Workers in India could be better off without the trade unions. The two-day general strike across the country once again showed what was wrong with these unions. They called the strike on issues that had little to do with the workers’ rights and demands. It would make some sense if trade unions agitated or even struck work in their respective units, demanding a wage increase or better working conditions. But it is difficult to see what gains the workers in a particular industry or segment would make by going on a general strike on issues such as price rise, economic liberalization or the reform of labour laws. It is understandable, though, why the trade unions cannot see the absurdity of their ways. Thanks largely to the leftists, trade unions consider battles over wages and other amenities as mere ‘economism’. For the leftists, the workers must be involved in larger political struggles if they are not to be mired in petty struggles for better wages. The result is a situation in which the political parties hijack the workers’ agenda and force them to play their games. It is time that ‘economism’ — a dirty word for the leftists — was restored to the centre stage of the trade union movement in India. It is also the only way workers can reclaim their freedom from the manipulations of political parties.
West Bengal offers a typical example of the subversion of workers’ interests by political parties. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions exists primarily to further the political interests of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPI(M) too sets the agenda for the Citu. Other parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party too have their trade union fronts. But the Indian National Trade Union Congress has an existence which is independent of the Congress. The same is generally true of the central trade union affiliated to the BJP. The CPI(M) and the Citu function as one and the same entity. This has been particularly so in Bengal. This explains why CPI(M) leaders, unlike those in the Congress and the BJP, campaigned for the two-day strike along with their comrades in the Citu. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee tried to break this nexus between his party and the Citu this time. Clearly, he has to do more in order to free his party from the Citu’s stranglehold. It could be his single biggest challenge in reforming his party and politics in Bengal.