2019: The year of militant struggles

Working people, in India and around the globe strengthened the struggle for a better world in 2019. People struck work and registered their protest against exploitation of their labour as well as that of the nature, from climate change to austerity to government’s anti-worker policy, working people took the fight head on. From Asia to Middle East to Europe working people learned from each other’s resistance and advanced worker’s rights.

Countrywide General Strike called by 12 Central Trade Union Organisations (CTUOs) of India marked the beginning of workers struggle. Over 200 million workers participated in the strike over two days on 8 and 9 of January 2019 demanding withdrawal of the proposed labour codes, a stop to privatization, resuming the tripartite mechanism of Indian Labour Conference, ensuring of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Workers around Tunisia went on strike 17 January to demand higher pay in a standoff with a government struggling to reduce unemployment, poverty and social tensions. The International Monetary Fund has ‘urged’ the government to put a freeze on public sector salaries in exchanges for loans to the struggling economy. Unions want an end to salary freezes for Tunisia’s 600,000 public sector workers.

A national strike on 13 February paralyzed Belgium. All workers in public transport, trash collection, mail services and hospitals went on strike demanding early retirement provision, a minimum pension of EUR 1500 a month, an increase in pay in general as well as a push for a minimum wage of EUR 14 an hour. The other demands include equal pay for equal work and a strengthening of public services and better conditions for public service workers.

Labor unions went on strike in Argentina on 30 April, shutting down public transportation in Buenos Aires. Workers are protesting the austerity measures that President Mauricio Macri is implementing to comply with the terms of a record $56 billion credit line from the International Monetary Fund. The removal of government subsidies has led to significant increases in bus fares and utility bills. Despite a recession, Argentina’s inflation is now running at more than 55 percent per year.

A nationwide strike called by the trade unions in Brazil on 14 June against labour reform proposal of Bolsonaro brought public transport in many parts of the country to a standstill. About 45 million workers took part in the strike. 63 cities were affected by the stoppage, with more than 80 cities recording demonstrations. The proposal sets the end of retirement by time of contribution and implements a minimum age of 65 years for men and 62 for women. It destroys the social security system that guarantees assistance for workers and their families in episodes of illness, disability or widowhood.

Ferries and ships will remain docked on 24 September due to a 24-hour strike decided by the Seamen and Dockworkers Federations in Greece. The unions were demanding the withdrawal of the “development” law which among others includes also provisions that bring changes in the labour law, including their right of strike.

As protests against the government in Chile continued on 21 October, trade unions across the country called for a general strike to support demonstrators drawing attention to the nation’s high cost of living, inequality, and injustice. The movement began with high school students protesting subway fare hikes but spread across the country after a police crackdown on the teenagers drew widespread anger and outrage. 

In Italy, the “Black Friday” industrial action on 24 and 25 October impacted rail, ferry and airport services across Italy, including in key cities such as Rome, Florence, Naples, and Milan to call for higher wages and improved pension programmes. The unions were also protesting against the increasing surveillance on unions and union members and stifling the Right to Freedom of Association.

Unions and student groups in Colombia have taken to the streets for a third national strike in two weeks on 4 December piling more pressure on president, Iván Duque, and his proposed tax and pension reforms. The first of the strikes began on 21 November when hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of the cities across the country and brought it to a standstill. Strike organisers are also demanding the government reject a rise in the pension age and a cut to the minimum wage for young people.

Trade Unions in France have launched an open-ended strike on 5 December against the overhaul of the pension system by the Macron government. The proposal plans to increase the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and indexing pension to average earnings across an entire career which would effectively lower the average pension received by workers. It also aims at dissolving the 42 different retirement programs that currently exists.

Honorarium Workers

Workers who have been systematically denied their rights by terming them ‘honorarium’ or ‘scheme’ workers, volunteers etc., led indefatigable struggles across the country. It began with Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers in Bihar who came out in large numbers in January demanding a raise in wages and regularisation. Their 40-day long strike yielded results and soon spread to other parts of the country.  Over the course of the next 12 months honorarium workers struck work in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Punjab and Telangana among other states not only for securing better wages but against privatisation of the services and its outsourcing to NGOs.

Transport Workers

Transport workers in Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telengana spearheaded the fight against privatisation of public transport and the unreasonable price hike being imposed on people. Telengana State Road Transport Corporation workers led a successful strike for over 46-days with a 26 point charter of demands. Telengana government evoked Maintenance of Essential Services Act (MESA) to stifle the voice of the workers and hired contract workers from outside the state to quell the strike. But, the unrelenting strike of workers forced the Telengana government to agree to the demands of the workers and release Rs.1,000 crores to revamp the corporation.

Automobile Workers

Auto and auto ancillary companies in India used economic slowdown as an opportunity to terminate large number of contract workers and force them to work at slashed wages and forgo benefits. Contract workers in the industrial areas in Haryana decided to put up a strong fight against this. Over 1,500 workers went on strike demanding reinstatement of terminated workers and compensation to the tune of Rs.1 Lakh for each year of service for all casual workers.

Over 48,000 workers of General Motors went on a 33-day long strike under the banner of United Auto Workers, one of the longest strike in the history of USA. The workers returned to work only when the company yielded to all their demands. General Motors has agreed to create jobs in the country in phased manner over 3 years, put a policy in place to regularise contract and temporary workers and raise the wages of all workers.

European Union reprimanded technology companies for denying workers their rights by wrongly classifying them as ‘independent contractors’ and enacted a law to safeguard the rights of gig-economy workers. The newly promulgated legislation mandates that gig workers be paid minimum wages, overtime pay, leave wages and health benefits at par with permanent workers.

Climate Emergency brought trade unions across the globe together to demand immediate action from governments and corporations to mitigate the effects of their actions. Global Trade Union Federations issued a joint call to draw the attention of the people towards the climate crisis staring us in the face.

Workers Fight for Democracy: The mettle of workers in other parts of the world brought down governments and in some cases defended popularly elected government from corporate funded coup. Several tech workers refused to work for tech companies that were complicit in surveillance of immigrants and/or handled logistics for detention centres. In Italy, dock workers refused load cargo onto a Saudi ship carrying weapons, in protest against Riyadh’s war on Yemen.

The leaderless, decentralized but well-coordinated strike of working people, popularly known as the Umbrella protest, brought the government of China to its knees which had to roll back the controversial extradition bill.

Struggle goes on …

Despite the best of the efforts and the militant spirit, working people lost some ground. In India, government was successful in pushing its anti-worker agenda by easily promulgating the Code on Wages and introduced two more codes in the parliament which are yet to be discussed. The Code on Wages has diluted the existing labour laws and stripped labour inspectors of their investigative and executive powers. Hire & fire at will with no impunity has got government sanction in the name of Fixed Term Employment.

Right to Freedom of Association was ruthlessly crushed in technology companies which have become the largest employers over the years. Horrific stories of exploitation surfaced from companies like Apple, Google, Amazon and Uber among others. Google fired 5 employees in the name of breach of security protocol who were trying to advance workers’ rights across Google campuses in San Francisco area. Uber along with other delivery and transport companies like Lyft and Postmates has set up a fund of $90 million to fight against Californian law AB-5 which mandates wages and benefits for gig workers at par with other permanent workers in the state.

Let 2020 be a year of hope for working people across the world. Let us collectively fight for a just and equitable society for all.