Thursday, November 10, 2011

India’s More Perfect Union

NEW DELHI — This summer, Maruti Suzuki, the largest car manufacturer in India, geared up to release the newest model of its bestselling car, the Suzuki Swift, only to find that its production lines had slowed to a crawl.

Between June 4 and Oct. 14, the company’s newest plant on the outskirts of Delhi experienced 21 days of worker sit-ins, a 33-day lock-out during which plant managers tried to run the place with outside workers and prolonged negotiations between a cautious, middle-aged management team and a young and agile media-savvy workforce.

By the end of October, the financial implications were clear: Maruti Suzuki posted a 60 percent fall in second-quarter profits. The social implications, though harder to quantify, point to a new direction for India’s faltering trade unions.

The protests attracted considerable press coverage. Reports highlighted taxing working conditions. Maruti employees churn out a car every 50 seconds for eight hours at a stretch, with only two 7.5-minute toilet breaks and a 30-minute pause for lunch. They are discouraged from taking any leave. Their grievances are routinely ignored. Supervisors are allegedly violent.

Earlier this month, the national dailies were reporting that the movement’s 30 leaders had taken severance packages of 1.6 million rupees ($32,000) to call off the strike. The workers appeared to have been betrayed by their leaders.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Although India’s Constitution guarantees workers’ right to form unions, India’s trade-union movement has been in decline since efforts to liberalize the economy began in 1992. Historically unionized sectors like the textile industry had already undergone turbulent reorganizations in the 1980s; the trend accelerated postliberalization as the state became less inclined to intervene in labor disputes. Since then, permanent employees have often been laid off in favor of contract workers. Union leaders have been fired, bought out, intimidated or, sometimes, assassinated.

The protests at Maruti seem to be part of the same pattern of decline. But they may in fact mark the rise of a new, nimbler politics of protest — and just as the government is announcing a new national policy to create 100 million manufacturing jobs over the next ten years.

Last month, an activist advising the Maruti workers told me that factory managers tend to prefer unions with strong leaders. “At least there is someone to negotiate with,” he said. Strong leaders can make their followers stick to agreements. And once they are removed, the struggle tends to fizzle out.

Except that by this past Tuesday, less than a week after reports that Maruti had bought out the strike’s so-called 30 instigators, a new group of leaders had already emerged and was making nearly identical demands. In other words, the corps of Maruti protesters hasn’t been anointing leaders so much as appointing spokespersons, and it’s ready to replace them when they go off message. And when leaders are treated as this fungible, the group at large becomes far more resilient.

These workers are more adaptable than the earlier generations in other ways, too. Many of the Maruti protesters are the first in their families to have left farms for factories. Before securing permanent employment, most once were contract workers, and this experience of economic insecurity has helped them build unique alliances with the contract workers of today, a group largely ignored by traditional trade unions.

The Maruti strikers have learned to formulate their strategies in secret and coordinate actions such as sit-ins via text messages. They exhibit a keen sense of timing. The October occupation was scheduled to begin a week before local elections nearby. “In the past, management would simply send the police to attack the workers,” a Maruti employee explained outside the plant a couple of weeks ago. “But we figured that no one would risk sending in the police during elections.” They have embraced a politics of subversion, not confrontation.

These tactics are already inspiring others. On Wednesday, workers at Suzuki Powertrain, a sister concern that makes diesel engines, called for a “go-slow” protest to demand better wages and working conditions for contract workers.

Maruti’s management team is left shaking its head. “We can’t understand it,” a senior manager at the Delhi plant told me late last month. “I think we have failed to explain the logic of our actions to our workers. The older workers have visited Suzuki plants in Japan,” he added. “They understand why the company works in a certain way — why we have 7.5-minute toilet breaks.”

Aman Sethi covers conflict, mining and industrialization in central India for The Hindu.

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