The Editorial of our last Revi LALIT, No. 97 of December 2010, ended with a call for the urgent necessity for the development of a unified working class platform based on a socialist program, not around some “guru” or some “bluffer”. Since working class unity will obviously involve the trade union movement, we are proposing to look at the state of the trade union movement, in relation to the developments of the past 5 or 6 years. It will immediately be obvious to any observer that the movement has gone through deep mutations, involving generalised fragmentation and some re-alignments. Capitalist economic re-orientations and crises inevitably cause havoc in the working class movement, specially when there is a relative lack of democratic principles, when there is no unifying programmatic platform, and when bureaucracies can impose their selfish agendas on trade unions, federations, and confederations: in this analytic article we will concentrate on this last-mentioned aspect of the problem.
The GWF and the Trade Union Common Platform
Just before the 2005 General Election, the MMM-MSM régime weakened the General Workers Federation by pressurising union leader Farook Auchaybur into selling out in exchange for a Government adviser job with Soodhun and Berenger. This weakening of the GWF later continued, this time through manipulation from the inside, as the elected leadership of the federation abdicated in favour of “technical advisers” and negotiators, and this in turn brought about a destabilisation within the broader trade union movement.
After the 2005 General Elections, the new Labour-PMXD government proposed to replace the labour and industrial laws with new legislation and by April 2006, there was the build up towards the yearly salary compensation: these two factors prompted the different union federations and confederations to come together in a Trade Union Common Platform, which organised a series of street demonstrations and press conferences. The Platform was not a structured organism, so it was relatively easy for anybody, with the assistance of specific journalists, to present themselves and be presented as its leadership. In a report of a press conference of the Platform, the Le Mauricien of 11 July 2006, for instance, writes: “Selon Ashok Subron, dirigeant du front …”. At street demonstrations, the Presidents of various confederations would address the crowd, and then somehow it would come about that Subron also would have access to the microphone, as happened in front of the Plaza in June 2006, and once again Le Mauricien would announce that it was Subron who had threatened a national civil disobedience campaign.
It was not surprising that confederations like the Mauritius Trade Union Confederation (MTUC) and the Mauritius Labour Congress (MLC) used this usurpation of the leadership of the TUCP as a pretext when they wanted to move away from the Platform for their own bureaucratic reasons. In Le Mauricien of 21 February 2007, the President of the MLC, explaining why they were leaving the platform, states: “certains dirigeants syndicaux se croient plus intelligents que d’autres; tous les representants syndicaux sont devenus les porte-parole de la platforme commune.”
Nundlall Maroam, ex-secretary of the FPU, writing on the “éclatement de la TUCP” in Le Mauricien of 24 February 2007, describes the situation more elaborately: “ D’autres aiment impressioner, ont la parole et le dialogue faciles, monopolisent la parole, et decident de tout et de rien….D’autres encore sont abonnés à certains journalistes et ont un monopole sur le monde du travail.”
The same process was occurring in the National Trade Union Confederation (NTUC), where a Le Mauricien journalist was repeatedly presenting Subron as the main “porte-parole”.
The first major split in the TUCP occurred in May 2007, when the Labour Government named 5 “non-representatives” of the trade union movement to sit on the National Pay Council: these 5 marginal union leaders, all close to the Labour Party, accepted their nomination, in spite of the fact that the bulk of the union movement was boycotting the NPC. The Government eventually agreed to re-examine the terms of reference of the NPC, after the various federations and confederations had lodged complaints with the International Labour Organisation: but even this caused frictions within the NTUC, as one of its affiliates, the GWF, tried to claim all the credit for making the Government back down.
When the draft Bills for the laws to replace the Labour Act and the Industrial Relations Act were circulated, the Trade Union Common Platform was somehow brought back to life, and it even threatened a general strike, which was announced, curiously, on posters pasted up here and there, for the 10 December 2007, then revoked through the media the day before. This kind of bluff does not much impress workers, and creates destructive tensions within the union movement.
The GWF and the NTUC
In parallel with the disintegration of the TUCP, there were the same destructive and divisive forces at work within the General Workers Federation and the National Trade Union Confederation.
In November 2006, the General Trade Union Federation was founded following a split in the GWF: the main reason for the split was a conflict between Subron and the leadership of the Sugar Industry Labourers Union. The SILU was by far the largest union in the GWF, in terms of membership. This is how D. Ramjuttun, the SILU secretary, later described the conflict in Le Mauricien of 9 July 2008: “A.Subron, conseiller auprès de la GWF, agissait d’une manière inacceptable et dictatoriale….li pe rant dan tu zafer. Li intervenir dan tu size. Kan ou enn advizer, rest dan ou biro. Ou intervenir kan bizin e kan dimann ou konsey. Etan done GWF avek so Subron pale sanze, nou finn prefer kit li e form GTUF avek trwa lezot syndika. Zordi lezot sindika pe vinn ar nou.”
But the Sugar Industry Labourers Union was not the only major union to leave the GWF because of Subron’s activities. In June 2007, José Francois, President of the Port Louis Harbour and Dock Workers Union, was representing the GWF in the Trade Union Trust Fund committee. He denounced the wasting of TUTF resources that various federations had been responsible for. Clearly this precipitated a conflict within the Federation, and in Le Mauricien of 12 July 2007, J. Francois denounced the “syndicaliste intellectuel tinn sort pou moi, rod mo latet” , attacking him in the GWF Delegates’ Assembly, perhaps because he was responsible for blocking the funds that the GWF badly needed for its running expenses. Be that as it may, in April 2008, the PLHDWU left the GWF after addressing a letter to the GWF President, Serge Jauffret, and getting no satisfactory reply to their request. Amongst other things, the letter said: “ A.Subron pa ti gagn droi intervenir ou donn so lopinion dan ka Prezidan TUTF. Dans sa konteks la Lekzekitif PLHDWU pe dimande ki GWF pran enn desizyon kont A.Subron: set-a-dir li bizin ale depi GWF. O ka kontrer PLHDWU ki pou ale.”
SILU and PLHDWU constituted the historical backbone of the GWF, and their departure from the GWF, following bureaucratic conflicts with Subron when he tried to impose his will on elected leaders of these unions, had brought about a near collapse of the Federation, and at the same time had eliminated all resistance to Subron’s little plans. In 2009 the Executive Committee of the Federation was constituted: Vice President: Dany Marie (member of Rezistans ek Alternati v, and representing a hardly-existent union); Treasurer: V.Dholah (member of Rezistans ek Alternativ, and representing this same hardly-existing union); Secretary: D. Narrain (member of Rezistans ek Alternativ, and representing a well-nigh non-existent union); and of course Principal Negotiator, Technical Adviser, and Educator: A.Subron (member of Rezistans ek Alternativ). So by 2009, after SILU and PLHDWU had been squeezed out, the Rezistans ek Alternativ had taken control over the General Workers Federation: but this historically important federation was by then a mere husk, an empty shell that could be used in the Press, but certainly no big deal for an ambitious trade unionist who saw himself as a great “leader of the whole working class”. Luckily there was by now the Confédération Syndicale de Gauche-Solidarité. So, where did this one come from ?
The splitting of the National Trade Union Confederation
The NTUC was originally by far the largest and most organised of the Confederations: it regrouped all the Federations that in the past had been in the vanguard of the trade union struggle, in mass mobilizations and in strikes. But in July 2008, it split into two after a few months of internal conflicts of various kinds.
When the government set up the new National Pay Council, there were 2 different lines within the trade union movement as whether to name representatives to the Council for determining the Yearly Wage Compensation. Within the Trade Union Common Platform there was a clear majority in favour of integrating into the NPC, with the option of walking out, should the tripartite NPC refuse to compensate workers adequately for the rise in the cost of living. The following union leaders were delegated to represent the trade union movement in the NPC: T.Benydin, R.Sadien, R.Chuttoo, L.Dewnath, and C.Kureeman. T.Benydin was representing the NTUC, which also grouped together a number of federations that disagreed with that particular tactic: The GWF, FPU, FTU, and RWF (from Rodrigues). So these 4 federations set up a separate front, to dissociate themselves from the NTUC. The Le Mauricien of 11 June 2008 straightaway presented Subron as the spokesperson of the new “ Front Syndical de Gauche” . The FSG launched into quite virulent campaigns against the trade unionists who had agreed to sit on the NPC. This would inevitably have serious repercussions within the NTUC. Come July 2008, the conflict came to a head when the NTUC was choosing a new President. The FSG maintained that according to the agreed system of a rotating presidency, it was the turn of a federation president from one of their federations to assume the presidency of the Confederation. According to T.Benydin, the conflict was mainly due to the fact that the GWF, through Subron, was blocking the affiliation of the GTUF to the NTUC; Le Mauricien of 9 July 2008 quotes Benydin as attributing the crisis to the fact that “la GWF, à traver Subron, s’est farouchement opposée à l’entrée de la GTUF au sein de la NTUC” , in spite of the fact that a majority of affiliated federations were in favour.
The leaders of the other federations were quite hard in their criticism of the way Subron was destabilising the NTUC, and bringing about division in the trade union movement:
Le Mauricien 9 July 2008: “Pour MM. Kuppan et Ramjuttun, A.Subron est en train de diviser la classe des travailleurs par sa facon de procéder.”. Deepak Benydin: “l’important c’est l’unité syndicale et le choix à faire entre d’un côté la démocratie et, de l’autre, la dictature avec les partis de gauche sous l’emprise d’Ashok Subron.”
Ms. Taukoorchand “ a affirmé que dans le passé également, ces trois syndicats (GWF,FTU,FPU) ont crée des problèmes au sein des autres instances ou platformes syndicales”.
But perhaps the most severe and broad criticism of Subron came from Reeaz Chuttoo of the Fron Travayer Sekter Prive, which is itself part of the Federation of Progressive Unions (FPU). Le Mauricien 12 July 2008 quotes Reeaz Chuttoo as saying in a press conference: “ La déstabilisation de la NTUC a été préparée et organisée par une seule et même personne: Ashok Subron. Il a déstabilisé Lalit, la General Workers Federation (GWF) et la NTUC et à présent le prochain syndicat dans sa ligne de mire est la Federation of Progressive Unions.” When talking about the National Pay Council episode, this is what R.Chuttoo has to say: “Ashok Subron a envoyé toute une série de lettres aux ministres Sithanen et Bunwaree concernant les cinq syndicalistes qui ont été choisis pour siéger sur le NPC. Il a mené une guerre personelle contre ces cinq syndicalistes. Sa stratégie était surtout axée sur la provocation.” R.Chuttoo even warns other trade unionists: “Bann dirizan bizin pa tom dan piez Ashok Subron. Li finn kree enn repiblik e li pe otoproklam li prezidan. Li finn bien servi NTUC pou li gayn akse a Bureau International du Travay e zordi linn vinn Ressource Person pou zot. BIT pe pey li pu sa….”
Soon after this confrontation in the NTUC, the GWF, FPU, and FTU leave the NTUC, and together with the Rodrigues Workers Federation, register as a Confederation, Confédération Syndicale de Gauche-Solidarité, with Subron as main spokesperson.
Toolsiraj Benydin later directs his criticism of Subron at another level in Le Mauricien of 19 March 2009: “ … Mais je suis contre les faux syndicalistes qui ne font que semer le trouble dans la classe syndicale. Ils se proclament syndicalistes, font de grands discours alors qu’ils n’ont jamais été employés et n’ont jamais contribué au fonds syndical.”
In 2010, Subron even managed to split the Joint Negotiating Panel of labourers and artisans unions. Of the five unions in the panel, only UASI was affiliated to the GWF/CSG-S. Yet it was at a CSG-S assembly that decisions were taken regarding possible strike actions in the sugar industry, it was the CSG-S negotiator who acted as sole negotiator for the whole panel consisting of SILU, AGWU, OUA, PWU, as well as UASI. When the PWU suggested that they could bring in a negotiator from their federation, this was fiercely blocked by Subron. This caused the PWU to split off from the Joint Panel, to become a pawn for the bosses. The MSPA finally buckled under the combined weight of Subron, Navin Ramgoolam, Professor Torul, Shakeel Mohamed and Nita Deerpalsing.
If this kind of bureaucratic manipulation, destructive fragmentation, and unprincipled wheeling and dealing can be used in the interest of personal ambition, it is mainly because there is this frightening level of demobilisation in the working class, at the base of the trade union movement. During the 5 or 6 year period we have considered, there is not a single trade union federation or confederation that has not suffered splits and recompositions. Workers are not in favour of fragmentation in their movement. The time has come for workers to mobilise to demand effective unity in their union movement; workers must start questioning the logic of capitalist exploitation, must clean their unions of parasitic bureaucracies and must exert democratic control over their unions. But most of all, we need a unified class platform based on a socialist political program, a platform which does not depend on the commercial media manufacturing populist leaders or gurus, with a leadership which does not go looking for support from a pseudo-left within a bourgeois political regime.
20 January, 2011.