The late trade union icon Dr V David once candidly told me that to sustain the spirit of the workers’ struggle, the working class must feel hunger in their bellies.
In the early 1980s, I thought his view was diametrically opposed to the philosophy of the workers’ movement.
Coming from a breed of grassroots leaders and having had the privilege of taking part in a six-month lockout brought about in an orchestrated ploy to break the union by the company, I can now relate to what David said.
During the lockout, we were a group of workers deprived of any source of income. Our bellies felt the hunger, and our resolve to stand united to fight the injustice heaped upon us grew in strength. The camaraderie, regardless of race, religion and culture, was cemented in our quest to combat the injustice that we, collectively, were facing.
Sadly, that epoch of undivided solidarity has been consigned to history. memory.
Over the decades, I have have seen the gradual erosion of the comradeship that prevailed among the workers in the 1970s and 80s. Unfortunately, the evils of race-based politics seem to have crept into the trade union movement. That is the movement’s Achilles heel.
In its heyday, the trade union movement, including the leadership of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, forged a working relationship with civil society groups like the Consumers Association of Penang, Friends Of The Earth Malaysia (SAM), Aliran and the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim).
Networking with political parties, such as the DAP and the Malaysian People’s Socialist Party (PSRM) was the norm. Together, we called for the emancipation of the people – whether it was workers’ rights, consumerism, environmentalism or concerns over socioeconomic conditions.
We had demanded that draconian obnoxious policies and laws that infringe on fundamental rights be abolished.
Clearly, there was a nexus between the trade union movement, civil society groups and political parties in the struggle for change.
In any full-blooded attempt to transform the lives of the working class, the trade union movement cannot isolate itself, as the transformation of society is a holistic endeavour.
The trade union movement cannot do it alone. It has no option but to network with civil society groups to strive for a transformation of the socioeconomic landscape of workers in the country.
Sadly, the trade union leadership in our country seems to have adopted a holier-than-thou attitude in this matter. History will testify that real chSOanges were never achieved without a well-thought-out coordinated campaign mounted by all strata of civil society movements in pursuit of change.
So the trade union fraternity has no option but to make a choice – stay isolated and continue to play an ineffective role or reach out to like-minded civil society groups and political parties to collectively strive for meaningful societal transformation of the workers’ lot.
K Veeriah is a veteran trade unionist based in Bukit Mertajam, Penang