April 05, 2015

Class Struggle and Collective Bargaining Correlated

Swadesh Dev Roye

COLLECTIVE bargaining must not be viewed as a mere exercise for achievement of economic benefits in isolation from the perspective of class struggle. Collective bargaining must be understood as a measure of relief to economic exploitation and fillip to the fight for complete emancipation of the working class from capitalist class exploitation through path of class struggle.



Collective bargaining and for that matter day-to-day struggles on economic issues is certainly integral part of class struggle. It is necessary to have clear, correct and conscious understanding about trade union struggle on current economic issues linked with the ultimate aim of total emancipation of the working class by building a socialist state. Two types of misconceptions arise. One is that trade unions are excessively engaged with economic demands. The other argument is that trade unions should shun so-called "economism" and pursue protracted struggles for changing the socio-economic policies and the society based on exploitation of labour. None of these arguments is tenable since they tend to draw a Chinese wall between struggles on economic issues and struggles for changing policies.

Arguing in favour of conducting struggles for higher wages and better service conditions and denouncing abandonment of struggles on economic issues, Marx said: "By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they (working class) would certainly disqualify themselves for initiating any larger movement." The trade unions in their day-to-day struggles, Marx noted, are fighting to secure better terms on which the physical or mental labour power of the worker and the employee are sold to the employer. In the bargain, the employer tries to pay the lowest minimum to the employee but the later tries to get the highest possible. The bargain that follows is finally settled on such terms as are mutually acceptable.  It is this that forms the basis of collective bargaining between the employers on the one hand and the workers on the other.

The trade unions and other organisations fighting for the working people should, according to Marx, integrate their struggle for better terms on which the labour power is to be sold to the employer and struggle for the elimination of the system of wage slavery in which the owner of labour power is forced to sell his or her labour power to make a living.

Cautioning the working class against the danger of fighting only the effect and not the cause, it has been noted, "At the same time and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to them the ultimate working of these every day struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the cause of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady (Communist Manifesto)."

Legendary Communist leader of India Comrade EMS Namboodiripad in one of his booklets, titled “Collective Bargaining in the Struggle for People’s Democracy”, said, "The trade unions and other class-mass organisations are the primary weapons of class struggle. They, however, are not the only weapons of class struggle, which, in fact, has three faces – economic, political and theoretical." EMS continued, "The basis is the economic struggle which is the initial form in which the class finds its feet. Together with the fighting mass organisations of other sections of the toiling people, the trade unions fight the day-to-day economic battle, to which however are added two other forms – political and theoretical. Only by mastering all the three forms of class struggle can the working class lead other sections of the toiling people in the struggle against class oppression, defeating capitalism and its allies."

As we differentiate between struggle to realise immediate relief and fight for ultimate emancipation, there is need to differentiate between elementary trade union consciousness and socialist class consciousness. Simply understanding the antagonism with the employers and willingness to fight for merely economic gains is not socialist class-consciousness. Socialist class consciousness means when the worker realise that, along with fighting the employers, it has also to fight against capitalist state powers for establishment of socialist state. It is this class consciousness that progressive and militant trade union movement has to gradually create in the course of the trade union struggles.




"Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining are the bedrock on which social dialogue is built... Collective bargaining is the highest form of social dialogue." While engaging in the process of collective bargaining, the trade union movement must demonstrate the confidence that labour is supreme in production process, the difference between man and machine and for that matter the superiority of labour must be duly asserted.

Pointing out the necessity of difference in approach in dealing with men and machine, Joseph Stiglitz, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, noted, "The work environment is of no concern for steel; we do not care about steel's well being. Steel does not have to be motivated to work as an input." Enhancing the contribution of working women and men to productivity growth is an integral part of all development processes and goes hand-in-hand with measures to enable workers to organise and express their views in a manner that also provides employers with a mechanism of dialogue and negotiations. Further, collective bargaining and the wider process of social dialogue improve the availability of information to workers and employers (ILO Report 2004).

In this connection, it is extremely significant to appreciate the reality that with the emergence of sophisticated technology based production system, the workers are required to perform complex jobs, which require more skill and multi skills, more commitment and more sense of responsibility. This is distinctly a total departure from old imperatives when the workers had to only obey the orders mechanically. Management experts started to realise that "how labor performs and not just how much he is paid has become the critical issue. This is true specially of modern high-tech industrial operations... To compete effectively, firms need committed labor and not just cheap labor." The imperative of enhanced social dialogue must be comprehended in the above context.

Now, it is very important to note that democratic environment in the workplace cannot be realised unless there is a democratic polity in the given country. The role of working class in struggles for promoting and protecting the democratic polity of the given country needs to be understood in this context. Thus it has been aptly noted that, “Social dialogue will thrive where there is democracy, good governance and political will. Solidarity and fair redistribution of wealth are essential. Tripartite structures at national level need to be strengthened and their decisions should be binding (Geneva Conclusions 2005)."



In the current context of Scientific and Technological Revolution (STR), trade union movement must understand that social dialogue, for that matter collective bargaining, must be understood in much wider connotation than its mere literal and traditional sense. The need for enhanced social dialogue or for that matter effective and meaningful collective bargaining model must be understood closely linking with the present era marked with the advancement of technology and its impact on the process and practice of production and industrial relations.

In the present global economic environment, the necessity for enhanced interaction between trade unions and the management to reach further and finer details of the production and enterprise management cannot be dealt with only by traditional collective bargaining mechanism at enterprise or industry level. It must be expanded into much wider horizon, particularly keeping in mind the operational network of MNCs spreading over different continents. Major technological and commercial changes are altering the pattern of employment and the nature of work worldwide. The structure and membership of employers’ and workers’ organisations reflect these patterns and change with them, albeit more slowly.  Concrete evidence is emerging confirming that freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining can contribute to improving efficient industrial operations.





Out of the eight ILO Conventions that are referred to as ‘Core Conventions’, one is Convention 87 -- Freedom of Association and Protection of Right to Organise, and another is Convention 98 -- Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. It may not be exaggeration to say that these two rights are two pillars of trade union movement. And strengthening these two is the third inter connecting pillar – Right to Strike. Outlining the immense importance of these fundamental Conventions, the Global Report submitted to the 97th session of the ILC by the then Director General of ILO noted: "These enabling rights make it possible to promote and realize decent conditions at work. Strong and independent workers’ …organizations and the effective realization of right to engage in collective bargaining are major tools for engagement between employers’ and workers’ organizations to address economic and social concerns. It can strengthen weak voices and reduce poverty and social disadvantage. The exercise of these rights has a major impact on work and living conditions."

Although there is no explicit ILO Convention on the Right to Strike, there is mention about Right to strike in Convention No. 105 (1957) -- The Abolition of Forced Labour, prohibiting the use of forced or compulsory labour "as a punishment for having participated in strikes" and Recommendation No. 92. (1951) -- Voluntary Conciliation and Arbitration Recommendation, stating that no provision it contains which "may be interpreted in limiting, in any way whatsoever, the right to strike." Apart from that, there are ILO adopted resolutions and also specific observations of the Committee on Freedom of Association (since 1952) and the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (since 1959) established by the ILO Governing Body which have emphasised recognition of the right to strike in member states.

In the context of ILO Convention No. 87 and Convention No. 98, it is observed that without the right to strike, the right to collective bargaining is bound to lose its effectiveness in achieving decent outcome from collective bargaining. An expert has opined, "The right to strike is the logical corollary of the effective realization of the right to collective bargaining. If it does not exist, bargaining… becomes a dead letter." Shockingly despite being the founder member of ILO, India is continuously refusing to ratify these two core Conventions.




A frontal attack on the right to organise and the right to collective bargaining has been continuously intensified in India under the policies of capitalist globalisation. In line with its pro-rich and anti-people economic policy measures, the government of the day has embarked on an aggressive initiative to virtually erase labour laws.

A glaring instance can be traced in the totally negative attitude of the government in the functioning of the tripartite bodies in the country. There are 36 statutory/advisory tripartite committees including the Indian Labour Conference (ILC) and the Standing Labour Committee (SLC) under the Ministry of Labour. The government has deliberately made these committees ineffective and defunct. While the meetings of these committees are not convened regularly, many of them are not meeting at all. The result is that important issues of the workers, which are expected to be addressed by these committees, are continuously remaining unresolved and the government has resorted to unilateralism. With the attitude of the Government of India in the matter of tripartism being so dismal as noted above, it is obvious that the country’s record on collective bargaining is very poor. In the matter of industrial relations dictation is continuously replacing dialogue.





The Narendra Modi-led NDA government, soon after coming to power at the Centre, has initiated move in abnormal haste to amend all important labour laws in favour of the employers. Several state governments have also initiated such measures. Such anti-labour steps were apprehended as the big business and corporate entities who have spent huge funds for the election campaign to see that a Modi-led government is installed at the Centre are leaving no stone unturned to ensure hefty returns on their investment in poll campaign.

These amendments will result in serious negative impact on the working conditions including trade union rights of the workers. It is unfortunate that despite assurance given by the Labour Minister that Central Trade Unions will be consulted, disastrous amendments in labour laws are being pushed through without any meaningful consultations with the unions. In essence, all amendments in the labour laws, being pushed through both by the Centre and the BJP government in Rajasthan, are aimed at empowering the employers to retrench/lay off workers or declare closure/shut down at will and also resort to mass scale contractorisation. These are also designed to drag out more than seventy per cent of the industrial and service establishments in the country and their workers out of the purview of almost all labour laws, thereby allowing the employers a free hand to further squeeze and exploit the workers.





In the period since the World War II (better known as Keynesian era), the right to collective bargaining on matters of economic and other service conditions witnessed appreciable achievement. As a result of workers struggles, collective bargaining and freedom of association were recognised as basic rights and many countries witnessed institutionalised collective bargaining by framing laws and creating institutions.

However, with the introduction of neo-liberal doctrine and the onset of cut-throat competitive market driven economic regimes, barbaric attacks on the working class have been mounted by the capitalist class under the plea of cost cutting. And with the financial meltdown and aggravating systemic crisis of capitalism manifested in the economies of capitalist countries, all-round attack on trade union rights has been intensified ostensibly to pass the burden of the economic crisis on to the shoulders of the working class and, in the process, the right to trade union and the right to collective bargaining have become the worst victim. Casualisation of employment, closure of factories/establishments, retrenchment of regular workers, no recruitment of regular workers, huge and horrific contractorisation and simultaneously swelling the rank of unemployed creating huge army of surplus labour are putting the trade union movement in greatly challenging condition in the matter of collective bargaining. Workers are attacked with double-edged sword -- no right to negotiate and no right to agitate. The general trend has been not to raise wage levels, but to introduce cuts.



The working class all over the world is confronting all-round onslaughts. The real wage is going down, the share of wages in value added to production is sliding, living standard is going down. Social security measures are being dismantled. Labour legislations protecting employment have been replaced by laws that enhance the arbitrary power of employers to fire workers, reduce compensation for firing and hire temporary and casual labour.

Precisely under the policies of the finance capital-driven globalisation the working class has been facing barbarous onslaught from the big businesses, both domestic and overseas. Cases of trade union busting and attack on trade union rights are increasing in the developing countries, which are destination of choice for MNCs. In such a situation, the right to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining must be closely linked to intense class struggle.