Interview with Gautam Mody, Secretary, New Trade Union Initiative

INDIA - Interviews with Two Trade Unionists

In this issue of the Asian Labour Update, we bring to you two interviews from trade unionists in India. India has had a rich tradition and history of trade unionism, going back to the 1920s. The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was the first national trade union to be formed. We include here, an interview with H. Mahadevan from the AITUC, and we also have an interview with Gautam Mody of the New Trade Union Initiative, which is one of the youngest national trade unions in India.

Both the interviews reflect positions from the left progressive perspective. The fractious nature of left labour politics is brought forth; the Left progressive labour movement in India remains divided in the face of a comparatively unified right wing labour movement. The right wing Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) claims a larger number of members than any of the left wing unions in India. While this assertion by the BMSmay be contested, the consolidation of the right and the deep inroads it has made into a traditionally left wing domain is clear. The progressive trade union movements in India, while having similar perspectives, still remain divided. There are signs of change, hopefully leading to a united labour movement.

Q: Does NTUI have any affiliation with any political party, or have the intention to establish one?

A: No, NTUI is committed to autonomy from political parties; this is even enshrined in the constitution of NTUI. This is related to our understanding of the history of trade unions in India.

The trade union movement started with a first national trade union federation – the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) - being formed in 1920. It was led by people from various groups including the Congress Party, Centrists and Communists. By the 1930’s the union came to be dominated by Communists. Then in 1936, there was a split within the Congress Party, as the Social Democrats and the communists left to form their own Congress Socialist Party (CSP). Within a year or so of that split the majority of communists in the CSP left to join the Communist Party of India. As a result of this consolidation of the CPI the AITUC’s leadership came to be dominated by the Communists.

Then, in the late 1940’s, from 1946-1951, the trade union was split by forces to the right of the communists. In the space of these five years the Congress Party, the Socialist Party and the right-wing Hindu party the Jan Sangh formed trade union federations of their own. In particular, the first two new formations came in the backdrop of the impending cold-war, the split of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and the emergence of ‘free’ trade unions. In many instances these union federations grew with overt and covert support of both government and employers. The AITUC, however, continued to dominate the trade union scene and attract the attention and the interest of the working class.

In the1964 the CPI split with the creation of the larger and more militant Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M). In the first instance both parties sought to retain working class forces in the undivided trade union formation – the AITUC. The growing conflict between the leadership of the now divided party, however, resulted in a very short lived unity of working class forces with the CPI-M dividing the AITUC and forming the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in 1970. While the creation of the CITU may have come from the left and was defined by the more progressive and militant tendencies from within the Communist movement, it divided the left democratic trade union movement and it created an environment in which, as the Communist movement subdivided itself further, it made it a practice for every newly emergent communist party or formation to have a trade union wing of its own. These divisions created trade union formations with dependent relations on their associated political parties since they were spanned off by the party and not by a democratic assertion of the membership of the trade union. These divisions within left-democratic trade unions have divided the working class movement reducing the unity of union power and reducing the ability of the working class to take on the offensive of capital.

NTUI believes that trade unions are progressive forces in society. Even with ideological differences and tendencies, which may split along political lines, mass organizations must remain united, and should contend with each other within a unified organization. This is in distinction from trade unions and parties which act in the belief that each political party should have their own affiliated union, and thus constantly divide the working class on the ground. It is in this historical background that NTUI is committed to autonomy of trade unions from political parties just as much as it seeks the complete independence of trade unions from employers and governments. As an organization it has no one on one association with any political party. NTUI has the understanding that the vast majority of unions are affiliated with leftist or progressive and centrist parties, and it is still not possible to assume that they would all fall in one political framework. Thus it is more important to have a mass organization where divergent ideological views and perspectives can contend with each other, and let the majority view come through a process of democratic consensus-building.

Q: How does NTUI work with other unions and parties?

A: We work with all progressive unions. We join in a common front of all progressive unions, without oppressing minority views, if all the other progressive unions can come to one common position on an issue. It is important in a country with people and politics as diverse as India, that even if views are different, organizations should try to air those differences within the group, and form consensus, upon which to base common action.

Affiliates of NTUI mostly have had a long tradition of autonomy. They have largely come out of splits from progressive unions. They have brought plant and industry-level bargaining gains with them. This experience of autonomy is what led to the creation of NTUI – a coalescing of unions that became autonomous over time. The trade unionists who led the formation of the NTUI brought with them the experience of various political party-affiliated national centres. While it was founded in New Delhi as an organization in 2006, it has been in the process of formation as a federation of independent trade unions since 2001. The key is to maintain separation of working class organizations and political parties. When there is a one to one relationship between trade unions and parties, it causes division. When a political party has a demand and the trade union has another, it is the political party that takes priority and demands that the trade union follow. Moreover when there is more than one national trade union centre and more than one party, you end up with not only competitive politics but competition between trade unions – resulting in competition sometimes for the same membership. Even when one trade union has been formed, other trade unions may still approach that union’s members, to persuade them away to join their own. This results in some unions not engaging in new organizing, but only in using their energy and resources to get members of other unions, which have already been organized. All unions, even progressive unions, can be found involved in this kind of divisive activity, and the lack of cohesion among trade unions is a fundamental weakness in the union struggle against capital and Indian state.

Working class march to Parliament, 18 February 2009        Photo: National Federation of Postal Employees, India

NTUI is committed to the concept of one union in one factory, and will not form a minority union in a factory – except where the union in a factory is a yellow one, with a ‘manufactured’ majority. But if there is a progressive union already existing in a factory, NTUI will withdraw from attempting to organize there, and will advise members to support the majority union there instead of drawing them to the NTUI instead.


There is no value in autonomy in itself; the point of emphasizing political autonomy is to break out of the union culture which is strongly influenced by political affiliations, and strengthen the militant democratic power of the working class. This power can only come if the vast majority of the working class is united under one flag. There will always be political difference but only through militant struggle can the working class gain the experience to define its politics. That cannot be imposed through undemocratic factions and party domination. When these are allowed to hold sway, unequal relationships develop; trade unions get weaker rather than stronger, as they try to do through political parties what they cannot achieve through militant actions of their members. Many unions with one-to-one party affiliations try to transfer the crisis of non-standard irregular workers, to political parties through the parliamentary process. In reality unions don’t have the numbers to address the challenges faced by irregular workers. It is a form of passing the buck. Organizing irregular workers is practically very difficult, because there is little freedom to organize; they face the threat of being fired. Organizing them is a hard battle and nothing will be achieved unless they are organized. Political parties making blanket demands on their behalf will achieve nothing unless there are large unions of irregular workers.

Q: Would you like to add some final words, such as about how NTUI is facing the difficult task of organizing informal workers?

A: The challenges of organizing workers working in conditions of informality are enormous. Capital even in its most advanced forms continues to exploit the primordial divisions in society – the divisions of gender, religion and, in a society like India, also caste. The left parties have only very partially been able to address these divisions. As a result a large number of identity based groups have emerged, articulating agendas and demands based on their identity. We need to recognize that identity issues would not have appeared paramount if the progressive trade union had been able to deal with and respond to these divisions. The fact is that these divisions of gender, religion, ethnicity and caste not just persist under and get exploited to divide the working class by capital but, they can be found to some extent mirrored in our own organizations. New trade unionism means addressing these divisions both against capital and within our own organizations. If we are to build materially different bargaining power within the trade union we have to learn to work in non-hierarchical relationships with the progressive women’s movement, the movement against caste oppression and others. Only then will we be able to build truly united, democratic and militant union power.