ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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When Technology Trumps Labour

Trade Union Leadership and Banks

The capacity of trade unions to bargain or challenge technological change in the workplace has been a crucial aspect of the debate around machine-worker dialectics, which is a neglected area of research in India. Studying bank unions' struggles over technological choice and their implications on work routines, this note seeks to revise the otherwise optimistic narrative about Indian trade unions and their relationship with technology.

I would like to thank Rohan D’Souza for his encouragement and inputs.

  Since the very inception of the Industrial Revolution, and particularly with the emergence of the factory as the defining mode for mass production, the relationship between workers and technology has been, undoubtedly, a complicated and fraught one. In a sweep of discussions, beginning perhaps most insightfully with Karl Marx’s observations, machines have been implicated in a range of detrimental consequences for the worker: alienation, loss of control over the production process, redundancies, devastating effects on health and debilitating psychological distress (Braverman 1974; Burroway 1979; Edwards 1979). The capacity of trade unions to bargain or challenge drastic technological changes in the workplace has also been another crucial aspect of the debate over the machine-worker dialectic (Mortimer 1971; Leydesdorff and Zeldenrust 1984; Reshef 1993). Thus far, in the Indian context, only a clutch of studies have specifically explored the machine-worker dialectic (Bhattacherjee 1989; Simeon 1999). Whilst most of these studies have suggested that the Indian worker in factory and mine had been badly affected by mechanisation of production, it not only affected labour employability, especially for the female worker, but it also influenced the collective bargaining process. The intra-industry technological transformation in the Bombay (now Mumbai) mill industry gave birth to new forms of independent unionism, which tends to bargain for the individual unit rather than for the whole industry (Bhattacherjee 1989).

E A Ramaswamy’s essays on Indian trade unions and their bargaining strategies on the issue of technology, however, have been one of the most considered and substantial treatments on the subject in recent times. His claims that Indian trade unions have seldom chosen to oppose technological change, interestingly enough, has remained largely unquestioned (Ramaswamy 1983). Not only do the Indian workers, according to him, look forward to using more efficient technologies, but tend to do so despite fears of the risk of personal redundancy. Included in this narrative of triumphant technology and willing worker, is also the wide-eyed belief that even when enterprises turn unprofitable and down their shutters, its failure is usually adduced to the inability to modernise rather than the reverse—the factory owner’s or management’s inability to settle on an appropriate mix of technology and human resources. Ramaswamy (1988) even goes on to argue, in a later refinement of his claim, that workers in India, when faced with the prospect of closure, have often time pressed for the induction of new technologies. In effect, for Ramaswamy, the Indian worker and their trade unions, on the whole, have tended to be optimistic about technological change. It is probable that such assessments by Ramaswamy have remained largely unchallenged because very few systematic or rigorous efforts have attempted to study the machine–worker–trade union relationships in India. It would probably be more accurate, in fact, to conclude that trade union and working-class politics in India have tended to focus on issues of distribution and justice rather than technological arrangements and their impacts on power (Ramaswamy 1988; Bhattacherjee 1989; Simeon 1999).

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