The Practical and Impractical

Faridabad Majdoor Samachar, September 2012
(Translated from Hindi)

Practicality in these Times:

* Waking up a three/four/five-year-old at 5/6/7’o clock in the morning. Forcing the child to clear its bowels when neither body nor soul is willing. Forcing the child eat even if s/he is unwilling. Washing the sleepy child’s face. Forcing the unwilling child into a uniform. To be practical, parents suppress their own desires and their child’s childhood. In order to keep them practical, schools teach children how to sit still – they destroy childhood.

* To be practical in our times one has to accept a habitation made of cement, steel and paint. Practicality demands roads outside and electricity within. Children long for mud and sand. They long to run and jump around.  To bring up a child properly, 50 people of varying ages are required but only one or two or three or four are available. So practicality requires a child be checked at each step, at all times. Practicality is transforming each child into a bomb.

* For a bright future practicality requires the child be sent to school. A good school is one whose students fetch a good price on the market. A good school is an expensive school. Practicality compels us to choose between a good and a not-so-good school. Whether it be a better or a worse school, post-school tuitions are an accepted practice. The child is able to spend little time with grandparents. It is in the nature of schools to break down relations between generations. Practicality requires the mushrooming of old-age homes, and the elderly waiting to meet their death.

* A society characterised by hierarchy, market and money, and wage-slavery requires everybody to be both cunning and intelligent. Especially when one is young, practicality requires the ability to sell oneself –to hide anger behind an ever smiling face. The intense and turbulent reality of market and money shapes the practicality of everyday relations. To live up to our images, constantly trying to hide our reality produces shallow, superficial, temporary relationships.

Can there be a practice of life different from such a practical life of hierarchical, commericalised, monetised, wage-labour-based society?

# Straight-forward, simple, truthful behaviour is impractical in our times. Deep, long-term relationships are today impractical. What one does to become a wage-worker, to remain a wage-worker is practical; but not to have any wage-worker, i.e. end of wage-slavery is impractical. To challenge hierarchy, market-and-money, and wage-slavery is definitely impractical; however, it is an expression of the force, of life itself. The growing impracticalities throughout the world today are increasingly challenging the practicalities. As an example, let us take a look at a beautiful expression of impracticality in the activities of the Maruti Suzuki workers from June 2011 to July 18, 2012:

* On June 4, 2011, the workers of the A & B shifts got together to remove the company’s and the state’s control over the factory. Forming networks and chains the workers established their own control. Production stopped, and permanent workers, trainees, apprentices, contract workers associated among themselves with a new intensity. The company got cold feet and the government stood aghast at the workers’ impracticality. The practical people in support of the company and the state were joined by the pro-workers’ practical people to call for normalising the situation. The normal situation meant resuming production, making cars. To be practical means exchange, measurement and bargaining. The workers continued to remain impractical; they remained so for 13 days. The workers were treading an unfamiliar path. The practical side became dominant because this unfamiliar path could not acquire a definite form and production restarted in the factory after the negotiations.

* The management is very practical, while among workers the presence of impracticality is always felt. Standing up for contract workers, the permanent workers gave another proof of their impracticality in the month of July. The company made preparations and wove a net to force practicality down the workers’ throats. They surreptitiously brought new recruits. On the night of August 28, which was a Sunday, 400 policemen and management staff were sent in to fire the brahmastra of expulsion, suspension and signing of a good-conduct bond on the workers who would turn up the next morning. Workers were outside the factory. The police, management staff and new workers were inside. If, on the one hand, there were attempts to restart production in the factory, on the other, the association between permanent workers, contract workers, trainees and apprentices was strengthened. Three thousand workers organised themselves. Whenever the impracticality of workers manifests itself, pro-worker, yet practical, people and organisations become hyperactive, trying to teach workers practicality. The Company was overconfident because it was playing a tactic that has been tested many times in Mumbai, Faridabad, Gurgaon, etc. Remaining limited to the Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar was weakening them, yet the young workers seemed capable of prolonging the conflict for quite some time – this once again brought in the practical people from both sides to exert their pressure. In order to make workers relearn the lessons of practicality, a new agreement was signed on September 30.

* The new workers recruited in the month of September continued to remain in the factory. After the agreement, all workers (permanent, trainee and apprentice), save the 44 expelled, re-entered the factory, but 1,200-1,500 contract workers were not allowed inside by the company. The management was ready to break the networks that had formed among workers and to replicate a strategy that had worked successfully in 2005 in the Honda Motorcycle and Scooters Company – the permanent, trainee and contract workers had waged a united struggle in Honda, yet the management took back the permanent workers, but retrenched all the existing contract workers, employing new ones in their place, and stopped keeping trainees altogether.

* The impracticality of the workers reasserted itself on October 7. Including the Maruti Suzuki plants, workers liberated 11 factories in the Industrial Model Town of Manesar from the control of the management and the state. The forces of practicality pushed themselves in through all kinds of measures and on October 8, workers loosened their control over seven factories, which the companies recaptured. October 8 onwards, with the struggle limited now to four factories of the Suzuki group, the workers’ control started acceding to practicality. Yet in the words of a worker: “The time we spent in the Maruti Suzuki factory between October 7 and 14 was very good. No stress regarding work or commuting to work. No anxiety to catch a bus. No worries about cooking. No more trouble about when to eat our meals. No need to count days in the week or to keep track of the date. There were many intimate conversations. We had never been as close to each other as we came in those seven days.”

* The practicality of the state and management took a step back and made concessions to the impracticality of the workers. A third agreement was signed on October 19. Contract workers returned to the factory. And also, the time for assembling a car was increased from 45 seconds to a minute.

* Practicality started designing a new ploy. Three workers of Suzuki Powertrain had played a key role in forming links with the workers of Maruti Suzuki Manesar in the month of October. Because these three workers had taken a strong stand against the state and the company, and the October 19 Maruti Suzuki agreements, they had to be sidelined to clinch the agreement in Powertrain on October 21. The three protesting workers were suspended, and in order to establish the ones who had put down their signatures, a three-year agreement was reached between the Powertrain management and the union. Regaining confidence in their control, the management finally fired these three workers on April 17, 2012, while those who were involved in the agreements maintained order among the workers. Then the bosses decided to merge Suzuki Powertrain and the Maruti Suzuki companies – this was done in order to weaken the rebellious workers. By keeping those who were brought into the factory in September 2011 and by starting a B-plant, the bosses had by now weakened the strength of these workers. By registering and recognising the union, the management had already made a solid arrangement to create a rift between the permanent and other workers. The bosses were on the way to re-establish practicality among workers by provoking and fomenting managed explosions.

* Of course, the concessions gave some reliefs too, but nothing much really changed in their lives; however, Maruti Suzuki Manesar workers had the determination to change their lives, make them better.   Despite concessions on the company’s part, lives of Maruti Suzuki Manesar workers remained lives of workers, unbearable as ever. And so on July 18, 2012, the workers targeted two symbols of the status quo – the factory and its management.

* The impracticality of past generations brought many significant junctures in the social process. If one were to speak of workers, then in 1871, in France, workers established the Paris Commune – the army, police and judiciary were dissolved, the jails were torn down, and the workers were up in arms. The supporters of hierarchy, market-and-money, and wage-slavery did destroy the Paris Commune by massacring thousands of workers, yet the Paris Commune continues to show the way today. In 1905, in Russia, impractical workers did step forward on the path shown by the Paris Commune by constituting the Soviets, and suffered much violence. The Soviets emerged once again in 1917. In October 1917, dissolving the army, the police, the courts and the jails, general workers took up arms and the Soviets became the harbingers of a new society. But due to adverse conditions, practicality reared its head once again and a standing army by the name of the “Red Army” was re-established in 1918. The establishment of an army and an increase in its strength implied a decline in the power of the workers’ soviets. Instead of being destroyed altogether, the Soviets were made powerless; they existed as a smokescreen that contributed to the maintenance of hierarchy, market-and-money and the system of wages.

We find ourselves increasingly being surrounded by circumstances similar to those of July 18 at Maruti Suzuki Manesar. Such a situation is increasingly being obtained to the world over. Can there be anything more satisfying for us in our struggle against hierarchy, market-and-money and wage-slavery, and for a new social order? We are face to face with destruction, the end, and a new beginning – can there be a better present, a better near future for humanity?

Maruti: A moment in workers’ self-organisation in India

Pratyush Chandra

The Chairman of Maruti Suzuki, R.C. Bhargava, himself described the July 18 incident as a “class attack”. The management, which learnt from the Japanese how to instrumentalise unions as tools to educate and regulate workers in work discipline, are now learning a new lesson from their own Manesar workers – they want their own voice, which is in their control not in the control of the masters, whosoever they may be. They will tear away every interface if that obstructs their organic collectivity to emerge – then they will speak in their own voice, which will definitely be harsh and brutal, as it will be organic to the very core. They will speak in their own language, without any creative translation into a language that has systemic legitimacy.

The lesson that the Indian corporate sector learnt from the Japanese is graphically retold by Bhargava himself in his recent book, The Maruti Story. It is not just revolutionaries who called trade unions a school, even the Maruti management found them to be so – a necessary means for “continuous training of workers…if their attitude towards work, the company and its management was to be changed…. We understood the logic of their [the Japanese] system and so wanted to completely reverse the traditional culture and bring about a mutually beneficial relationship between workers, the union and the management.”(302) So the management “promoted a trade union at Maruti, before political parties and outsiders could establish”. The founder-Chairman of Maruti Udyog, V Krishnamurthy, “brought” even a union leader from BHEL. “The importance of the union was highlighted by ensuring that the president and general secretary of the union were seated on the dais at every Maruti function. They would, along with the top management of Maruti, receive all VVIP guests and garland them.”

Time and again, the Maruti workers have tried to build their unity beyond promoted, brought, bought unionism and its ritualism. Each time such unity has been institutionalised into a legal form, the management has either destroyed or bought it over, and promoted enterprise unionism. Since the last year, however, things have drastically changed. Maruti workers have understood the meaning of legitimacy, its functions and limits. This remarkable understanding is evident in what a Maruti worker expressed just after the worker-leaders were ‘bought’ and sidelined in 2011:

“Sahibs don’t understand the situation…. In these past few months, a handful of workers had risen to the position where they could control the workers…. By dismissing exactly those men, the management has thrown away a valuable tool.” (Aman Sethi, “Down and out on India’s shop floor”, The Hindu, July 29, 2012)

And again after the July 18 incident, in an interview recorded by a mainline news channel, a worker said:

“Our workers did not have faith in the union body. They were apprehensive about the union cheating them again…. [Yet they wanted that] the management should at least value and listen to the union body.” (NDTV, August 11, 2012)

They understood the limits and dangers of legality and representation, and the need to have extra-legal vigilance of their institutionalised body. Something the workers ensured by evolving shop-floor networks of line and departmental coordinators, and by frequent assertion of the general body. While the representative trade union, in accordance with the legal regulations and norms, included only the permanent workers, this organisational form was organic to the daily shop-floor coexistence of all segments of workers.

Defying every attempt to fragment and subalternise their collective consciousness, the Maruti workers forged a youthful (in a literal sense) unity among themselves beyond all kinds of regulatory and identitarian divides (including the caste and regional), demonstrating their uselessness, except for the purpose of regulating workers in favour of capital. This unity was remarkably visible during the 2011 strikes. They defied every agreement and manipulation from above that tried to break that unity, and they struck three times against them, and surprised the unions and their legitimate sense. Hence, even the need to form a sectionalist union (of permanent workers) – which the legalese and the prevailing industrial political culture compelled them to adopt for negotiations with the management – was continuously overwhelmed by the unity below that questioned the very basis for such unionist sectarianism and economism.

It was this collectivity that could not be destroyed by the management’s union busting, and it did form another union. But its easy registration and semi-recognition by the management made the workers evermore apprehensive, and they enforced constant vigilance on the representatives. However, the management misconstrued this collective apprehension as a distance between the general workers and the union, not understanding that its collective nature in fact tightens the workers’ grip over the union leadership. It is unlike the generalised yet fragmented weariness that leads to helplessness. The management miscalculated and thought its intransigence in dealing with the union will increase the distance and delegitimise the union in the eyes of the general workers. It could not anticipate that such an act was thinning the legal shield that protected it. And, so, what could have passed for the time being as another “class action” got transformed into a “class attack”, as Bhargava calls it. The management should not complain that it didn’t get the warning – workers themselves gave out sufficient signals.

However, one must grant that not just the Maruti management, the suddenness of the July 18 incident at Maruti astounded everybody – where was this anger among workers residing for the past one year? Nothing similar happened during the remarkable “non-violent” strikes in 2011. And prior to the incident nothing happened that could give a hint towards it. Therefore, a plethora of explanations and conspiracy theories has come up.

Interestingly, we can easily identify a basic logic behind the catalogue of ex-, post-facto explanations that various institutional and non-institutional bodies – the state, management, media, unions and radicals – are putting forward. A central thesis runs through all of them, which is that workers as a mass cannot have any coherent plan. Hence, those who see incoherence in the incident, either blame it on reactive spontaneity in the absence of (correct) leaders (radicals), or mob-like nature of the workers action (media elites). For many of these responses, there is some kind of pre-planning that must have come from outside (from Maoists/political unions, as the state and management maintain, or provocation from the side of management through their intransigence or by employing ‘bouncers’, as all the pro-workers institutions or groups opine). However, in the end no one is willing to concede general workers a coherent critical subjectivity that reasons them into taking things (read law) into their own hands, because for all the groups mentioned above, a rational subjectivity can emerge only through the repression of the inner nature (in the present case that of the mass).

All that even the pro-worker forces are willing to grant, and at most, is if the workers were accomplices in the July 18 incident, they were merely reacting to something the management wrongfully did that day (by calling the bouncers or by not resolving the issue of the suspension of a fellow worker) or have been doing lately (by not going for a speedy wage settlement or union recognition). All these self-actions by the workers are arrogantly clubbed together as spontaneity or spontaneous actions, which are generally considered to be reactive, and can have a political meaning only if harnessed by the organised political forces. It is interesting to note how these competitive forces, doing organisational shopkeeping, or at least advertising, among workers, have found workers’ direct actions erratic and even anarchic. They find the workers sensible and tractable only in those moments when they are led or when the consciousness of defeat and victimhood dawns over the workers – when “victim” workers are looking for respite and rights, and for experts who can represent them in the courts of law and negotiations.

These so-called political forces have a notion of politics that comes directly from the civics classes of the (post)modern schools that define politics in terms of institutions (or tangible forms of organisation) and their activities. Even the movements must be located among these activities, or else they are apolitical and even mere riots. Class struggle is reduced to the interplay of these institutions, ideologies and activities. They are unable to locate this representative interplay and their own activity as (re)originating in a continuous class struggle between capital and labour – in the daily imposition and subversion of the process by which capital acquires and incorporates living labour as merely an agency for its self-valorization. They are unable to see that recent unrests on the labour front in India have been largely political – i.e., they are related to a constant recomposition of class collectivity that short-circuits the re-segmentation of labour – the ever real-ising subsumption of labour by capital. In other words, this collective urge is not simply a wont to vocalise the aggregate demands of individual or sectional workers, as in a demand charter. Rather, it relates to their concern to transcend the segmentation on which the capitalist industrial polity thrives – the division between permanent, contractual, casual and interns. It is a marvelous experience to hear from general workers about these real divisions made on false premises. It is this open vocalisation that constitutes workers politics today. The Maruti workers’ struggle clearly is a finest example in this regard.

In one of the discussions that we had with workers in other industrial regions about the Maruti ‘violence’, a worker expressed how they work for the fear of the daily hunger and for feeding their family. Otherwise who would like to work under iron discipline and invisible eyes constantly watching over you, reprimanding you for every small mistake? Workers continuously look for every small opportunity that would enable them to dodge and abuse this system of surveillance.

The (more-or-less) open violence of primitive accumulation that joins the fate of labour to capital readies it for the inherent violence in the active imposition of work that capital as social power with its various apparatuses seeks to ensure. There is nothing reactive about workers’ actions to break out of this panoptic circuit which is now expanded throughout the society. The diverse immediate forms that these actions take are meant to surprise capital.

It is not the question of defeat or success of these forms or agitations that should concern us. In fact, our every success makes our actions predictable, increasing the reproductive resilience of the hegemonic system. Who knew this fact better than Karl Marx? He stressed on the need to watch out for opportunities to stage sudden radical leaps away from the guerrilla forms of daily resistance against the encroachments of capital, or else workers will be evermore entrenched within the system of wage slavery despite – and because of – frequent achievements in their everyday negotiations with capital. Those radicals suffer from the same Second International reformism and co-option politics, of which they accuse everybody, when they visualise class maturation as a linear succession of successes and achievements, not in the increased activity of the working class to catch capital off-guard by its volatile, yet collective thrust.

Today, the dynamism of this workers politics poses a crisis not just for capitalist strategies but also for itself as it constantly outmodes its own forms. The significance of the Maruti struggle and the July 18th incident lies in this process – they demonstrate the increasing inability of the legal regulatory mechanisms and existing political forms to ensure “industrial peace”. This means:

1) For capital, every crisis is an opportunity to restructure labour relations for its own advantage. Many times, it carefully shapes an industrial conflict to seek such restructuring. The recent conflicts have shown the limitation of the legal framework to generate industrial consent/peace, which has time and again forced capital to resort to coercion.

2) The automotive sector has been central to capitalist accumulation, so the needs of this sector have time and again restructured the industrial polity and economic regime globally. In India too, this sector has been in the leadership of pushing economic reforms in a pro-capitalist direction. The high-handedness and intransigence of the managements of Maruti and other automotive companies in recent conflicts is representative of the determination of Indian capitalists to force pro-capital labour reforms.

3) Legal unionism and existing organisational practices to compose and regulate working class assertion are becoming increasingly redundant. The labour movement must look out for new incipient forms in this self-assertion, as older forms are unable to lead working class consciousness, which is much more advanced than these forms, to its political end. The direct action of Maruti workers last year and this time cannot be simply explained by the crude notion of unorganised spontaneity, rather it shows their political will to transcend the segmentation perpetuated by the capitalist industrial polity.

Maruti Suzuki: Workers’ Side of the Story

Workers of the Maruti Suzuki Manesar plant speak up about the events of 18th July 2012, and the repression that they have been facing since then. These workers were amongst the 500 permanent workers who were terminated in the aftermath of the fire.

The workers addressed a convention on 7th September organised by AICCTU and AISA.