Looking at the sharp increase in trade union membership between 1989 and 2002 (the figures for the second date have just been released), it would seem that trade union membership has been soaring. The total membership of the four big umbrella unions, all affiliated with political parties, has nominally grown from 8.3 million in 1989 to 15.7 million—which translates into growth of 90 per cent in 13 years. Such growth would ordinarily suggest either growing insecurity in the labour force, encouraging them to flock to the unions, or increased industrial strife. The membership of 15.7 million is particularly striking because it represents about half of the total workforce in the organised sector.
The fact, though, is that these numbers do not jell with the evidence of a sustained drop in the number of mandays lost because of industrial strife. Nor is it on all fours with the visual evidence which suggests that the bulk of new employees in many sectors are non-unionised; and the numbers employed in the traditionally unionised sectors have been falling because of various retirement schemes, greater automation and plain attrition. Deeper scrutiny therefore reveals the secret of the numbers: the umbrella trade unions have included this time the people whom they have enrolled from the agricultural workforce—a disparate and spread-out group that is hard to enumerate and verify on the basis of surveys. If these agricultural members are excluded from the umbrella unions' total membership numbers, the figure for 2002 drops from 15.7 million to 11.3 million. In other words, agricultural workers account for more than half the reported increase in membership; the growth of trade union membership that is non-agricultural is only about 35 per cent over 13 years, or an annual growth rate of barely 2 per cent—a more credible figure, given the overall context.
It is worth noting that one of the four umbrella unions, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (affiliated to the CPI-M), has not tried to boost its membership numbers in this fashion. The other three—the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh of the BJP, the All-India Trade Union Congress of the CPI and the Indian National Trade Union Congress of the Congress party—have all fallen to the temptation. The question is what incentives the umbrella trade unions see in doing this. Other than an ego boost, there is little to be gained from puffing out one's chest; certainly, there are none of the incentives that were available to the accountants at Enron, in terms of boosting the bottom line, or raising market expectations and share prices. It turns out that one prize may be the benefits associated with being among the top few, such as representation on various delegations to the International Labour Organisation. For instance, Aituc has reported the greatest growth in membership, from 0.9 million to 3.3 million—which helps it overtake Citu at 2.6 million.
That is not to argue that membership among agricultural labour should be neither sought nor counted—it is an entirely valid and indeed necessary task to gather key data of this nature. However, it is important to segment this data and use it correctly for purposes of any kind of analysis. Comparing one set of numbers in 1989, comprising industrial workers, with another set of numbers in 2002, which includes a new category of workers, is like comparing apples and oranges.