By Special Correspondent Craig Boehman
MUMBIA, India – Indian workers stepped to the forefront of the global battle against the avarice of predatory elites on Tuesday as more than 40 million participated in one of the largest general strikes in human history.
The 99% sent a message to India’s self-appointed business and political aristocracy as they demanded a minimum wage, permanent jobs for 50 million contract workers with virtually no job security, regulation of runaway living costs, and a halt to the sale of stakes in profitable public companies to the 1%. Commerce ground to a halt in entire regions of the world’s second-most populous nation as organized labor funneled populist anger into a show of support for true democracy.
“This is a historic occasion,” Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, told reporters. “We are fighting for our rights against a government that is anti-people.”
The Indian protest echoed the anger toward the unequal distribution of societal benefits and burdens now being expressed around the world, from the courageous Egyptian protesters of the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. It bodes well for workers in more developed nations, who have seen multinational corporations relocate millions of their jobs to low-wage nations where workers are more easily exploited.
“We gave the government ample opportunity to discuss these issues,” Dasgupta said. “Now striking is the only option before us.”
The Indian protest occurred a day before U.S. protesters marched against the subversion of their representative democracy by political and business elites in a national rally called “Shutdown the Corporations.” The Feb. 29 event highlighted the dubious mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pairs elected officials seeking legal bribes with predatory businesses trying to boost profits by hijacking government regulation of their industries.
China and India have helped multinational companies and their investors boost profits the past 20 years by paying less for the same manufacturing and services sector jobs. However, the people of the world’s two most numerous nations have begun to seek a bigger share of those riches as increased access to education, medicine and consumer goods have lifted their focus from basic survival.
Workers in more developed nations have seen their living standards and job security plummet due to the transformation of the world into a white-collar plantation. So-called free-trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement have accelerated the move to a global labor market for multinational corporations, but have done virtually nothing to police their exceeses, which include monopolistic business practices, such as price fixing, child labor and slave labor . And nothing to protect workers, small businesses and retail consumers.
The result has been a flood of wealth to the multinational managers and their shareholders.
“The gap between the haves and the have-nots is rapidly increasing and the race to the bottom is looming large in our faces,” said Milind Nadkarni of the Union Network International – the world’s largest trade union body.
The battle for rule-by-the people democracy in India surged forward Feb. 28 as all 11 major trade unions formed a coalition with 5,000 smaller unions to present an infrangible challenge to the ruling political machine headed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He responded by announcing Feb. 29 that government health spending would rise from 1.4 percent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) to 2.5 percent by 2017 – at a cost of $19 billion.
GDP is a measure of the size of a nation’s economy.
The general strike created the kind of deserted scenes norally associated with post-Apocalyptic movies in India, as indvidual pedestrians moved through empty railway terminals and factories normally bustling with people.
“The realization has dawned, albeit a little late, that leaving aside our political ideologies and narrow considerations the time is ripe for all the unions in the country to wage a joint struggle,” Nadkarni said. “We have to fight against the powers to be for the emancipation of the downtrodden and fulfillment of the workers’ rights.”
“The issues (are) common to the entire working class,” Nadkarni said. “Prices, particularly food prices, have been galloping over the past months. Labor is sought to be marginalized and permanent jobs are being replaced with contractual jobs. Wages are not commensurate with the work extracted. Social security for all workers still remains a distant dream.”
The organizers of India’s general strike had hoped for a lot, perhaps too much. However, support for the strike was widespread in the 28 Indian states and seven union territories.
Many banks and financial centers closed their doors in Mumbai, India’s largest city and commercial capital, or were manned by skeleton staffs. Commuters were forced to rely more heavily on rickshaws and taxis as many drivers of its air conditioned buses heeded the strike call.
“The shutdown in the banking and insurance sector has been complete,” said Vishwas Utagi, General Secretary of All India Bank Employees Association. “The RBI’s clearing houses are shut. So the private and foreign banks where we do not have a presence also (were) affected.”
RBI is banking industry shorthand for the Reserve Bank of India, a central bank similar to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
The cities of Delhi and Chennai were impacted less visibly.
More than 100 nonviolent protesters were arrested in West Bengal, a state of 91 million people that includes the city of Kolkata (formerly known as “Calcutta”). Most were charged with blocking traffic and disrupting train service.
Many businesses and shops were shuttered in West Bengal in support of the general strike and most employees stayed away from their workplaces.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the new icon of the ruling political machine in West Bengal, saw things quite differently.
Banerjee claimed the strike was a complete failure. Her All India Trinamool Congress won control of West Bengal last year and is now the chief beneficiary of the perks associated with the political status quo.
“There is no strike at all, everything is open,” Banerjee said. “All the buses, trains, taxis, are running. The flights have also operated totally according to schedule. The presence of government employees in the offices has been near about 100 percent.”
Banerjee’s outlandish claims were reminiscent of the those New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg leveled against the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, after it challenged a banking sector which has made him the wealthiest elected official in U.S. history.
The painful truth is that flights rarely run on schedule in India, even on the best of days. And employee attendance never reaches 100% for any sizeable employer. In fact, it never topped 95.2 percent in a study of 1,1115 Indian workers at the GoGo International apparel firm due to illness, religious holidays, and family-related emergencies.
Sadly, the truth is never as convenient as fiction for a business and political aristocracy bent on protecting the status quo.
The states of Orissa, Tripura and Kereala were hit hard by the general strike. Bus service was disrupted in Orissa and many of its 42 million residents opted to support the strike by staying home.
Virtually no business could be conducted in the tiny eastern state of Tripura, which has only 3.7 million residents, according to media reports. Most markets, shops and business establishments, government offices, educational institutions, banks and financial institutions were idled. Roads were deserted and rail services between Tripura and the rest of the country were also affected.
Support for the strike was strong among the 32 million people of wealthy, coastal Kerala. Enthusiasm for true democracy among the wealthy and middle class has been a driving factor in the recent global wave of protests, which target the super wealthy who seem to be establishing themselves as a new global aristocracy at the expense of the rest of the human race.
They’re being aided by neoliberal policies persistently championed by corrupt government officials, who have turned a deaf ear to the needs of the many in order to shop their votes and influence to corporate donors.
With the alarming increase in food costs and other essential goods and services in India, many newly minted members of its middle class are afraid of losing their new social standing, just like the faltering middle class driving the Occupy movement in the United States.
Dasgupta, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, indicated that the sweeping strike should serve as a wakeup call for those who seek to preserve the status quo.
“It was unprecedented,” Dasgupta said. “The biggest-ever strike.”
The social tinder for the huge Indian strike was provided by the disproportionate distribution of the wealth from its rapid modernization and by the sheer crassness and insensitivity of its 1%. The beneficiaries of this largesse, which is compiled largely from the efforts of others, have begun building individual skyscraper-homes for their families – much as kings and princes once created castles as monuments to their supremacy over their fellow man and exploitation of them.
Instead of viewing societal leadership as a responsibility, this new generation of would-be leaders views it as a coronation.
Business tycoon Mukrsh Ambani is a perfect example of this new immorality. The leader of India’s richest family built a 27-story skyscraper (below right) as a home for this wife and three children in Mumbai at a cost of roughly $2 billion. That’s nearly as much as the seven building World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan, which was built at a cost of $400 million in 1973 – equal to about $2.3 billion in 2012 dollars.
The monument to greed and hubris has a staff of 600.
Similar “homes” are going up all over India even though hundreds of millions of still struggle with homelessness and malnutrition. The Indian middle class also is being squeezed, as small business people are being stripped of their wealth by predatory lenders who prey on those with little financial knowledge.
More than 200 poor, debt-ridden people killed themselves in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in 2010 in response to aggressive collection tactics, according to a special report by The Associated Press. They were beneficiaries of a banking initiative called “micro-lending” which was cited as one of the great successes of international economic development efforts prior to the global slowdown.
These suicides are happening as the redistribution of wealth from developed countries to developing countries, engineered through globalization, is reaching its apogee. Deeper rifts between the haves and have-nots are becoming more apparent as developing economies cool.
India reported an economic growth rate of 6.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, compared with 6.9 percent in the third quarter. Government officials have dropped their growth expectation for Asia’s third-largest economy to 7 percent this year from 9 percent.
That compares with a 2.5 percent economic growth rate in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2011 and a 0.3 percent contraction among the 17 European nations using the Euro.
The World Bank cut its economic forecasts in January for emerging and developing economies, which are dependent on U.S. and European consumers, and warned that the world is at risk of a new global recession like the one precipitated by rampant stock market speculation four years ago.
Indian inflation remains problematic despite 13 consecutive interest rate hikes by policy-makers at the Indian Reserve Bank. Those hikes lift the rates borrowers must pay to secure new loans in a bid to damp inflation. They also create financial incentives for banks to aggressively collect loans issued at the earlier low rates and put that money to work at more profitable terms.
The success of the Indian general strike raises interesting questions about the relative lack of vigor by organized labor here in the U.S., which actually has a much higher labor participation rate.
Only about 8% of India’s 488 million workers belong to labor unions. Unemployment is around 10% and per-capita GDP is about $3,700, although the cost of living is quite modest by U.S. standards. By contrast, about 11.8% of U.S. workers belong to unions, unemployment is 8.3% and per capita GDP is $48,100.
India’s general strike suggests that the logical outcome of the continued deprivations being orchestrated by the 1% is a heightened willingness to take to the streets among the faltering middle class, when organized labor leads the way. However, U.S. unions seem to have little appetite for such battles and little connection with the 99%, except when it’s time for them to negotiate for higher wages and benefits for themselves.
Most union workers in the U.S. are government workers, who are risk averse when it comes to standing up for their fellow Americans. Their reticence has emboldened the 1%, damped labor activism and set the stage for huge headcount reductions at federal agencies like the U.S. Postal Service.
The over-arching question here in the U.S. is whether the pampered leaders of the U.S. labor movement are capable of emulating their peers in India and willing to risk generous salary and benefit packages that align them more closely with the 1% than the 99%. So far the answer is no.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is the largest U.S. labor union with more than 11 million members. Seventeen of its employees make more than $150,000 a year. President Richard Trumka draws $283,340 in annual compensation.
The AFL-CIO’s preferred battlefield is the halls of government, rather than the streets, and its preferred champion seesms to be the political lobbyist, rather than the noviolent protesters of the 99%.
However, the painful truth is that union job security is diminished when labor leaders insulate themselves from the suffering of the 99%. Until that changes, the nonviolent Occupy Wall Street movement will continue to carry the torch for working families and to fight the good fight, even when that means being brutalized by the members of this nation’s police unions.
Are you there, Richard Trumka?
There’s still labor history to be made.
India has shown us that the proof is in the curry. Perhaps its given their labor leaders a fire in their bellies that’s missing in our own.