Approximately 3,500 workers have been on strike since October 6, occupying the Maruti Suzuki auto plant, in Manesar, Haryana (about 30 miles south of New Delhi), the country's largest auto manufacturer. The workers are demanding, among other things, that Suzuki reinstate 44 employees (suspended for union activism), cut back on the use of "contract" workers (perma-temps), and allow Manesar employees to break away from the CITU (Centre for India Trade Unions) and AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress), and form their own union, the MSEU (Maruti Suzuki Employees Union).
Not only is India experiencing a serious labor glut, a weakened economy, 10% inflation, and anti-union resentments and jealousies, but the move to break away and form an independent union is opposed by the CITU and AITUC (both of which are affiliated with different wings of the Communist Party of India), as well as the Haryana state government. So these brave and committed Manesar workers are definitely facing an uphill battle. As of this writing, they've been out for 13 days.
Interestingly, as markedly different as India (where I used to live and work) is from the U.S. and Europe, these union guys (Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems) are behaving in much the same way the Longshoremen under the legendary Harry Bridges--and the Autoworkers under the equally legendary Walter Reuther--behaved back in the glory days of the American labor movement, which drives home the fact that working people the world over do, indeed, share a common bond.
This display of solidarity gives hope to those progressives and labor activists who have always maintained that the only way the world's working class is ever going to succeed is by mobilizing--that unless international workers get organized, they're going to continue to be marginalized, victimized, and picked off, group by group.
The mobilization argument goes like this: Every unit of cargo in every ship in every port in the world is handled by a worker. No CEO, banker or accountant ever touches it. If the world's dockworkers decide to join forces, all they have to do is make sure nothing gets moved. The media (are you listening Tom Friedman?) can gush all they like over the virtues of "globalization" and so-called "free trade," but until product is actually off-loaded and sold to a customer, it doesn't "exist."
Of course, the conventional counter-argument to this scenario is the recognition that it will never happen--that such disparate workforces as the South Koreans, the Indians, the Mexicans, the Brazilians, the Estonians, etc. will never join together, will never coalesce into a viable workers' collective. Why? Because there are simply too many obstacles--national, cultural, economic, and logistical. That's the counter-argument.
But when you see what's going on in Northern India, you're flabbergasted by the solidarity and sophistication of these union workers. Even though it's been many years since I left India (Punjab), I've been in contact (through their newsletter) with the union leadership in the "Gurgaon-Manesar corridor," the region that produces nearly all of India's cars and motorcycles.
These guys are the real deal. They're astonishing. The things they say and do--the plots they hatch, the tactics they use--are utterly reminiscent of worker activism in the U.S. during the early and mid-20th century. And because workers the world over speak the same "idiom," no matter where they live, there's no reason to think the workers in South Korea, Brazil, or Portugal are any less hip to the problem or any less committed to the cause.
And while it's true that international banks and corporations have their slimy tentacles in everything from foreign governments to foreign armies, the world's workers have two potent weapons at their disposal. One is the paralyzing effect of motivated, no-go dockworkers, and the other is the miraculous logistical potential of the Internet.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net