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Collective bargaining in the Global(ised) South

Indian trade unions need networks of activists all along the supply chain if they’re to successfully take on multinational corporations.

Trade union rally in India. ILO in Asia and the Pacific/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

My name is Mohan Mani. I graduated in engineering and business administration and worked as a manager and business consultant with the public and private sector in India from 1979 to 1991 – the last four years being divided between working for corporate interests and with small social organisations focussing on environmental degradation. I have worked with the Centre for Workers Management (CWM) since 1991, a small trade union resource centre in India created by several independent trade unions in the formal and informal sectors. I continue to be associated with CWM, while also being a Visiting Fellow with the Centre for Labour Studies at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU). 

Neil Howard (oD): What brought you to this struggle?

Mohan: I left my employment with the corporate sector because of growing disillusionment with the work and its purpose. My initial engagement at CWM was working with trade unions in sick companies to help prepare for their takeover by worker cooperatives. The political and legislative climate for worker initiatives declined with liberalisation, and I got more involved with the wider ambit of collective bargaining for trade unions, both in the organised and unorganised sectors. I should clarify here that I have always engaged with trade unions as a resource person, and never as an organiser or activist.

Neil: What are some of the major challenges you face in your work? 

Mohan: One challenge is to be able to communicate to trade union activists an understanding of their industry and employer from a business perspective. Unions are more used to understanding their struggles from a narrow ambit of immediate employment relations. This was why discussions around worker takeover in the nineties represented a substantial challenge, as that involved unions engaging with the workings of capital. Since then, with the neoliberal agenda having forced most unions into a defensive struggle, it is an effort for them to be able to again engage with understanding the details of capitalist action in controlling labour and influencing broader public discourse.

Another challenge is that unions in the present context are in a permanent crisis fighting mode. This is not always conducive to union learning or leadership development. At the same time, paradoxically, struggles also bring out some of the best understanding from a trade union perspective of which strategies work.

Challenges can be best met if trade unions are able to make linkages with other social organisations.

Neil: Are there new modes of organisation and advocacy that you think can be useful to explore?

Mohan: Unions today have to deal with several new challenges – more women in employment, new forms of employment that refuse workers’ legal recognition, issues of climate and environment that in the short run might run against the interest of workers’ rights. These challenges can be best met if trade unions are able to make linkages with other social organisations – movements of gender, caste and environment for instance in the Indian context. This is not so easy given the deep suspicion with which trade unions look at the ‘funded’ NGOs.

Neil: Currently, within western business and political circles, including the ILO, initiatives to improve supply chain governance are very popular. How, as an alternative to these mainstream efforts, do you think workers in the global south can claim a larger slice of supply chain produced value?

Mohan: From a trade union perspective I would understand your question as, ‘what are the forms of global regulation and covenants that help collective bargaining?’

It is important for trade unions organising along the supply chain to be able to network with international campaign organisations to learn more about supply chains and improve their collective bargaining ability. However, there is an issue of power and control. Very often campaigns prescribe solutions as a “one size fits all”. They also often seek to take leadership of their campaigns. This is also often true of the International Trade Union Confederation.

At the same time, unions on the ground would emphasise local conditions as strong determinants of bargaining strategy. They might also see externally-led campaigns as weakening the agency of unions to bargain with manufacturers and the state, as well as weakening their leverage with brands and global organisations. Unions in such contexts might be more interested in networks that bring together trade unions from different regions of the supply chain as equal partners in developing and leading the collective bargaining efforts. The difficulty in this is that networks cost money and often money is tied to control.

Very often campaigns prescribe solutions as a “one size fits all” … [but] unions on the ground would emphasise local conditions as strong determinants of bargaining strategy.

Neil: Some (myself included!) see universal basic income as part of the answer: what is your view on it?

I do not see the Universal Basic Income (UBI) as an answer in the Indian context.

First there is the fiscal question. What can (will) the government afford under the UBI? In a recent article in The Hindu, Dr. C Rangarajan, the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, analysed how providing UBI to even one member of each family to the extent of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) entitlement of Rs.20000 per annum would mean Rs.5000 billion, or 3.3% of the GDP.

This is the equivalent of around 12% of the current government spending. Where would the government get this money, given its twin imperatives of not increasing either direct taxes or the fiscal deficit? Surely the only pocket from which this could come is government spending on the social sector? That means further diluting government commitment and accountability to socialist objectives of universal basic education and health care, and to basic subsidies to the poorest sections of society. Given that government total spending on these sectors would amount to around 3.5% of the GDP, this might mean the implementation of the UBI would replace government social spending and, in one stroke, privatise most of the social sector. This would be a disaster.

Second, while schemes like the NREGS – an employment scheme – draw out labour from the economy, reduce underemployment, and set standards for rural wage, the UBI would do none of these. It would have no impact on the reserve army of labour. It would therefore in no way influence wages, or help improve bargaining power for workers.

About the authors

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

Mohan Mani works with the Centre for Workers Management in India and is a visiting fellow with the Centre for Labour Studies at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore, India.


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