Caste, Class and Trade Unionism in India

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:35 PM
166 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Vidyadhar Badigannavar, Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom
John Kelly, Birkbeck, University of London, London, United Kingdom
The caste system in India and its exploitative nature has been well researched (Siddique 2011 Gupta 2000). However, the role of caste in Indian employment relations and in particular its role in the labor movement in India is yet to be fully explored. The primary aim of this paper is to examine the rise of caste- based trade unions in India over the past decade. Specifically, we aim to examine why the lower-caste workers (historically treated as untouchables, referred to as ‘Dalits’and officially designated as Scheduled Caste and Tribes) are leaving established trade unions to organize their own unions along caste lines? While fragmentation of trade unions is a well-known phenomenon both in India and in the Western World (Shyam Sundar 2015; Connolly et al. 2014), the rise of caste based trade unions is a relatively new phenomenon which is yet to be fully explored. Caste based trade unionism appears to be counter-intuitive when the conventional logic suggests that unions are class based collective institutions which represent the interest of the working classes (Ramaswamy 1976).

The Indian trade union movement has historically been fragmented along political ideological lines ranging from moderate unions affiliated to the Congress Party to the militant unions affiliated to the Communist and Socialist parties. However, the rise of caste-based trade unions of the lower caste workers is a relatively new phenomenon. Our findings from surveys and interviews with mainstream unions and caste-based trade unions suggest that the caste-based trade unions are unique in at least three ways. First, these unions are breaking away from well-established radical and militant union federations such as those affiliated to the Communist and Socialist parties. Second, these unions are predominantly organized on caste identities and not occupational identities or political ideologies. Third in unionized workplaces, lower caste workers are forming their own separate unions along caste lines with membership restricted only to workers of their own caste instead of joining the mainstream unions where present. We examine these issues using the analytical framework of Paulo Freire (1970) – dialogics, praxis and cultural oppression and relate it with the insights from comparative politics which examine the role of actors & their interests within institutions (Peters 2011).


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Ramaswamy, E.A. (1976) ‘Trade Unionism and Caste in South India’ Modern Asia Studies, 10(3): 361-373

Shyam Sundar, K. (2015) ‘Labor Law and Governance Reforms in India-Some Critical Perspectives’ Synergy Books, New Delhi, India.

Siddique, Z (2011) ‘Evidence on Caste Based Discrimination’ Labor Economics, vol. 18: 146-159