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Liberalisation has exposed the weaknesses of our trade unions and forced them to rethink their policies and programmes. Drawing on several primary and secondary sources of data, this paper primarily focuses on exploring the responses of our unions to the changing industrial scenario. Today our unions are defensive, less militant and more pragmatic about the productivity and efficiency of their organisations. To fight against the bigger enemy and the entire system, they now understand the need for working class unity and expansions beyond the so-called 'citadel' with growing concern for wider issues. All these changes have initiated a new beginning in the history of our working class struggle. Today trade unions can sustain themselves only through a pragmatic approach that compels them to develop wider networks in association with other civil society organisations.
India's economic reforms introduced since the early 1990s have posed serious challenges before the old unions. The New Economic Policy of 1991 was aimed at bringing the Indian economy into the mainstream of the global economy and thereby bringing a culture of competition, private initiative and growth to business. Quite necessarily, the introduction of the new model of 'liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation' (LPG) has opened a veritable Pandora's Box with far reaching implications for labour, their unions and management as well. Drawing on several secondary sources and personal experience, this paper primarily focuses on understanding and exploring the responses of the Indian trade unions to these developments in an attempt to judge their viability and modus operandi in the near future. As a corollary, this paper would also try to locate the changing nature of labour-management relations in India. Before analyzing these changes, it would be appropriate to discuss, in short, the salient features of the pre-reform labour movement in India.
PRE- REFORM LABOUR MOVEMENT IN INDIA
In the pre-liberalised Indian society, the state maintained a complex set of labour regulations that aimed at strengthening trade unions, improving wage outcomes and increasing job security in the formal economy. Governmental intervention to strengthen the position of workers vis-a-vis employers has led to the passing of nearly 45 labour laws by both the central and the state governments. These laws dealt with issues like employment, minimum wages, other benefits, job security, dismissal, industrial disputes, formation of trade union and collective bargaining (Zagha, 1999: 169). Apparently, these labour regulations have contributed to the strength of the Indian trade unions by making job security, wage rate and other benefits 'statutory compulsions' for the employers of factories. But contrarily, these laws have also made our unions and workers dependent on the Government machinery for settling any issue. The pre-reform industrial relations in India are, therefore, typically marked by third party intervention that stood in the way of a rapid growth of genuine collective bargaining. In fact, it has been argued that state regulations have perpetuated, if not also actively contributed, to a weak and divided labour movement that remained dependent on external props (Ramaswamy and Ramaswamy, 1981: 201). Problems like fragmentation and intra-union rivalry, narrow sectarianism and lack of...