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Current Affairs

Missing Trade Unions

Missing trade unions
Arif Azad
Published 2014-04-18 DAWN

NOTED sociologist, Göran Therborn, described the 20th century as the century of the working classes. It was in this century that the gains of the workers solidified under the Russian revolution, the European welfare state and the new deal in the US. Yet at the beginning of the 21st century those gains are in danger of being obliterated as evidenced in the eclipse of labour as a potent political force worldwide.

This is visible all across the Western world, spurred by the irresistible march of neo-liberalism, deregulation and the far right which is increasingly taking up cudgels on behalf of the working class against globalisation. Against this backdrop, the golden era of the trade union movement is also being showered with scholarly attention.

In the US, the life of legendary US trade union leader, Cesar Chavez, is being celebrated with a slew of books and films as a nostalgic nod to the past. In his time, Chavez was feted everywhere from Hollywood to the White House. The British political establishment has heaped praise on the role played by the recently deceased British trade union leader, Bob Crow for extracting a better deal for the labour movement in terms of better pay, better protection and better working conditions.

These developments should direct our gaze to our own once-radical trade union movements. Pakistan boasted an inspiring tradition of trade unionism in the country’s political and social life. In the immediate aftermath of independence, the trade union movement was very strong though the industrial sector was weaker and small compared to India.

By consensus the strongest trade union was in the Pakistan Railways. Mirza Ibrahim was the legendary trade union leader who ranks high in the trade union hall of fame. He commanded considerable clout in industrial disputes and the political mobilisation of his times.

In those times, the trade union movement not only attracted workers to its flourishing fold but also intellectuals and politicians from the left spectrum of politics in considerable numbers. The most notable among these was Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was active in the Pakistani trade union movement. In fact, the trade union movement lent its mobilising muscle to the countrywide anti-Ayub protests. The PPP that emerged from the ruins of this countrywide agitation contained a substantial layer of trade unionists among its vocal ranks.

The result was the unprecedented influence of the trade union movement in the initial years of the PPP government in the 1970s. This was not to last long though, with the PPP turning on the labour movement soon afterwards to the dismay of diehard socialists within the party.

Gen Zia’s dictatorial regime oversaw damaging neutralisation of the labour movement with religio-political parties encouraged to float rival unions thereby blunting the edge of radical trade unionism in the country. Yet the trade union movement fought each step of the way. The way the journalists union (PFUJ) fought from its corner against the ideologically driven onslaught on the trade union movement furnishes one example.

But it has been a war of attrition, and the trade union movement is gradually losing that ideological coherence and élan that were once its hallmark. This can be observed in the trade union movement’s failure to throw up a leader like Mirza Ibrahim. Neither does it hold much allure for intellectuals or politicians, thereby pushing labour right issues to the political back burner.

One part of the explanation lies in the fact that the old notion of trade union movement built around class has disappeared and has been replaced by an array of tiny trade unions divided along ethnic, political affiliation lines and narrow interests of a blinkered leadership. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reaction of the trade unions to the wave of privatisation since the 1980s and 1990s. This process has been going on without substantial input from the movement. Whatever input that has been injected is largely through seminars and press conferences.

The current juncture calls for a more coherent response by the working class movement to the changing dynamics. There has never been a more urgent need for trade unions to get their act together in the face of rising inequality, informalisation of the economy and the steady erosion of social and workplace protection.

These together can constitute important planks for the revival of the labour movement as a political force. As recent debates on the need to resurrect the legacy of Chavez and Crow demonstrate, the trade union has a place in shaping the current direction of politics towards a more humane and rights-protected one. In this context the example of Mirza Ibrahim should not be seen as a one-off experience.

The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst.

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