If most trade unions in India today suffer from an identity crisis, it is largely of their own making. They know their old ways can no longer help workers and yet are unwilling to find a new role for themselves. The deliberations at its national conference inCuttack show how the Centre of Indian Trade Unions remains a prisoner of its old rhetoric. The conference was held within days of the Supreme Court directing the Tamil Nadu government to reinstate 1.7 lakh striking employees who had been dismissed, while at the same time declaring the strike illegal. Legal purists can debate the justification of the court verdict, but it seems to reflect the societyís growing impatience with irresponsible trade unionism. The lesson was however lost on the CITU which saw in both the verdict and the governmentís action a threat to the workersí right to strike. Its response to the perceived threat was not only clichéd but was also a sad testimony to its inability to adjust to the new economic realities. It spoke of more strikes and struggles ahead to try and resist the Union governmentís privatization policies in banking, insurance, electricity and other sectors. It shows once again the leftist trade unionsí failure to understand that a revival of the economy is the best guarantee for jobs and workersí rights. They are slow to learn that such a revival can come only through radical economic reforms.
The real problem seems to lie in trade unionsí affiliation to political parties. This makes them adjuncts of the parties and subservient to the latterís agenda. Historically, though, trade unions evolved and functioned independently of political organizations. Affiliations to political parties made trade unions subserve the interests of mass politics which may be entirely unrelated to the specifics of industries or trade. It was, therefore, ironical for the CITU, an affiliate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to call upon other trade unions to join its movement irrespective of their political affinities. The call was clearly aimed at trade unions affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies who do not share the CITUís arguments against economic reforms. No one would feel more uneasy with the CITUís new call for agitprop than West Bengalís chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. His party may bind him to the anti-reform rhetoric, but his new policies give clear signals to the contrary. Even if he has not had investments pouring into the state, he has changed sceptics into giving it another chance. Mr Bhattacharjee surely does not need the CITUís advice.