Little Strokes, Big Oaks: Recession-Pandemic, Lockdown, and the Social Strike

Curtains hiding the social cracks have lifted. The Novel Coronavirus or Covid-19 plays the part of narrator. The story is about human society leaving the fetters of capitalist economy.

This rift is mainly between the working class and managerial society. But its character is multi-faceted. The spread of capital in different places in India, and its activity, and its breakdown, have come to attention so rapidly that it is very interesting and illuminating to describe and analyze these multidimensional events in one place.

The attempt in this article will be to study the conflict between the workers and the system at different places, the self-organization of the workers, and their collective strength, and to try to understand the emerging conditions more deeply through them.

Hopefully, this makes it possible to find the answers to the burning question of our time – what next?

This work will proceed as per the following plan:

  1. At the beginning of lockdown
  2. The sinking ships of companies – theft of wages, strikes, etc.
  3. Open clashes and increasing class consciousness among the working class
  4. Companies sinking under their own weight
  5. The incomprehensible problem of reproduction, solution not to be seen
  6. Not a migration, stupid! It is a complete social strike!

***

1. At the beginning of lockdown

Even before the lockdown, frictions between companies and workers were increasing more and more. Production was slowing down or shutting down in many sectors of the industry. Production was declining in the auto industry. In November 2019, after the layoffs of around 500 workers at the Honda two-wheeler plant in Manesar (near Gurgaon), the workers removed the control of the company over the plant by settling inside and outside for 13 days. Production on Honda’s two-wheeler manufacturing lines had not only reduced; a production line had also shut. There was talk of ending one out of three shifts too. In such a situation, the workers who were being fired (about 500 by November) were told that they will be hired again in February. These temporary workers working since two-five-ten-fifteen years camped inside and outside the factory. All interactions with management were collective. In response to the management’s terms, the simple demand of temporary workers was – each of us be given Rs. 100,000 for every year we have worked.

– With the decrease in work in big companies like Honda, Maruti, Bajaj, small vendor companies were also affected. Look at this report from Manesar in November, 2019 – 1200 workers, 10,500 salary, working in two shifts of Stanley Moulding. Mostly operators. Engine parts for Honda on moulding machines. The company closed three days ago, told all 1200 workers to be ready when the company has production to be done.

– There was also a lack of demand in the garment industry for the last 6 months. The representatives of the garment industry at Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon, had described 2019 as a very bad year, and had discharged many workers.i In fact, for a long time, the sales department of the companies or independent sellers were saying that a large number of buyers’ shops are being shut down abroad, so the production decline is also natural.

– The work of cleaning and polishing diamonds located in Surat city of Gujarat has also been decreasing for the last one year. There were reports of 15,000 jobs ending in a week in September 2019.ii

– The basic issue being drawn out here is that the relationship of the workers with the companies was already hanging by a thread with the ongoing global recession much before lockdown was declared.

When the lockdown was announced, companies generally took some three-four days to close operations. In the same way that someone pretends to be hurt after being shot at in films, companies also attributed their misfortunes to the coronavirus. In the early days, companies or governments did not realize the extent of the brewing crises. With the spread of the coronavirus, the whole country was told to stay at home. It is one thing that the workers did not have adequate arrangements, but who would want to be stuck at a hostile place where the only thing one came for was also on tinterhooks?

So the workers started walking.

Some statistics are useful here – the number of workers who come to work in the large production centres of India is said to be 10 crores (100 mn). Surat is a city where 58% of the population is of migrants, i.e., migrants exceed the local population. 70% of the workers there are not local. Yet 98% of the workers have never met or spoken to any government official. A statement from a representative of Bangalore’s garments industry to the media – “30% of our workers are returning home.”iii Around 11.5 lakh (1.15 mn) labourers have gone home by trains in Maharashtra, out of which 8 lakh (0.8 mn) have returned only from Mumbai.iv These are only the count of people who have returned by trains which were started very recently; there is no count of how many people have gone home by walking, running, cycling, rafts, trucks, cement mixers, etc. Delhi, which is estimated to have 63 lakh (6.3 mn) people settled here from outside in the last 20 yearsv, has been able to send only 2 lakh 40 thousand (0.24mn) people in the last one week by train. Many more before this already left on their own.vi We should also keep in mind that there are many places around Delhi like Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Bahadurgarh, Sonipat, Panipat from where the workers returned home on their own. Workers from many other parts of the country returned home on the go.

At first, the governments wanted to stop the workers, but it simply was not possible to stop so many workers moving in unison. The lockdown tore to shreds. But it was from this event that governments and the managerial class understood that every migrant worker wished to head back home. It is then that they realised the scale of the problem before them. The labour shortages to be faced would be unprecedented. This, in effect, doubled their problem – a recession already underway, production was already hit; but suppose even if the opportunities for production are managed somehow, workers no longer existed to restart!

In other words, the return of the workers to their homes put a hole through the industrial atmosphere. Clouds of devastation hover over companies. Since the initial days of the lockdown, governments and industry operators have been trying to keep the workers imprisoned in the cities one way or another, but these attempts are failing more and more.

2. The sinking ships of companies – theft of wages, strikes, etc.

The quarrels between workers and companies broke out in many places as soon as the lockdown was declared.

– On April 28, workers gathered outside the Diamond Bourse office in Surat and attacked the office and the police gathered there. These were construction workers, and they alleged that the operators were continuing the construction work even during the lockdown, and that the managers were getting other workers to work on their refusal.vii

– A company did not pay 350 workers working in construction work in Ayanambakkam, Chennai for two months. Due to lack of Aadhaar card, the food given by the government was also stopped for 25 workers. On the 14th of April, the workers gathered outside on a main road. Some were owed Rs.40 thousand and some Rs.80 thousand.

– On May 8, about 6000 workers of Chenab Textile Mills of Kathua (Jammu) camped in front of the company. Their demand was that they should be given their full salary so that they could then leave for home. At first, the police appealed to them (sending a cop speaking their native language). When the police showed hostility, the workers retaliated with stones, attacked their vehicles, and blocked the Pathankot highway. The workers received only half the salary, and when they resumed protest on 14 May, the police attacked them with a greater force and detained many. From that time on, most workers left for homes. Company Manager: “There was no production in March, why should we pay?”viii

Those writing in the media are asking – “What happened due to lockdown?” Our question is, what tensions were going on between the workers and the companies amidst which the lockdown occurred?

It would be wrong to view the return of the workers to their homes as just a continuously ocurring event. When and under what circumstances the workers decided to return depends on what terms of relations they had with their employer. We noticed that there are a lot of companies like Honda and its vendor companies, or garments exporting companies, where production was halting long before lockdown. Such companies were already removing many workers, with the assurance of taking them back in some future time. It is often the case that workers waiting for work at one company, puts up some kind of a stall somewhere or goes somewhere else to find work for some time. In addition, there are thousands of workers who usually do different types of work at the daily basis – in hotels, in transport, as tailors, in carpentry-plumbing-electrical services, etc.

Many such workers, whose ties to their employer had been weakened for sometime, who earned daily wages, or who were getting disenchanted regarding the attitude of the companies, had already left at the start. Those who were to receive payments from the company or who were still looking forward to work in the company, remained for longer. But as soon as the lockdown deepened, neither did they trust the intentions of the company, nor did the condition in the towns entice them to stay on. The government, which had given guidelines to companies on March 29 to pay salaries to workers even during the lockdown, had retracted these guidelines. Neither did companies accept these guidelines, nor did governments show interest in getting them implemented. In the process, it became clear to the workers that these companies were no longer fit for them to work for.

3. Open clashes and increasing class consciousness among the working class

The government imposed stringent restrictions in the face of the workers’ desire to return home. In response to these restrictions, the workers began to unite among themselves. In groups of ten to fifty, fifty to hundred, the police tried to disperse them. With five hundred to thousand, there ocurred skirmishes with the police. When groups of workers rose to 5-10 thousand, governments were forced to relax restrictions and open state or city borders. The unplanned lockdown also left no public transport for workers, which then became the quarreling point among sections of the political class. This trend continued in all the areas of the country where laborers went to work.

The lockdown has been compared by some elders to the partition of India-Pakistan. The elderly eyes certainly do capture a partition. But this is not a division of imaginary fights between Hindus and Muslims. It is a partition based upon what is in a person’s pocket, not upon the person’s identity.

In India, the Covid-19 partition saga begins even before lockdown. India’s first Covid-19 case was found on 30th January. In February, Indian students were brought back from Wuhan by plane. At the same time, people from other parts of the world also entered the Indian borders mainly by air. Even till a few days after 23rd March, when the lockdown was declared, Indian citizens were coming back from abroad. International flights continued till Sunday, 29th March. Stranded people were being brought back through government efforts. In many cities, stranded students and devotees were being rescued back to their homes in buses. In many hospitals across many cities, health workers reported the lack of PPE and masks, while managers of testing labs became billionaires within a few weeks.

Who were rescued back to their houses, and who was stopped from moving?

As middle-class people kept clapping from their homes, while workers violated the lockdown. Five days after this lockdown, there emerged pictures of large groups of workers from Delhi, walking on national highways to get back home. Pictures and videos of workers from Mumbai and Pune gathered at stations and forcing their way into the AC compartments of trains also spelt the horror the managerial class was about to witness. After this, such scenes kept coming up almost everyday. The workers started gathering in Surat, Gujarat from 24th March itself. Gradually, groups of workers began to gather in different areas of Surat. Regardless of whatever profession, whatever province, language, religion, the desire to return brought them together in strife with the authorities.

– In the global spread of wage labor-based production, capital has made machines more and more productive and workers more and more dispensable. Wages have come down drastically, and at the same time the need for skill has also reduced.

– Therefore, the experiences of migrant laborers working across different industries are not very different from each other, and their lives are not very neatly segmented. Workers producing just one part of an automobile throughout the day in automobile factories – seat, window, washer, exhaust – or one cut of clothing on the chain system in a garment factory do not really see their skill as a trait setting them apart. The factory and the skill are only seen as a means to earn a living.

– 90% workers do not see their lives attached to thefactory. Such large numbers of workers got together to head back home, and not to seize the factories for good. Workers have declared the factories and companies they worked for as socially useless. Can there be a bigger denunciation of the present organisation of social relations?

– This is an indication that in the coming times, companies and the factory system will be at an even steeper decline, and the focus of the managerial class will be set upon how to keep this system from becoming irrelevant. In such a situation, the managerial class cannot understand whether to approach the working class with the carrot or the stick. It cannot find the direction for the future.

– Going by the attitude shown by workers in recent days, it seems unlikely that the managerial class will be able to yoke them, and it seems likely that conflict will deepen.

4. Companies sinking under their own weight
A report dated 29th May states that the condition of small scale industries is very bad due to the lockdown. The supply chain is broken, they are not able to sell due to the breakdown, the finished goods are lying in the warehouse, money is not coming in, the wages are not generating…. Associations seek a remedy for this from the government.ix The government should give some rescue package, has been a widespread chorus.

But this helplessness is not just limited to small scale industries. Big companies and big banks are also facing similar crisis – breakdown in supply chain, warehouses filled with unsold goods, lack of customers, slump in revenue most companies, workers and staff being laid off or salaries being cut …… However, the media is not very vocal about the crisis of big companies, as much as it cannot hide this crisis.

Where the conditions for capital’s reproduction are failing, a minister’s statement – We will make the country a center of global production, an automobile hub. At the same time, the minister also claimed that the companies are running just fine.

How are companies “running just fine”?

A company in Manesar with German higher management, Beumer, manufactures conveyors. Fabrication and assembly work is done by around 250 workers. A month ago, on April 21st, a worker’s message – “I got instructions to report to duty tomorrow. By the way, not everyone is called. Only those in fabrication. Assembly workers haven’t been called. Probably not even the dispatchers. They say some work related to the airport, they may have obtained an essential services permit. Fitting and welding are done in fabrication. The machine shop will also run. They work on lathes.” Then it was revealed in the discussion of April 22nd– the company is calling only 50 workers, with very little production. Two shifts, 6 hours each, 3 hours in between to sanitise the company. But salaries being given even to the workers not called for work. Yes, those who have left the city and gone home are not being paid. What are the workers being paid merely to stay in the city thinking about? April 26th – “Workers are thinking of heading back once lockdown opens, since companies may not be able to run as there will not be enough laborers available.”

The state of Beumer reflects to a great extent the condition of the economy. Since the relaxation of the lockdown, there have been many companies that have begun production, but had to stop. The smartphone manufacturer Oppo in NOIDA (near Delhi) began operations for a few days in May, then shut down again on the pretext of finding 5 Covid-19 positives. There is news about a company in Manesar that asked workers to come to work on 7 May, offering to pay wages for April. In the three-four days, after the return to work of many workers, the company invited mediapersons to conduct a photoshoot. They did not pay the wages of April. On 16th May, two women were found to be Covid positive. Company closed on 17th. When workers complained of lack of transport, company asked them to walk, cycle, or get their families to drop them to work. Workers demanded for a bus. Manager – “Sit at home.” There are such incidents being reported from factories which are trying to open. At the same time, industrial accidents are also increasing. Due to shoddy maintenance of the company during lockdown, 11 people died after to leakage of styrene gas from Visakhapatnam’s (South Korea headquartered) LG Polymers on May 7, and many others became ill.x The investigation found that the company’s environment clearance was missing. On 11th April in Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh, an ash dam at a Reliance power plant burst open. The nearby village was flooded and two people died.xi On April 13, at a factory named Galaxy Surfactant in Boisar outside Mumbai witnessed a blast. Raw material was mixed here to make soap earlier, but the work shifted to making hand sanitisers on the day of the blast. Two people were killed.xii On April 26, a fire broke out in Mirabel Naturals, Sector 37, Gurgaon, where the making of hand sanitisers was just started.xiii

– At the moment, governments and companies are trying to present the system as functional.

– By producing 10-20% of usual targets with about 30% workers, companies are trying to stay alive at least on paper.

– For this reason, companies like Uber, Ola, and Swiggy – which do not own automobiles or hotels – are shutting down accounts of workers, so that remaining drivers feel satisfied with whatever volume of work is coming and the company keeps on running. It has also fired many of its office staff, but the spectacle of living should continue.

5. The incomprehensible problem of reproduction, solution not to be seen

That which thrives upon wage labour, must fall

If the labourer does not return, who remains to call?

Medieval Couplet

Social cracks are getting deeper. Its main occasion proved to be the closure of the production and distribution system. But now these cracks themselves are hindering the re-opening of the production and distribution system.

These cracks were there even before, but they hid under the daily operating of production and circulation. After the lockdown, it dawned upon everybody that the majority of the working population of the metros and suburbs are “migrants” – they have no fixed place in the cities, and the class of people who depend on them are much more wealthy than them. Lockdown did not make an immediate impact on this affluent class, but forced the labouring population to migrate from the cities. The ability to hide the cracks vanished as the managerial class tried to take a breather. Thus, we witness the kind of situations which can arise in regions with the lowest wages in the world. Two basic things have come to light –

  1. Due to the low wages, workers keep their living conditions to less than minimum in order to send back money. Most of the laborers have their families living in villages, and do less than the bare minimum to survive near their places of work.
  2. Most of the workers who produce or circulate goods in a global scenario do not consume it, or at best a miniscule portion of it. Most workers go on a daily wage, and are not able to save up a lot.

On the one hand, governments, managers of capital, and expensive workers sat at their homes fearing a pandemic, whereas on the other hand, hundreds of millions of workers subverted the lockdown. Everyday, pictures, videos and news of workers come in from every corner of the country, in which the workers are seen freeing themselves from the traps set by authorities. Governments imposed restrictions on traffic and provincial boundaries to keep the workers near the sites of production, fearing the crises. Still, the workers walked on foot, climbed in trucks, took to rafting, hitchhiked in all sorts of vehicles, and traveled home thousands of miles. Bihari, Bengali, Oriya, Purvanchali, Brijbhashi, Jharkhandi…. The distinction of caste-religion-language-province proved superficial.


People engaged in farming or small trades spread across the country helped the workers on their way home. The managerial class also sought to impose restrictions on this, because whenever there is mutual aid or direct economic relations between workers and small-producers, the need for governments and large capital seems vanishing. This large section automatically rose to life as production centres shut, and it became a nightmare for the leaders of the managerial class.

Hence, conspiracy theories and rumors were also spread that the helpers are poisoning the food, etc. But hunger is not satiated with rumors and conspiracy theories.

6. Not a migration, stupid! It is a complete social strike!
The factory or industrial level of understanding a strike is not enough to understand the collective actions of the working class today. It is very easy to call it migration from a surface reading of it. The television, internet, and social media flashes images of vulnerable and dead workers 24/7. Comparisons are being made with the exodus during the India-Pakistan partition. The situation of workers – and the desperation of the managerial class – is being presented as displacement, a matter of heart-wrenching sorrow.

But we are aware of the difference between sorrow and a ball-ache. Despite all the threats, images and videos of helplessness circulating, the workers’ groups have not stopped from going home. Many people – educated, urban people – are unable to understand what kind of ghost has gotten into the workers who want to return home in this pandemic.

Representatives of the managerial class say,

– “Nobody is hungry!”

– “We will take care of everyone!”

– “We are giving them gruel!”

The leftists said the following about this issue –

– “This is a fight for bread,”

– “This is a fight for wages, which the company is not providing” (at the time of stalled production!)

– “Lockdown has attacked the workers’ livelihoods!”

– “Landlords are harassing laborers… ..”

But these issues were eliminated. Workers’ words are captured on camera –
– “The gruel doesn’t taste good.”

– “It’s not fun here.”

– “How will they stop us?”

– “We will go now, and we will not come back.”

The steps of the workers are coming after a long line of experiences and observations they have been making. At the beginning of the lockdown, it felt as if demands for emergency allowance could come from the workers’ side. But the workers were not in a mood to ask for allowances and stay for their demands being met. Large-scale violation of the lockdown shows that workers are not only free sellers of their labour, they can also refuse to sell their labour if they wish. While companies and governments kept assuring the workers that the companies would open soon, there was something else at work – the workers did not want to stop, they were disillusioned.

If this is not a complete social strike, then what is?

Now that the lockdown is coming to a close, companies have only one intention – to pretend to keep going. Workers are now going back in trains. Some remaining workers who come to work are talking about heading back too. It is a phenomenon of such a scale that it will not be forgotten with time. The results of this event are becoming compost for the future course. Nobody can not see it, everyone has to experience it. It has given a glimpse of power which not only can change the terms of society, but also its principles as well.

******

What happens next?

The economy is stuck right now. The government has effectively stalled the movement of people. The opening efforts are slow and full of disruptions. Representatives are talking about “living with the virus,” but infections and deaths are on the rise. There is no talk about recession. Many from the middle classes have either had their salaries cut, or even lost their jobs. For the managerial class, the rift between talk and walk has increased immensely.

Or let us say the system has got its knickers in a twist.

A number of questions make themselves felt. First of all – all kinds of political factions want to know, when will the workers come back? “They will have to come around eventually,” they say like a befuddled anti-hero in a film, smitten by the heroine. They do not see that the heroine has no special attachment towards them. Hence, increased repression and schemes so that the heroine “comes around.” But the heroine has made up her mind to go home and rest. So our befuddled anti-hero makes all kinds of tall claims and promises.

Another very simple question – if workers return to this productive system, can it be run as before? Discussions have already begun that if workers do not return to work, the managerial class will look for more automation to boost productivity. There is no doubt that it will do that. According to a report, due to the abundance of labuorers in India, most of the haulage is still done by manual workers and not by forklifts or other vehicles, like in many other parts of the world.xiv No doubt there is scope for technological advancement, but the problem is much bigger than this, and merely filling in the blanks with technology will not help the managerial class. By the way, for the last ten-fifteen years, governments have been increasing technological infrastructure and capacity – electricity, roads, rail, ports, telecommunications, etc. Many companies – most companies in the global production circuit – are using the most advanced technologies extant in the world. But the problem is multidimensional, not just about productive capacity.

Third question – what form will the struggle of the working class take? Little can be said on this question at this time. But some trends are worth noting – 1) The workers are currently on social strike. Companies are not running, they are determining policy to implement in the future. 2) There is anger among the workers towards the centers of production and circulation. They will give much thought to the prospect of returning to the lap of death again. 3) Some workers are saying they will only return when companies make full arrangements. What is the meaning of “full arrangements” is difficult to say. If production and distribution were to start again, it would mean a more fierce battle over wages, or a tug of war over working hours. The workers have experienced unprecedented collective and class consciousness, and hesitation between them has reduced to a great extent. In the present system, this means an increased rejection of useless (surplus) work.


But the picture is clearer for the near future – recession and pandemic are under sway, capitalist social reproduction is not moving forward. The managerial class does not have ideas. Governments are operating with force and confusion, but force and confusion do not a society make. The crises-knells are ringing close enough for the managerial classes to listen to. The restructuring of the productive forces is bound to happen, but it is no solution to make capital socially compatible. The rift between workers and capital stands only to widen and tear further apart, class opposition will increase, and this increasing opposition will determine the future.

i https://www.hindustantimes.com/gurugram/in-china-s-health-crisis-gurugram-garment-makers-sense-opportunity/story-krpHLsuAxyenGxxtVQNSVN.html

ii https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/surats-diamond-industry-loses-glitter-as-slowdown-deepens/article29349510.ece

iii https://scroll.in/article/963251/i-will-never-come-back-many-indian-migrant-workers-refuse-to-return-to-cities-post-lockdown

iv https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/maharashtra-has-few-migrants-left-after-11-5-lakh-return-home-8-shramik-trains-cancelled/story-yUUVGpGZvvtwUny15Ox2DI.html

v https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi-news/delhi-has-highest-share-of-inter-state-migrants/story-QCYXSWlnSYAJbNb25ljcPL.html

vi https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/around-271k-migrants-have-left-delhi-aboard-214-special-trains-sisodia/story-kDPumJxwNB4EzRHlPMyIjP.html

vii https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/lockdown-3-0-migrant-workers-clash-again-in-surat-demand-to-be-sent-home-120050400715_1.html

viii https://www.newsclick.in/let-us-see-how-these-factories-run-without-us-jammu-migrants-refuse-return

ix https://khabar.ndtv.com/news/india/ground-report-on-msmes-in-crisis-in-bulandshahar-industrial-area-2237517

x https://hindi.thequint.com/news/india/visakhapatnam-lg-polymers-company-toxic-gas-leaked-chemical-plant-3-people-death

xi https://www.jagran.com/news/national-2-die-4-missing-as-dyke-of-power-plant-develops-breach-in-madhya-pradesh-20182273.html

xii https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/other/two-killed-one-injured-in-blast-at-hand-sanitizer-manufacturing-unit-in-tarapur/articleshow/75120548.cms

xiii https://www.hindustantimes.com/gurugram/fire-at-hand-sanitiser-production-unit-in-sec-37-no-injuries/story-nE3VKwOpbmPnn6fn8jGoUL.html

xiv https://www.wsj.com/articles/indias-food-supply-chain-frays-as-people-stay-home-11586343607

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