I work with South Asian Trade Unions. Interesting as it is, it throws up quite a number of challenges. Of many, Trade Unionists being involved in electoral politics, is one of the very important challenges. I personally do not mind Trade Unions or Unionist having a political ideology or for that matter even participating in elections. In fact, I would like it, if one day, trade Unions start defining electoral politics in South Asia. Trade Unions should actively evaluate candidates on the basis of their manifesto, campaign for labor issues to be included and in fact even help labor friendly candidates win elections. That’s the way to bring forth political changes in favor of labor. However, in South Asia it is vice versa.
When working in South Asia or for that matter, in almost all parts of the world, we are thrown with the massive challenge of dealing with Unions affiliated to political parties. For eg:, when we talk about India, AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress) was the sole representative of all working class for a very long time. But come 1947, the INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress) was formed by the Congress Party of India leaders, who did not agree with the left ideology that defined AITUC, thus bringing forth an era of political parties forming trade unions. In fact, according to E.A. Ramaswamy, an eminent Trade Union Scholar in India, ‘the divisions among trade unions in India have nothing to do with workers themselves, but have more to do with what political ideology, the leader subscribes too”. Evidently, most of the worker issues get subsumed under the electoral politics cloud.
We deal with Trade Union projects, as a part of my work. I am responsible for monitoring Trade Union projects, with various Global Union and national trade union partners in South Asia. Come election season, it is difficult to get even a single activity done. Not because the trade Unionists are busy campaigning for worker issues to be included in electoral campaigns, but because most of the leaders turn active campaigners for candidates of their affiliated party. It would be a welcome change, if trade unions get busy running their own political campaigns of evaluation parties based on their labor agendas. However, that is rarely the case. In fact they become so busy with elections, that their main work of ‘representing the trade union members’ take a back seat.
In south Asia, it has always been the other way around, with political parties defining the role of trade unions and not vice versa. However, there are unions which have realized that it is definitely not the way forward, but these unions have a long way to go. The established trade unions affiliated to political parties are almost antagonistic to the non-affiliated unions and do not let them grow. Often they are discarded as NGOs and not ‘real trade unions’.
With electoral interests, defining the nature of trade union politics, there also emerges another danger. Often Trade unions are seen to have very narrow definitions of Nationalism, which proves to be an obstacle in their growth. Often many unions have accepted even non-labor friendly legislation, because the parties highlighted that it is in ‘Desh ke hit mein’ (in favor of the country). Thus, narrowed version of nationalism takes over the larger workers interest, thus harming the movement itself.
Thus, it would be almost revolutionary if ‘Trade Unions/Unionists paid as much attention to workers issues as they do to elections’. In fact, it would be far more helpful then them being limited to party interests…!!!
Views expressed here are personal and do not highlight the views of any organization or the organization I work for. It also reflects part of my research work that is in progress and thus readers should refrain from quoting it. Thanks-Author