How is it that almost all the leaders of the organized trade union movement in India belong to privileged classes. Interestingly the same lot also belong to the ‘higher castes’ in India.Is it a mere coincidence? or is it by design? Many would say, that is just a coincidence. While those who consider themselves a bit liberal and progressive might acknowledge it as a problem but will also be quick to highlight that it is not by design. Almost all the answers will not be rooted in the structure of caste system in India.
The question of leadership has been long debated and discussed among unions in India. The organized trade union movement have often had leaders coming from political parties itself, many without any concrete trade union experience. During the formation of trade unions in India, the leaders came out from the nationalist movement many of whom were foreign educated and aware of freedom and rights in other parts of the world. They saw trade union organizing as a strong tool to raise workers awareness and give impetus to the nationalist struggle. Soon after independence, the leaders formed political parties and contested elections and those who were part of the parties also continued to be the leaders of the unions too. The tradition continued ….!!!
Even among the left parties, who claim to be progressive, leaders belonging to lower castes and classes are seldom found. Even though we might find a few of them in the mid level leadership, there is almost a complete absence from the central leadership.
However, the new forms of trade unions, those emerging today, devoid of any larger party affiliation, choose to have leaders from among themselves. However, sometimes they do take outside leadership, either in a hope of getting more political power or to get better recognition. But essentially, they are increasingly choosing to move away from outside leadership. Whether these unions will have leaders from lower castes or lesser privileged background are to be seen.
More than often the trade union movement in India has shied away from the caste movement. They have to a great extent denied to recognize the caste identity and give larger importance to the class identity. Interestingly, the movement see the Caste and class as two separate categories and refuses to see the linkages between the two. Thus, tribes and Dalits see the organized labor movement as nothing but an extension of the social stratification and structures existing in the Indian society and rightly so, believes that most of their real issues will not be highlighted by the union movement. The trade union movement have proven till yet have proven them right. There is absolute silence on issues of caste related violence and discrimination from the labor movement. For instance, after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, I radically browsed through websites of the trade unions in India, hoping to see to discussion and support statements for the dalit movement. I was left disappointed. At the most, I saw two of the unions putting out mere condemning statements. However when it come to real action, they did nothing. They neither joined the movement nor raised any strong voices in favor of the movement. Many even highlighted that the focus of the trade unions is not to fight caste struggles but to merely highlight the economic interests of their members. This myopic view of unionism is precisely what continues many Dalits and tribal workers to stay away from trade unions. And they are perhaps right in doing so.