"Workers of the world, unite!” Thus proclaimed the Communist Manifesto in 1848, as Marx and Engels invoked a world order where workers would take over the machinery of capitalism. A dictatorship of the proletariat!
The plight of the suppressed workers has often fuelled art, be it through cerebral manifestations such as Rabindranath’s Raktakarabi or the more mainstream Deewar. In both, workers become mere numbers; weaned off love or the higher pursuits of life, they are cogs in the giant wheels of capitalism. Some characters overcome the super structure; the rest meet a poignant end.
But world history underscores the reality where “workers of the world” have seldom united to represent a class. Rather, time and again, they have risen to the call of identities such as race, caste, region or nation to band together. This shortcoming in human nature has been the undoing of the Marxist dream across the world. It was Hitler’s workers against Stalin’s in the second world war.
The experience of the largest communist experiment in the world and how it ended up as a feared regime under the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat party leader’ also played a big role in embittering the romantic notions of communism.
India too had its romance with workers’ movements. Evident from early-Bollywood flirting with the Nehruvian dream of an economy where trade unions flourished under benevolent capitalism of industrialists who backed India’s freedom struggle. So, in Akashdeep, Ashok Kumar, who rose from the ranks of a worker to be a textile mill owner, wins over angry trade unionists for a happy ending. But such endings have eluded real life trade unions and Ashok Kumars. The history of trade unionism in India has been a bloody affair, having destroyed lives of lakhs of mill workers as union-management face-offs resulted in factories pulling down their shutters across the country.
But the change has been the sharpest in the last 30 years as post-liberalisation India put Nehruvian ideals to test and then slowly and steadily cast them aside along with trade unions. The Indian experience has highlighted how the metanarrative of Marxist ideology has been defeated at the hands of post-modernism and the relatively new movement of identity politics, where individual aspirations and market forces such as competition have determined the behaviour of workers. So, when Go Air filed for bankruptcy and, coincidentally, Air India began hiring pilots, many in the latter’s unions deemed it fit to further their careers at the Tata-owned carrier than back a call to clash with the management.
The dilution of unions has been in the air for decades. Changing labour codes, rise of Big Tech as the new kings of capitalism, the flourishing of the service sector and the rise of white-collar jobs—all have played their parts in diminishing the space of unions.
Air India, therefore, is not where it began or ended; it is just symptomatic of a global movement.