Monday, May 4, 2009

Political leaders rise in defence of working class

Gulf Today

In this year's May Day perorations, leaders of both the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), cutting across party lines, stoutly defended the state's trade unions which had come under sharp criticism from the High Court the previous day.

LDF leaders, additionally, took up cudgels against the powerful Catholic Church which recently announced plans to make its presence felt in the labour sector.

In a pastoral letter, read at more than 3,000 churches during Sunday services a week ago, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), which claims to represent 5.3 million Catholics, had asked the faithful to strengthen the labour unions under its control and set up labour self-help groups.

Since 1960 the Church has been running an organisation called the Kerala Labour Movement.

In 1979 the KCBC set up a labour commission with the proclaimed objective of mobilising the vast body of unorganised workers in the state.

The plan to revitalise these outfits is apparently a response to the growing hostility between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the LDF.

The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), affiliated to the CPI-M, is the largest apex labour organisation in the state.

In an immediate response to KCBC announcement, its state secretary, MM Lawrence, said hundreds of Catholics were members of CITU unions and they would ignore the Church's call.

Addressing a May Day rally at Kottayam, CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan came down heavily on attempts to divide the working class on the basis of caste and religion.
Religious consciousness had not come to the aid of workers anywhere, he said. It was working class consciousness that gave them strength.

The KCBC is not the only organisation operating in the trade union area with a sectarian agenda.

Like other political parties in the state, the Indian Union Muslim League, too, has a trade union, the Swathanthra Thozhilali Union (STU-independent labour union) and a peasant organisation, the Swathanthra Karshaka Sangham (SKS-independent peasant organisation).

India's largest apex trade union organisation, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, belongs to the Sangh Parivar, which is the engine of Hindutva ideology.

CITU-affiliated unions have been working with BMS-affiliated unions in the state disregarding their links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which they condemn as communal outfits.

On May Day eve, a division bench of the high court, while hearing petitions filed by the Cochin Port Trust and container owners seeking a declaration that the strike by trade unions which hit work at the container terminal was illegal, made some caustic observations on the trade unions.

It said unions were acting against the state's interests. They were aware only of their rights, not of their responsibilities. They had evolved a work culture which was not suitable for the state.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, addressing a rally at Thiruvananthapuram, described the court's observations as 'unfortunate.'

At the same time, he asked the unions to introspect and remove their shortcomings, if any.

He said the government's approach was one of finding solutions to labour disputes through tripartite proceedings. The unions were cooperating with such initiatives.

One issue which did not receive adequate attention in the public exchanges is the relationship between political parties and trade unions.

Many problems on the labour front can be traced to the parties' control over unions.
With each party setting up its own trade union, there is multiplicity of unions in all industries and institutions.

Inter-union rivalry often affects the working of institutions. To make things worse, parties sometimes use unions to further their political interests.

Although all trade union organisations subscribe to the "one industry, one union" formula in principle, they do not sincerely cooperate in its implementation.

Labour unrest is not a major problem in Kerala today. However, investors still tend to shy away because of the reputation for militancy, which the state's trade unions had acquired by resorting to measures involving physical harassment of management personnel at an earlier period.

An unsavoury practice that originated at that time, known as "nokkukooli" (which means looking- on wages), is still in vogue in areas where head-load workers have strong unions. It involves paying union members who simply look on while others work.

Last year, Pinarayi Vijayan condemned "nokkukooli" as an immoral practice. "Aren't there workers in our state who claim wages for just observing others work?" he asked rhetorically. "Are we not endorsing their demand? Why should we watch this plunder helplessly?"

A year later, "nokkukooli" still prevails.

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