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Today's India Revives Memories of American Labor's Glory Days

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The union stories that are coming out of the huge Maruti Suzuki auto plant in Manesar, Haryana (about 30 miles south of New Delhi) fall into the classic "good news-bad news" categories.

First, the bad news: Approximately 3,500 workers have been on strike since October 6, occupying the Maruti Suzuki plant, demanding, among other things, that the company reinstate 44 workers (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). This is a gross simplification of what's happening in Manesar, but it's accurate.

The aforementioned is "bad" because India is experiencing a labor glut, a weakened economy, 10% inflation, anti-union resentments and jealousies, and because the CITU and AITUC (both of which are affiliated with the CPI, the Communist Party of India) have a complicated relationship with the Indian government -- which is to say they are aligned with both the Haryana state government and Indian federal government. The Manesar workers are definitely up against it.

Now the good news: as markedly different as India (where I used to live and work) is from the U.S. and Europe, these union guys (Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims) are behaving in much the same way the longshoremen under Harry Bridges -- and the autoworkers under 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 news is "good" because it gives hope to those 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.

Their 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 decided to join forces, all they'd have to do is make sure nothing got 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." That's the mobilization argument.

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, coalesce, into a viable workers' collective. There are simply too many obstacles -- national, cultural, economic, and purely logistical. In a nutshell, 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 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. 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 .