136 years after the struggles and sacrifices of the heroes martyred at Chicago’s Haymarket for the 8-hour working day, the majority of workers in our country and for many across the world the 8-hour limit for a working day is yet to be won.
With the success of each working class struggle, with every new won right capital ‘reforms’ and recalibrates to put in place new methods of exploitation and new mechanisms of attacking the working class to turn the clock back to change the balance of force between labour and capital.
We are at that conjecture in the struggle between the working class and capital when capital has captured a historically unprecedented share of national income across the world, with no exception, in country after country. Capital has achieved this through three means – by deregulation of the economy and the restructuring of global production, taking work out of the traditional workplace and altering the employer-employee relationship with the help of new technology and of course through the legislative route by writing down worker rights. In much of the world this aggression of capital resulting in extreme exploitation of workers has contributed to or even brought about extreme right wing and authoritarian regimes.
In our day-to-day lives this shift manifests itself with the rising levels of unemployment, falling wages – a decline in real wages for all but even a fall in nominal wages for many – long working hours, low if any social security benefits including the core benefits of access to healthcare and pensions, no pay for the weekly rest day, vacations or even sickness, no employment security and unhealthy and unsafe workplaces.
More starkly it is symbolised by the egregious inequality between the capitalist class and the upper middle class versus the working class – visible inequality in both income and wealth coexisting in seeming harmony. It is this inequality that is poisoning society.
The coronavirus aggravated this inequality. The rich, ensconced in comfort ‘worked from home’ protected by workers at the frontline of all forms of human activity – health workers, municipal workers, food and agriculture workers, transport workers, retail and delivery workers, workers in factories manufacturing essentials like medicines, clothes, electricity generation and distribution workers or those that performed desk jobs worked from their cramped living spaces as their children struggled to get an ‘online’ education in the same space turning out to be a living hell especially for woman who worked even longer hours. Literally every section of the manual worker was out there unprotected and un-cared for in a two tier economic and social system protecting the more advantaged and better off from the pandemic.
These divisions have come to be displayed in our country in the most brazen way. Over the last two years, workers were laid-off during the lockdown and when establishments reopened they were replaced by new workers, pandemic wages have been paid partially or not at all, many work at wages lower than they earned before the pandemic, as factories reopened the scale of fatal accidents has been unprecedented, minimum wages have not been revised or are not being paid, a weekly rest day or vacation pay have become a thing of the past for many who had the benefit. How much worse it is for the average working person is incalculable.
In the midst of this grim situation government legislated ‘labour reform’ under the cover of the pandemic in the name of the four Labour Codes. The Labour Codes mean legislative sanction for lower wages, even below the minimum wage in the form of a floor wage. Fewer restrictions on working hours and limits on overtime, next to no regulation of irregular employment in the form of fixed term contracts and weakening of the responsibility of the principal employer in the case of contract labour.
The core of the attack of the labour codes lies on workers’ Rights to Freedom of Association and collective bargaining. The codes make it difficult to form, join or sustain legally recognised trade unions and outlaws industrial action including virtually banning strikes.
The legislative change on trade union rights is the principal legislative attack on democratic rights within the country. It places a clear limitation on the democratic right to differ, disagree and voice that through a protest. It draws a clear line on workplace democracy and therefore on economic democracy. This is an exercise to impose legal limits to workers’ rights in opposition to the privilege and prerogative of the employers.
This is the starting point of legally separating the rights of ruled as being subservient to the rights of the ruler, the place in society of the poor over the sweeping impunity of the rich.
No society that is faced with the scale of inequality that we are faced with today can survive as a peaceable and democratic society. This scale of inequality can only lead to resentment, hatred and division. Capitalism and the extreme right wing that it throws up thrive in a society with division, a division that permeates into the working class and divides it. Today there is a division in every sphere of social life, dividing people by community, religion, caste, race, region, language, food choices, by the oldest division of all by gender, and by income and wealth. Economic inequality has been the grist in the mill for resentment and hatred. Capitalism and the extreme right feed off each other and together divide society as they undermine democracy in economic, social and political life.
The search for economic supremacy has led to an imperialist hegemony dividing the world between north and south and between east and west. These divisions are fodder to ultra-nationalism and xenophobia. We are faced with such wars at this time even as imperialist powers expand their hegemony in order to dominate the global economy for the few at the cost of innocent lives and destruction of whole countries. These divisions place the very existence of our planet in peril. Our workplaces, our families, our communities, our society, our country, our planet cannot go forward divided by greed, by resentment, by hatred, by patriarchy, by bigotry, by xenophobia.
Winning a just share of the national income that allows for acceptable living standards for every working person will not happen in a divided society. Social justice will not prevail in a undemocratic society. Peace will not prevail in an imperialist world.
The fight against division, the fight against authoritarianism, the fight against imperialism is a fight of the working class and therefore a task the trade union must address itself to.
It must be our resolve to unite workers in every workplace we unionise be it permanent workers or contract workers, blue collar workers or white collar workers, skilled workers or unskilled workers, manual workers or desk workers, resident workers or migrant workers, female workers or male workers, a worker from an advantaged community or a worker from a discriminated caste, a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and a Christian worker. And we must bring every worker into the fold of the union from workplaces hitherto untouched.
This is how the trade union can turn the tide. This is how the trade union can build a better, just and egalitarian world that forces no one to work more than 8 hours a day and six days a week and still earn a just wage.
Long Live Working Class Unity! Long Live International Working Class Solidarity!
May Day Zindabad ! Inquilab Zindabad !