It’s been raining all week in Melbourne. As summer’s heat is dampened, it’s easy to lose sight of all the good news about how people are fighting back against corporate power. Especially so because it goes largely unnoticed and unreported in the mainstream press. You might have missed it but something truly historic and monumental happened. On February 28, Indian workers across the entire nation staged the largest ever general strike – over 100 million workers stopped work, downed tools, and took to the streets.
General strikes are not unknown in India. But this one is different. This was the first time all trade union federations and constituent unions have put aside their deep political differences and endorsed a common action with a shared set of demands. This shared platform is grounded upon five-points: (1) the enforcement of all labour laws for workers, (2) the creation of universal social security, (3) an end to ongoing privatisation, (4) an end to contracting out at lower wages and conditions in the private sector, and (5) the extension of the minimum wage to all workers regardless of whether they are classed as employees or not. In short, some of the poorest workers in the world have had enough of yet more risk being pushed down on to them. While the strike only lasted 24 hours, Union leaders are already signalling further strike action is on the table.
There’s a fairly common meme doing the rounds that while 2011 saw some sort of fightback in terms of people power, especially with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, the long-term and foundational engine of people power, the trade union movement is on a steady downward trend. I would suggest that this is an inaccuracy with at least two causes. Firstly, it’s universalising an experience of a decline in union power in some developed economies (really the English speaking ones). Secondly, it’s a meme that suits the corporate agenda – your capacity to fight back is diminishing so just let us get on with the job of taking away your rights and making money out of your essential public services. But supposed ‘hard heads’ and ‘realists’ tell us that politics etc. is all about the numbers, so why don’t we have a look at the numbers.
Have a look at this list compiled in October 2010 of the largest strike waves in history by the New Unionism people:
- India 2010: 100,000,000
- India 2003: 50,000,000
- India 2005: 50,000,000
- Poland 1981: 13,000,000
- Italy 1968: 12,000,000
- France 1968: 11,000,000
- Romania 1989: 11,000,000
- Italy 2002: 10,000,000
- Spain 2010: 10,000,000
- India 2002: 2,000,000
Interestingly, at the time the list was compiled 6 out of 10 of the largest strike waves in history have occurred in the last decade. And what is really notable here is what is missing. Since the list has been compiled we’ve had the Arab Spring, with large scale general strikes in Tunisia and Egypt playing a critical role in the downfall of authoritarian regimes. Further, given the wildcat nature of much of the action, the list does not take into account the large strike waves that have swept through China’s manufacturing sector in the last few years. This helpful diagram from the same post gives some indication though of what is going on:
In short, the fight back is on, whether you’ve been paying attention or not. This increase in action has been matched by a demonstrable and significant increase in trade union membership and density globally. You might think that this is all well and good for those people in countries where more and more things are made, but the discourse has noticeably shifted in the United States since the Wisconsin stand. The #occupy movement appears to be coalescing around a 1 May General Strike (#m1gs). It might fizzle out into a great big nothing but you know what anything’s possible.