all over India and the world. The atmosphere would be partly agitational, partly celebratory.
And how can one reminisce about May Day rallies without recalling the one slogan that was truly international in its appeal and that rent the air wherever such rallies were held in any corner of the world? It is the famous sentence from Karl Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’: “WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE; YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS!”
Since communist trade unions were most zealous about organising May Day rallies, red flags with hammer and sickle symbols dominated the scene. However, these were not exclusively communist programmes. Barring the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which is founded and run by RSS functionaries, almost all other trade unions would join hands in celebrating May Day.
Mumbai those days was a major centre for textile industries. Hence, a bulk of the participants would be mill workers, most of whom were organised by Dr. Datta Samant, a powerful non-communist trade union leader those days.
Today I cannot help remembering, with much admiration and respect, the many committed leaders and activists of the working class movement in Mumbai, whom I had the honour of meeting, knowing or hearing. Most of them are no more. I can only name a few here ─ Comrade P.K. Kurne, Comrade S. Y. Kolhatkar, Comrade Ahilya Rangnekar, Comrade Prabhakar Sanzgiri, Comrade B.S. Dhume, Comrades G. L. Reddy, Tara Reddy and Prakash Reddy (all of them belonged either to the CPI-M or CPI) and, of course, George Fernandes and Mrinal Gore, who were leaders of the socialist trade unions.
(I came to know, and work with, George Fernandes very closely in later years in New Delhi, when I served as an aide to Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO.)
One prominent CPI(M) trade unionist, K.L. Bajaj, passed away only a fortnight back. My heartfelt condolences to members of his family.
With many stalwarts gone, much of the responsibility of leading the CPI(M)’s trade union activities in Mumbai now rests on the shoulders of my dear old friend, Comrade Vivek Monteiro. His intellectual calibre, his social commitment, his deep interest in many education-related endeavours and, above all, his selfless personality have endeared him to all those who know him.
Recalling my own association with May Day rallies, I also remember two other prominent Karnataka-based trade unionists, Comrade V.J.K. Nair and the late Comrade S. Suryanarayana Rao. I worked closely with them during my trade union days in Karnataka. I have great regard for Comrade VJK.
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DECLINE OF COMMUNIST-LED TRADE UNION MOVEMENT
Since the mid-1990s, May Day rallies have become less and less, and I wonder if they are held with any of the old fervor even in Bengal and Kerala, which were once the strongholds of the communist movement. They have certainly become almost a thing of the past in Mumbai.
Why is this great tradition on the decline? What has changed? Why has it changed?
Some of the reasons are obvious. The decline of the May Day tradition is directly linked to the decline in the nature of the trade union movement in India – and also in many parts of the world.
Liberalisation, globalization and the advent of information and communication technologies (ICTs) have radically changed the content and contours of the Indian economy. Informalisation, contractualisation and outsourcing of labour have rendered old-style trade unionism difficult, even outdated.
The change is most evident in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing units in traditional industries have either become extinct or got modernized. In this process, Mumbai and other big cities no longer offer the same kind of locational advantage that they did in the past. Indeed, with real estate prices going up sharply, more and more companies in Mumbai have deliberately used their manufacturing sites to build commercial and high-end residential complexes. One only has to visit Mumbai’s Giran Gaon (textile mill district) to see the unbelievable visual transformation of Byculla, Lal Baug, Parel, Lower Parel, Dadar, Ghatkopar, Kurla, Andheri, Saki Naka, Mulund and other places.
Mumbai is a different city now. And so is much of India a different country now.
Another reason for the decline of the trade union movement is that salaries have gone up considerably at the middle and higher ends of the organized labour. Working conditions have also improved. No doubt, this is partially due to the struggles waged by trade unions. Nevertheless, workers in these categories no longer like to come out in the streets to protest and agitate. Sociologically, they are now firmly part of the expanding Indian Middle Class.
The middle class is an aspiring class. And its aspirations for a better India are not met by the trade union movement.
There is also yet another reason. Not only has the nature of the Indian economy changed, but so too has the nature of the Indian trade union movement. Many trade unions these days are led by mercenaries for whom self-interest triumphs over the interests of workers. The worst among them are no different from extortionists ─ they extort from employers and employees.
But the biggest reason for the decline of the May Day tradition is the basic flaw in the philosophy of ‘Class Struggle’, on which communists, especially, based their trade union activities. Employers and employees do not in reality belong to two antagonistic classes with irreconcilable class enmity, which the communists believed (and still mistakenly believe) could be ended only with the triumph of the working class revolution. They did not rule out the use of ‘class violence’ or ‘revolutionary violence’ to achieve the victory of the working class.
Such working class revolution is nowhere in sight in India. Even in the countries that witnessed communist party-led revolutions, the philosophy of ‘Class Struggle’ has come unstuck.
There is an inseparable inter-dependence between employees and employers. One cannot survive or thrive without the other. Indeed, even the ‘employer class’ has been changing rapidly. In a highly competitive, fast-changing and technology-driven economic scenario, employers also have to “work”. Thus, they also belong to the ‘working class’ in a sense.
Communists, however, have failed to acknowledge that ‘Class Struggle’ is a myth. This fundamental ideological flaw is one of the major reasons for the stagnation and rapid shrinking of the communist movement in India.
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ENDURING RELEVANCE OF THE MESSAGE OF MAY DAY
All this does not mean that everything about the May Day tradition is fit to forgotten and forsaken. We simply cannot ignore the fact that a large number of workers in India (especially those in the unorganized sector) continue to be victims of exploitation and injustice of some or the other kind.
May Day reminds us of this shameful reality and urges us that it must be changed. True, the methods of changing this reality cannot be those prescribed by the communists. But simply criticizing the communists for their flawed and failed ideology is not enough. India, and the rest of the world, has to find a superior path to end the many injustices heaped on working people, especially on the poorest and the most vulnerable among them.
And in finding and following a superior path, we must not forget to pay tribute to the best among the communists and socialists (and also trade union leaders belonging to other ideological streams) who strove most selflessly, and who made many sacrifices, for improving the condition of the working people and helping them live lives of dignity.
Solidarity, struggle, selflessness, sacrifice and idealism, which marked the working class movement in yester-decades, must be nurtured in the future too.
Therefore, although May Day rallies with workers carrying red flags and shouting ‘Lal Salaam’ have become history, the message of May Day is relevant even today and it will continue to remain relevant tomorrow.
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