Assam and indeed the rest of Northeast India, due to numerous movements with nationalist and sub-nationalist aspirations, continue to have much of its small town and rural population face the brunt of a heavily armed Indian state. For years, development for the region has not been accorded the priority it merits. Furthermore, one cannot travel to a single sub-district or district without seeing even the lowest ranking police constable carrying a rather deadly INSAS assault rifle (compared to other parts of India where he might, with luck, carry a baton to imperiously whack a poor pickpocket’s rear end). Material conditions for the working poor are harsh, even in the formal, more organised sectors.

In the midst of this, the Indian state has a major economic presence here in the form the oil PSUs, which provide employment to a significant pool of workers. IOC for instance, is a public sector undertaking meant for refining the oil discovered and extracted by other undertakings such as Oil India and ONGC. Apart from a refinery in Guwahati (the first oil PSU in India), it also has refineries in Gujarat, UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Haryana.

The socioeconomic differences between the two classes of workers at IOC, and indeed the infrastructure levels of the two unions are stark and plainly visible.

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At the Guwahati IOC Refinery, the labour stratification presents an interesting, albeit hardly uncommon, picture of workers division. As is the case with the majority of the plants across India cutting across industrial sectors and public-private lines, workers are divided into permanent employees and non-permanent workers, who are further divided into contract workers and daily-wage labourers. Naturally the demands for each group hardly overlap and might sometimes even clash. In addition there are social and cultural divisions that result from the creation of a labour aristocracy side by side with a working poor, all in one plant. Needless to say that this is hardly fertile ground for fostering strong workers unity and thereby launching union struggles that can successfully press for rights and demands.

It is important, from the standpoint of understanding labour rights, to examine how trade unions handle complex and difficult situations thrust upon them by capital; whether with ingenuity and honesty, or just mere capitulation to management. The workers at the IOC unions in Guwahati are one such case in point.

At the refinery, there is the Refinery Workers Union (RWU), for permanent workers, who for the most part consist of English-educated IOC staff members below the rank of officers or managers. They seem to be very much part of India’s growing and increasingly prosperous middle class, conceivably with generational aspirations to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and quite possibly possessing every opportunity to do so.

Indeed, one of the union members I spoke with, upon knowing that I was from Bangalore, proceeded to ask me numerous questions about South India, as he and his family were planning an extended holiday touring the region. The conversation covered hotels, beaches and tourist hotspots, hardly things that India’s labouring masses get a chance to even dream about. The union office itself is an impressive two-floor building, with a drama hall, couple of offices, kitchen, a children’s park outside, some sports facilities, and a guest room where they were kind enough to allow me to spend a couple of nights in.

Barely hundred metres away is the dusty, one-room office of the United Workmen’s Union (UWU), which is the union for all contract workers and daily-wage labourers. Affiliated to the leftist All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), its membership includes workers who can barely make ends meet, if at all, on paltry wages with insecure work in often hazardous conditions. The union has seen multiple struggles on numerous issues including fighting for higher wages, timely payment, compensation for victims of injury or death, better health benefits and numerous others. For entertainment, there is a single carom board usually played on a by-turn basis by large numbers of members, who crowd around it in the evenings after work.

Thus the socioeconomic differences between the two classes of workers, and indeed the infrastructure levels of the two unions are stark and plainly visible. However an interesting feature is the manner in which the unions themselves have dealt with the situation of workers division.

Talking to members and leaders alike from both unions, there was the common feeling that unity among the two unions and mutual support for each others struggles was important. Instances were even mentioned of one union joining in the struggles of the other, despite not having any vested demands. Strong communication links also seemed to be maintained between the two. One of the crucial reasons for this mutual support seems to be the fact that there is an overlap of leadership, and even the constitutions of both don’t bar cross-membership. While the UWU for the contract/daily-wage workers is affiliated to the AICCTU, the RWU has AICCTU leaders in central roles, despite not officially affiliating.

In speaking with both unions, one heard fairly honest and forthright descriptions of successes and, more importantly, failures. It would seem obvious that unions representing workers from the same plant should naturally support each other, but this is often hardly the case, with multiple plant-level unions fighting with each other to gain the support of the workers, thereby severely reducing the militancy of the working class movement. In addition, there are many sectors and plants where unions for contract and daily-wage workers barely even exist. Significant examples of this can be found in the numerous automobile industry plants in Gurgaon (Haryana), where for the most part only permanent workers have any form of representation or space for collective bargaining, while the contract and daily-wage workers are left to languish without any real association.

Biren Kalita and Janik Barman, both AICCTU leaders and central guiding forces of the two unions at the IOC Refinery spoke candidly about the existing contradictions among the workforce and the unions representing them. Barman said that the main focus was directed more towards the rights and demands of the contract and daily-wage workers as their situation was far more precarious and their needs greater, but still required some time also to be directed towards the permanent workers union as there was the need to build workers solidarity and two-way support. He further mentioned that not enough had been done by them with respect to daily-wage workers in the UWU and women workers in both unions, specifying that patriarchy in the membership of both unions was a huge hindrance in this.

Keshav Goswami, Secretary of the UWU, spoke at length about past struggles to bring contract and daily-wage workers onto a unified platform. He mentioned that in previous years there were as many as nine different unions for all the contract and daily-wage workers, with the AICCTU-affiliate being the biggest. This caused serious dilution in negotiations and overall collective bargaining measures with management. After much perseverance, three to four of the more progressive unions formed a collective platform which soon resulted in all the workers coming under it, followed by a democratic process to decide the federation that the workers wished to affiliate with.

Goswami also mentioned the mutual support among the two unions, and spoke about future plans in the struggle for workers rights including, canteen facilities, Provident Fund for contract/daily-wage workers, skill development and better infrastructure for the union. He mentioned the need to promote women’s leadership as well as conduct workshops on workers rights and contract labour law.

While overall, the mutual support between the two unions is heartening to see, there are many visible problems as well. For instance, much of this unity seems to be maintained by the common AICCTU leadership, progressive leftist leaders like Kalita and Barman, and it remains to be seen how it will continue should it pass on to future hands through elections or any fissure in either of the unions.

Another negative indicator seems to be the abominable lack of women in leadership positions. While research was being done for this article, one didn’t come across a single female leader, office-bearer, committee-member or even just a member in either union that I could speak to. Women seem to form around 20-25 per cent of the contract/daily-wage workers (depending on the season), and I was told that there were some women members in the UWU committee, but I didn’t see any in all the visits I made to the office.

The RWU has a women’s organisation that primarily comprises of the wives of permanent staff members, and one does see them occasionally in the RWU office. However this seems to be primarily a socio-cultural group and not a political one with a clear goal of combating patriarchy within the unions. The expressed need to combat patriarchy by some of the leaders does not seem to have percolated down to the membership based on conversations with members and workers.

Furthermore, one could notice that the progressive thinking imaginably coming from a leftist federation like the AICCTU, had not had as much of a political effect on the members as I’m sure the AICCTU themselves would like to see happen. Most of the members I spoke with were avowed supporters of the Asom Gana Parishad, a party which is hardly a bastion for progressive thinking. Some were also quite open in their dislike for Bangladeshi Muslims and Biharis whom they felt were taking over Assam through their continued migration, mostly as poor labourers, into the state.

No doubt combating patriarchy, politicisation of the membership and maintaining unity are problems that numerous unions across India face. And while some of these problems might not be as directly connected to the day-to-day travails of traditional unionism that focuses on acquiring higher wages, better benefits, safer work environments, and good health care, they still merit serious examination as they point directly to the manner in which unions can play a significant role in positive societal (and political) change.

However, one does get the feeling that the overall direction that the IOC Refinery unions in Guwahati are heading in is positive and, hopefully, slowly inching towards building a genuinely progressive workers movement.