The tolerance of the Tells workers suddenly gave way. The storm broke and wealth months the workforce, the management and the entire city of Pun were engulfed by this storm. Some attributed the cause to workers’ leaders like Raja Nair, others to Tells officials like Unranked.
The genesis of the phenomena however lay in the history of industrial relations in Tells over nearly fifteen years. Pun was one of the first industrial centre to be established pursuant to the policy of geographic relocation of industries away from established industrial centre in the aryl sixties.
During the sixties a number of large engineering companies set up new Industries In the Pun region. Being predominantly engineering industries, the region attracted a large number of skilled workers from all over Maharajah’s. This workforce was young, skilled, educated (being from technical training Institutes such as TIT and private Institutes); and there was a broad cultural homogeneity since most of them were Amaranth-speaking. Pun city, though not an industrial city to the sixties, has well established traditions of trade unionism amongst the municipal workers, the searchers and staff of other governmental bodies.
Above all traditionally the workers in the engineering industry are known to be more militant and better organized. Basically this has to do with the nature of the work in the engineering industry, where man is invariably the master of the machine. Engineering Jobs require knowledge, perception, judgment, use of discretion and higher intellectual abilities, all of which results in a self-confident and assertive workforce. Added to all this Is the fact that the new workers coming to Pun had to find residential quarters on the outskirts of Pun. The suburban districts of Pun grew Into working class areas.
Both better paid any badly paid workers’ settlements grew within the same locates, leading to extensive social integration of the workforce. All this gave rise to strong traditions of unity, solidarity and class sentiments in the most classical sense of the term. While the other industrial centre were plagued by trade union rivalries, political dissensions, and conflicts founded on caste, region and language Pun developed a tradition of class solidarity. In 1980, when the police fired on the rockers of Baja Auto, almost immediately the other factories closed in support, and a joint action committee was formed.
Thereafter on most major events, ‘ad hoe trade union Joint action committees have cropped up. With the numerical strength of workers In Pun Increasing – today the city has 1. 75 to 2 lack industrial workers and, together with their families, they constitute 45-50 per cent of Pun’s population – these traditions were reinforced In strength and Impact. The companies that came up in Pun region too developed a broad unified approach the first place they too like the workers were concentrated in one area. Besides, very few companies were in mutual competition with one another.
Many of them were keen to avoid the problems they had to confront in the older industrial centre like Bombay. One of the first things that almost every major company in the Pun region did right from the beginning was to ensure that no outsider, I. E. Professional trade unionist, established himself in Pun. These companies were established at a time when the fact of trade unionism as an inevitable aspect of industrial life had come to be accepted. In the Pun region formation of trade unions per SE never led to any ajar strife. The companies on the contrary encouraged their nascent workforce to form internal company unions.
Barring a few exceptions the major pattern of trade union organization in the region is of internal unions with the workers themselves acting as office-bearers. In the mid-eighties Data Samoan from Bombay attempted a break-through but did not succeed. In a few companies unions affiliated to the Ship Seen and BGP tried to establish their unions but could not make any major headway. Against this backdrop, Tells is an Omni-present giant in the Pun region. Spread dead over a vast area, it employs, 8,500 blue collar workers, around 1,000 to 1,100 white collar workers, 2,000 supervisory staff and 2,500 engineers and officers.
The average age off Tells worker is 32 years. Besides this a large number of ancillaries around Pun depend basically on Tells for their survival. It has been impossible to estimate the extent of mistranslation. Estimates vary from 400 units to 4,000 units. Besides, there is the consumption of goods and services by the company. To take one or two examples – the two industrial canteens at Tells employ 450 employees. The conservancy staff number around 450. Tells runs 110 buses on 265 routes. And all this growth has taken place over a span of 25 years.
In keeping with the general pattern of industrial relations in the region, the company encouraged the formation of an internal trade union in their company. The new workforce formed the Tells Kamala Santayana (TTS), the very union with whom the company is refusing to negotiate today. The TTS was formed in February 1968 and was immediately recognized by the company. The constitution of the union provided amongst other things that the union will not have any outsider I. E. , a non-employee, as office-bearers. The elections were to be held once in every three years.
It may be pointed out here that wage agreements are normally revised once in three years. It provided that workers would elect a council of 42 members and these 42 would then elect the office-bearers from amongst themselves. During this time the production in the company was growing rapidly. Normally in the older engineering industries Job classifications are precise. The content of each Job is described and evaluated, grades evolved, and quite often a worker could lawfully decline to do Job which were beyond the description or grade of his Job.
Right from the beginning the company sought to avoid rigid classification of Job and to reserve for itself the absolute right to set up time standards, club Jobs, change production methods and systems and flexibility in the matter of deployment of workforce. This guarding its rights. Throughout, the growth in productivity was as a result of increased capacity utilization on the one hand and increase in the productivity of the workers on the other. The increase in productivity was mainly due to intensification of the workers’ work output. Thus in 1980 the company produced 14,000 vehicles.
This increased to 0,000 vehicles in 1988 (though the targeted production was 33,000). In 1981, 40 chassis were produced in a day, today it is 125 chassis. Throughout, the workforce remained constant. There was no major technological upgrading. The only areas where some technical modifications were made were in fatigue-related areas, I. E. Where fatigue of the workers reached a point where he became counter-productive. In order to facilitate this the company introduced a number of schemes designed to make optimum use of the workforce. In 1976, the TTS and the company Jointly finalized a skill benefit scheme.
Under this scheme a worker could upgrade his skill and give required trade tests after which he would be entitled to two increments. Thereafter a versatility benefit scheme was introduced, whereby a workman who had learnt a new trade besides his own could after passing the requisite tests get three increments. All this made it possible for the company to utilize its workforce with complete flexibility after all, the company believed a worker during his work hours was at the company’s disposal to get as much production from him as was possible..
The internal leadership of the TTS could not perceive the impact of the company’s policies. In 1976 it consented to the skill benefit scheme. The feeling spread amongst the workers that the union leadership was not standing up for their rights, while the management was asserting its rights. In the 1977 TTS elections the workers elected a new leadership which was perceived to be more militant. Under this leadership the workers conducted their first strike which went on for 22 days. This strike was against what is popularly described as ganging of machines and double designations.
Ganging of machine meant that a worker who was until then required to load Jobs on one machine and attend to it was now required to load one bob on one machine and immediately attend to another machine or several machines depending on the nature of the Job before returning to the first one. Double designations meant one worker was called upon to do two Jobs. While the former method clubbed machines the latter clubbed Jobs. The state government intervened and referred the dispute for adjudication after which the strike was declared illegal. A number of activists were dismissed and other neutralized, and yet others won over.
The workers attributed the failure of the strike and the crushing of the TTS leadership to the absence of strong outside leadership and support. They then turned to the Sara Ashrams Shantung, a trade union affiliated to the Ala Ionians Party. The membership of the Sara Ashrams Shantung was not widespread over all shops and departments, and was concentrated in a few plants and departments. In 1980 the workers of the foundry section began agitation. Once again this was against work norms and methods. The company declared a lock-out of the foundry which other department workers in support of the foundry workers.
The foundry workers’ agitation fizzled out. The workers were compelled to give an undertaking of good conduct and report back to work. Some more activists were dismissed after this agitation. In order to defeat the Sara Ashrams Shantung, the company had to rely on the TTS leadership amongst other things. The TTS leadership, in the absence of over-whelming support of workers had to align with the management to defeat the Sara Ashrams Shantung. In the process the TTS leadership acquired privileges and concessions from the company that alienated them more and more from the workers.
If workers were intimidated or strong-arm methods were used within the company premises the management looked the other way. Workers say the company actually circuited toughs to deal with the situation. Officers of the company deny this at times and at other times have Justified it saying strong-arm methods must be countered by strong-arm methods ‘sometimes’. The company also began to focus on what it describes as its welfare activities. Since 1981 there has been a sharp increase in industrial co-operatives of employees formed with the active support of the company.
Between 1981 and 1987 the company has helped establish nine industrial cooperatives, for various purposes like recycling of scrap wood, conservancy, manufacturing safety shoes, printing, computer revise, felting, foundry-casting, battery cable assembly, welding, etc. Previously such societies were limited to helping widows of deceased employees, canteens and the like. Now it spilled over the industrial production. These co-operatives were intended to provide employment to the dependents and family members of the employees. The TTS leadership was the main agent for the implementation of these schemes.
They therefore acquired enormous clout over the workers. Though out of a total workforce of 9,600, only 252 employees were members of the nine cooperatives formed between 1981 and 1987, and these cooperatives employed 698 rocker, the worker could always hope that by being on the right side of the TTS leadership, he could better the position of himself and his family. Besides it put enormous resources at the disposal of the TTS leadership. For the year 1987-88 alone the total turnover of these nine co-operatives was over RSI. 107 lack.
The leadership of the TTS increasingly lost their identity as spokesmen of the workers. This got reflected in their style of functioning as union office-bearers. Issues were no longer represented on the basis of any clearest principles or rights, but on ad hoc basis. They were no longer resolved on the basis of the workers’ strength but the clout of their office. Sometimes issues relating to production and shop floor problems were resolved satisfactorily, but most often they were not. It was an alienated leadership providing patchwork solutions.
While these trends were developing within the TTS leadership, amongst the workers other developments were taking place. After the failure of the foundry workers’ agitation, the workers began to look once again towards the internal union – the TTS. Leaders, Raja Nair and a few others who they perceived as being better. In the ginning of 1982, Raja Nair was elected general secretary of the TTS. Along with other members of the negotiating team, he too signed the 1981 settlement on wage revision. This settlement evoked widespread anger and resentment among the workers.
When compared to the increase in their productivity and the profits of the company the workers felt the settlement gave them very little. The 1979 settlement had revised the wages by between RSI 150 and RSI 210. The 1982 settlement had increased them by RSI. 350 to RSI. 370. Besides, the skill benefit and versatility benefits schemes had been modified to give more leverage to the management and o say to the union in matters relating to production. A large number of workers who gathered at the company’s gate beat up the leaders and engaged in stone throwing.
It is said that at this Juncture Raja Nair publicly admitted that he had signed the settlement under pressure from other committee members. He had been recruited in the company around 1979. When he became general secretary he had barely six year’s service behind him. It is difficult at this Juncture to assess what subjective factors weighed with him in this turnabout. But from the point of view of understanding the Tells agitation this is hardly important. What is important is before the workers it refurnished his image as an honest leader.
The workers at this stage needed a hero in whom they could concentrate their aspirations. The steps that the company took thereafter only reinforced that need and catapulted one individual into the position off hero. After the disturbances at the company’s gate in September 1982, the company declared suspension of operations for over a week and demanded good conduct bonds from the workers. The workers gave this bond and returned to work. A few weeks after this the company suspended Raja Nair and after holding an enquiry smiled him from service in the beginning of 1983.
To the company this was sure way to tackle rebellion. It had yielded results in the past, more particularly in 1977 and 1980 and there was no reason why it should not succeed this time. What the company did not take into account is the fact that the workers too were learning something from their experiences and were growing more mature in their understanding of the company. Coincidentally it was during this time that Raja Nair himself was arrested in a murder charge. He was under trial for six months or so after which he was discharged for want of evidence.
This factor added to his image as a leader capable of taking on the Tells management amongst the workers. The rebel group within the TTS now rallied under the banner of the Raja Nair Panel (RAN) and began working as a group. In December 1984 once again the TTS elections were held. In these elections RAN put up a panel of 20 candidates of whom 17 won the elections. In a committee of 42 members they were still a minority and from this point of time the RAN worked as a faction within the TTS. The RAN did not focus much on the wage revision agreement of 1985.
They concentrated instead on building up grassroots organization. In order to do this, they first of all changed their style of functioning. Until now by virtue of their working hours. The leaders were not required to work on the shop floor. They were given secretarial assistance by the company for their union work. The RAN decided they would not avail any of these privileges. They began to work on the shop floor. As a result, they were able to build up a rapport with the workers and tackle day-to-day shop floor problems directly. Workers too began to approach them for resolving day-to-day problems.
Throughout the period between 1983 and 1987 the RAN focused on building grassroots support and organization. All this time Raja Nair was closely associated with the work of the activists of around 2,000 workers and staunch sympathizers of around 4,000 workers. Together with the fence-sitters the RAN had the overwhelming support of the Tells workers. In December 1987 when the TTS elections took place, the RAN put up a panel for all the seats. The RAN won 34 out of 42 seats. More significant was the fact that all the old leadership of the TTS lost badly in the elections.
The language this new committee spoke was different. It actively took up issues on the shop floor. It questioned the supervisors on the methods of work distribution and allotment, on transfers and quantum of work and other issues. It must be mentioned here that the manner in which the productivity of the workers had been raised, as described above, required extensive supervision. The ratio of supervisors to workers is high in the company, roughly around 1:10. The supervisory staff rang the alarm and the management pushed the panic buttons. As a result a chain of events followed leading to the present impasse.
At this stage it may be possible to argue that had the management shown greater statesmanship, balanced Judgment ND perceptiveness what followed need not have happened. But today this question will only be academic. In May 1988 the company suspended and later dismissed the vice president of the TTS. A group of workers went on a one-day hunger strike. The rest of the workers boycotted tea, snacks and lunch in the company’s canteen as a mark of solidarity with the hunger strikers. In July 1988 the TTS held a general body meeting and decided to amend their constitution to allow admission to honorary members who were not Tells employees.
Since there is a provision in the Trade Union Act which allows admission of honorary members, and there is nothing unusual or illegal about the amendment, the registrar of trade unions, Pun, allowed the amendments and registered the same. Raja Nair was then admitted as honorary member and elected working president. The wage agreement had in the meantime expired and the TTS now terminated the old agreement and submitted a fresh charter of demands. The management refused to speak to the negotiating committee on the ground that they would not deal with outsiders.
Later the reasons for not talking to the committee kept changing giving rise to doubts among workers and the outside world of management’s bona fide. At this stage the government on its own motion referred the issue of wage revision for adjudication. As yet there was nothing to indicate that anything extra-ordinary company took the stand that the matters had been referred for adjudication to a tribunal by the government and so they would not negotiate with the new committee as the matter was subsidize. The workers were obviously not in agreement. Before Dalai of 1988 came the bonus issue.
A large number of workers refused to accept bonus. The company declared 8. 33 per cent plus a production bonus of RSI. 1,207. 987-88 had been an excellent year for the company financially. Between 1985-86 when the last settlement was signed and 1987-88 when the next wage revision became due, turnover had gone up 37 per cent, net profits by 66 per cent from RSI. 16. 17 core to RSI. 26. 95 core and value added by 43 per cent. The workers could not therefore understand why only 8. 33 per cent was paid by way of statutory bonus. A large number of workers (around 1,100) who had been lured into accepting the bonus returned the same.
All these years the company had deducted the TTS subscription from the workers’ wages and paid it to the TTS. This year the company refused to deduct the subscription. The TTS had to therefore organize a membership collection drive. It opened accounts in banks around the residential areas and called the workers to deposit the subscription amounts in those accounts. Workers began lining up in banks. By January 31, 3,811 members had paid subscriptions, by the end of February another 1,810 had paid and by the end of March a further 1,722. By now the company began suspending active supporters of the new committee.
It Justified its action by saying that it would not tolerate indiscipline. Amongst the workers this argument had no takers because workers knew the company had allowed and tolerated far more indiscipline from the older committee. In the midst of all this the workers resorted too tool down strike in the beginning of January 1989. This agitation was peaceful and organized. On January 30, Rattan Data was to have visited the factory at Pun. On January 29 Raja Nair was suddenly detained by the police preventively under Section 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
This action triggered a wave of anger. Though he had been detained on the January 29 the news spread to the factory on the 30th. The following day, when he was produced in court, rockers collected in the court premises spontaneously. The numbers began to swell. After arguments for his release, the Judgment was reserved for the next day and the police tried to whisk him away. But workers, whose number was swelling all the time, refused to let the Jeep go and resolved to sit in the court premises until the release of Raja Nair. The police then applied to the court and Raja Nair was released.
In the meantime certain events happened outside the trade union scene in Tells which was to have a great impact on the Tells workers’ struggle. In January 1989, the Trade Union Council was formed. In the past Joint action committees had been formed by the trade unions in Pun on the basis of events or issues. For sometime the idea that the Trade Union Council be constituted as permanent body had been suggested by a number of unions, but unions were also cautious since in the past joint councils tended to fizzle out after an agitation or campaign.
For six to eight committee had fizzled out. In the meantime Baja] auto workers in Arranged were having their agitation and workers in Pun through a Joint action committee collected funds for the Arranged workers. During this time it was decided to form the trade onion council. The formation was announced on January 19, 1989 at a public meeting of over 20,000 workers and 31 organizations. The general mood of the Pun workers therefore was responsive to the Tells workers. Soon after the arrest and release of Raja Nair, the Tells Employees Union (TIES) was formed in February 1989.
The company was all along saying they could not negotiate with the TTS because the matters were pending in court. Now TEE came out with a hand bill that the company was willing to negotiate with them. The members of the old committee who had lost in the TTS election were office-bearers of the TIES. The TEE then challenged the status of the TTS in the courts. Five office-bearers of the TTS went on a hunger strike outside the company and the workers boycotted canteen food in solidarity.
On the intervention of Madman Banana, the ‘guardian minister’ for Pun in the Maharajah’s council of ministers, the hunger strike was withdrawn and assurances were made that their problems would be looked into by the government. The workers were under tremendous pressure to Join the TEE between middle of February and March but the membership of the TEE could not go beyond a few hundred. The company now started saying since the validity of the TTS elections was before the courts they would not talk to TTS unless the issue was decided.
Within the company the atmosphere was tense and there was widespread feeling that the company would lock-out the factory. The leaders foots had prepared the workers and decided that nothing should be done in the company which may precipitate a lock-out even under gravest provocation. At this point on March 14, 1989, one of the office-bearers of the TTS was assaulted badly within the company premises by TEE members. Since the TTS had given strict instruction not to do anything that would precipitate a lock-out, the workers remained under control, but the anger had cached flash-point.
The following day TEE members who were on their way to work were accosted and beaten up in various parts of the city. Now the company suspended around 70 – 75 persons of the TTS for engaging in violence. The company now began to say they would not talk to TTS because they had engaged in violence. However when things became too obvious the company suspended and charge-sheeted one of the office-bearers but continued to recognize the TIES. In the meantime the chief minister’s statement in the Vida Saba that the Tells must talk to the TTS and government would mediate raised the hopes of the workers.
The TTS in the meantime began to step up its organizational work and began holding meetings in the residential localities of workers. These meetings though intended for Tells workers were attended by other workers in the locality. The Tells agitation was spreading to those factories too. It appears that at this point other managements in the region began to get anxious about the developments in Tells and began to press for a resolution of the dispute there. On August 18 was the annual general meeting was seen as the architect of the industrial relation policy in Tells, was not given further extension after retirement.
The company temporarily clubbed the responsibility of personnel with production by handing charge of industrial relations to the works deputy director (auto division). All this also raised the hopes of the workers and gave a feeling that the changes reflected a reappraisal by the company. As a matter of fact tripartite meetings were fixed between TTS, the company and the government. Though nothing substantial came of it further meetings were fixed. Then suddenly the company signed a wage agreement within the TEE on September 19. By the wage agreement the company sought to give a rise of RSI. 85 on an average.
Perhaps it was felt this would lure the workers into the fold of TEE. The company then sought to apply to the industrial tribunal to pass an award in terms of the agreement so that it binding on all the workers. The workers had reached a point of desperation. On September 20 the TTS organized a huge rally of Tells workers, where on the spot the workers decided to fast indefinitely. Around 6,000 workers are estimated to have gone on a indefinite hunger strike. This was in the middle of the city, and generated a massive wave of public sympathy. For the first time perhaps a racketing agency conducted an opinion poll on a workers’ agitation.
The opinion poll conducted by the Marketing and Econometric Consultancy Service revealed that 86 per cent of the respondents, all Pun citizens, were aware of the Tells issue, 82 per cent said they believed TTS was the majority union, 68 per cent felt workers were peaceful in their methods of agitation, 69 per cent felt the union was Justified in its agitation and 67 per cent felt the struggle of the Tells workers was for democratic rights. The Trade Union Council called for a one-day sympathy strike by Pun workers which was a complete success. Further tripartite negotiations had been fixed for October 1 .
On September 29, the trade Union Council gave a call for demonstrations and street meetings in as many parts of the city as possible by the workers of other companies to draw attention on the Tells issue. The police used this as a pretext and swooped down on the hunger strikers and arrested over 4,000 Tells workers. Of these 2,000 were taken in buses and left off on the outskirts of the city, and 2,000 or so were taken into custody at places like Rating and Nashua. The TTS had been in quandary about how to call of the mass hunger strike without appearing to be back racking or weakening.
The police action solved that problem. The company had not been too keen on the tripartite meeting and that problem too was resolved as no meeting could take place after the arrests. This triggered off a new wave of anger which spread throughout the city. The Trade Union Council called for an indefinite industrial strike of Pun workers. But the sight of Tells workers who had been on hunger strike for 10 days being beaten, pushed into buses and carried away evoked stone throwing and numerous incidents all over Source : Economic & Political Weekly,