Interview with H.Mahadevan, All India Trade Union Congress

Q: Is AITUC affiliated with any political party?

A: No, AITUC is not affiliated with any political party within India. We are a leftist trade union, only affiliated with the global union federation, World Federation of Trade Unions. AITUC is the first national trade union of India. We were established in 1920, and through 1947 AITUC remained the only national trade union federation. After 1947, several trade union leaders of different individual political shades, left AITUC to form their own organizations at local or state levels. They included Socialists, Communists, and National Congress members. Many members of different political affiliations, such as Communists, also remained within AITUC.

Q: Does AITUC support any of its members running as candidates in elections?

AITUC does not field any candidates in elections. It has leaders within AITUC that as individuals are affiliated with particular parties, as mentioned before, but within AITUC, this does not affect the decision-making of AITUC as a mass organization of the workers.

In fact there have been many occasions when AITUC fought against the government regarding certain issues, when some of its individual members were sitting in the Parliament. AITUC would conduct protest programmes and strikes; yet the Parliament would indeed take up our cause.

As published in our statement ‘Elections to Indian Parliament: the Role of the Indian Working Class’, AITUC explains what the priority of workers are, that indicate the lines along which to vote—but it does not indicate any particular political party that a member should vote for.

For instance, AITUC takes the position that workers should keep the right to collective bargaining and direct action. Thus, AITUC is not affected by political considerations, notwithstanding affiliations of some of its members. This way, AITUC’s freedom of decision-making is not affected. Some trade unions might be affiliated with the centre, or with the capitalist ruling party. In such cases, the trade union’s ability to freely decide upon use of strikes or collective actions may be compromised.

It does not mean that AITUC and its members are not political. It works as a trade union for its members, but it insists that party politics must not play a destructive role in the unity of the workers. Rather, it stands to advance the political and economic interests of the class as a whole.

Q: What is the reason for AITUC avoidance of taking the organization into party politics?

A: What we aim for is class struggle, not class collaboration. We are for national advancement of the workers; we are against imperialism and for peace, and for international solidarity. Thus we take the stance that we must be independent of government, of companies, and of political parties. We also want that communalism should not have a place in electoral politics. In India, some groups run for Hindus or for Muslims. We may have some members or trade unions supporting that. But for AITUC, we maintain our own platform and politicians can seek the support of our individual members by showing they accept it and will carry it forward.

We do not compromise on rights-based issues, such as minimum wage; unfettered trade union rights, including the right to strike, which we see as part of collective bargaining (i.e., when collective bargaining breaks down, one should be able to use one’s right to strike); social security; a public distribution system; an employment guarantee system that includes all, not just those below poverty level; equal wages for equal work (as Indian workers have been hugely impacted by increase in contract and other informalized workers, who may be doing the same job as regular formal workers yet for vastly different terms); occupational safety and health; against privatization of public goods such as gas and water; and against compromise of any principles such as these.

We have fought against the British imperialism. We stand for particular economic, social and political issues – for workers – not for party politics. We have fought for a long time for a political constituency for labour. But this has never so far been realized.

Q: You have mentioned that Indian workers are lacking rights of formal workers. Can they be members of AITUC?

A: More than one third of the members of AITUC are informal workers, or what we term unorganized workers. They include agricultural and forest workers for example. We have been struggling for a comprehensive law that gives rights to unorganized workers. A bill was passed one month ago, which was proposed by the ruling party. We were against it because a more comprehensive law was needed; but the law was supported by most trade unions. On 18 February 2009, we organized a march together with other unions and federation under a National Trade Union Sponsoring Committee, to Parliament in Delhi, with 50,000 people joining in it, to present our demands. (See Regional Roundup in this issue, ‘Trade unions marched massively to Parliament’, on p. 29.) Still, the bill did not pass in the end. With a new Parliament, the bill may have a chance to be amended, so we are trying again to see the bill improved before it is passed.

AITUC has led a dozen general strikes in the last few years. We are still connected to the mass of workers. The main reason to stay independent of political parties is to preserve the unity of the working class. Unions close to the ruling class may seek arbitration rather than strikes; or they may appeal to religious affiliations, which result in splitting rather than uniting all workers. We instead want to work by letting parties know what workers in our membership demand; and let them accept our demands if they want our votes. However AITUC does join in the National Trade Union Sponsoring Committee, and unite with other unions on issue-based campaigns. It only does not join structurally with other unions into a single national union federation. AITUC’s aim is to maintain the unity of the working class, but on terms of the workers.