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Maruti Suzuki strike: How India Inc's new age unions are pushing for reforms

At the central level, 11 trade union organisations recognised by the Ministry of Labour, have re-engineered their tactics to rally unorganized sector.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 29, 2011, 10.39 AM IST
Maruti Suzuki strike: How India Inc's new age unions are pushing for reforms
If not for her white sari and carefully crafted pro-worker pronouncements, the BlackBerry-toting Anannya Bhattacharya could well have been a programmer in either Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas, where she attained a degree in Computer Science before diving into full-time activism.

Egged on by the US invasion of Central America and Apartheid, Bhattacharya got involved in the struggle for communities of colour and organized taxi drivers and domestic workers from Asia in the Big Apple.

She returned to India in 2003 as "I felt that one cannot attain social justice without working where most of the world’s poor are". A year shy of 50, Bhattacharya today runs the 3,000-member strong Garment and Allied Workers Union (GAWU) making up garment workers largely from the Gurgaon-Manesar-Bhiwadi belt.

Apart from successfully bargaining with large brands, such as Wal-Mart, for an Asian Floor Wage based on purchase price parity to the dollar, she has also taken up the cause of workers against the high-handedness of some of the manufacturers in the region.

Take the case of Viva Global, one of the main suppliers of readymade garments to Marks & Spencer, where workers wanted better conditions owing to "excessive heat" and "lack of water". Bhattacharya's crusade not only blacklisted Viva Global from the buyer community but also drew global attention to the plight of the workers through considerable internet campaigning and collective bargaining.

Industry unions, like Bhattacharya's GAWU, and those at the factory level, such as the newly-formed Maruti Suzuki Employees' Union or the six-year-old Honda Motorcycle and Scooters India Workers' Union are exhibiting leadership and organisational skills of a higher degree than mere sloganeering or even prolonged spells of militancy.

While they represent only 8% of the workforce (that toils in the organized sector), there's a certain method to the madness unlike Dutta Samant's year-long strike in Mumbai in 1982 involving about 300,000 workers, which led to the closure of most mills in the Maximum City. "Since he (Samant) was using unconventional methods, he had to succumb to his own style of functioning," says Saji Narayanan, the 53-year-old president of the right-aligned Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).

At the central level, the 11 trade union organisations recognised by the Ministry of Labour, like the BMS, have re-engineered their tactics to rally the unorganized sector and voice their demands on a common platform. For instance, on May 19, at such a meeting in Delhi, all central trade unions came together to take up issues ranging from price rise to disinvestment. The change, however, with young leadership in the saddle, is more palpable in the organized space.

Keep The Party Out

For a start, most new company or industry-level union leaders don't want to truck with political parties and prefer negotiating with the management on the same footing over internal matters. Take the case of the 27-year-old Shiv Kumar, General Secretary of the much in the news Maruti Suzuki Employees' Union at Manesar. While Maruti is yet to recognize the 811-strong union, Kumar, a machinist and diploma holder from an Industrial Training Institute, will not back down. But he has no inclination to call for third-party mediation.

"I don't want to align with any political party in fulfilling our demands," says the man who led the Manesar plant workers on a 13-day strike in June, causing the country's largest carmaker to lose production of 16,000 units. Though Bhattacharya is not averse to political intervention, she believes "politics without dynamic grassroots organisation is corrupt politics".

Does the go-it-alone nature of today's trade unions rattle the apparatchik at the central trade union organizations affiliated to political parties? "The government recognises central trade unions by verification of membership, and similarly, in a factory, there needs to be a mechanism to recognise trade unions," says AK Padmanabhan, President of the left-aligned Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Company unions cannot survive in isolation.

MK Padhe, Secretary of CITU and a Politburo member, says that at the factory level, mostly internal unions can be seen cropping up "as managements don't allow outsiders to negotiate".

People, Production, Profit

Reorganisation, tech prowess and new leadership in a rapidly globalised environment are giving impetus to newer formulas of protest, and even collaboration. For instance, in the Toyota plant at Bangalore, the management recently decided to lower the 'takt time' or the cycle time from a vehicle every three minutes to one in 2.5 minutes. The additional manpower required for the operation was agreed upon after the management heard out the union that gave an ants' eye view presentation from the shop floor.

Deepak SR, the 33-year-old president of Toyota Kirloskar Motors Employees' Union says: "Earlier, the management's stance was hostile and it did not want to discuss anything with the workers but they realized strikes are self-defeating and cause loss of production. Now members of the management even agree when they commit mistakes."

At the Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India (HMSI) Workers Union, 35-year-old President Suresh Gaur says the company management is collaborating with the union as it shifts some of its production from Manesar to Tapukara in Rajasthan. He says that though the management claims it will increase production of the existing models to compensate for some of the models that have been shifted, it hasn't been able to move an inch owing to vendor issues.

"So we have asked the management to put the purchase department before us to get a handle on the vendor and procurement issues and the management has agreed," says Gaur.

Tapan Sen, MP and General Secretary, CITU, says, quoting CMIE figures, that from 2000 to 2008, in the manufacturing sector, the share of labour to net value addition has plummeted from 22% to 9.2%. But that's not deterring the Unions. "In 90% companies today, workers want increase in production because they get better incentives that way," says Gaur, highlighting a marked departure from yesteryears when workers went the whole hog to stall production.

Forward Bloc

But more than twirling the drumstick of demands, it is the very style of operations that have undergone a sea change. Anand Mohan Sharan, the former additional labour commissioner of Gurgaon, was zapped when he saw how the Honda union leaders argued with laptops and made presentations when negotiating with the management. Today, the Honda union is a blueprint for many aspiring unions and Gaur is often called upon for helping workers of other companies unionise.

The New Protestants

He has already helped workers of Nestle and Bhaskar Kirloskar in tax-free Rudrapur and is also giving "vital inputs" to Tata Motors' workers in the same region. "A month back, a two-member delegation representing a German trade union came to meet us to study our movement," he says.

"Earlier, there used to be hunger strikes but today, even if people die out of hunger, the company would be unmoved. Even rallies are not taken seriously. There is sloganeering at the gate and black ribbons are worn in the company to dent its image. Only at a much later stage, if the company remains unmoved, should there be resort to a tool down strike."

Gaur's union even has a few MBAs. Yatish Kumar, an MBA and a weldshop worker at Honda, often comes to the union's rescue when it comes to negotiations. For instance, while thrashing out the all-important wage settlement with the HMSI management in 2006, the union needed help to crack financial data where Kumar's expertise came in handy.

Take the case of the more progressive Bangalore-based UNITES, or the Union of IT Enabled Services, led by the 36-year-old Prithviraj Lekkad, who gave up his job as a team leader in C-Cube Solutions, an apex support call centre, to work for the "harrassed lot of the IT industry" five years ago. Today, with over 18,000 members from all over the country across 500-odd companies, it is the largest redressal body for IT employees in India.

"Managements don't deal with us directly and so we create a 'hot issue' by highlighting the problems via website campaigns, emails and over social media, including Facebook and Twitter," says Lekkad. The organisational structure too seems different with committee members meeting every two months locally and once a year, nationally. "We have six committees countrywide and each committee member carries out a core activity," claims Lekkad.

Recently, UNITES was up in arms against the Spanish-owned Santander UK for returning its Indian call centres operating since 2003 from Bangalore and Pune, affecting some 500 employees. "The trend is MNCs moving offshoring operations from India to cheaper destinations, such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and this is resulting in mass layoffs," says Lekkad.

Santander claims it decided to shut shop due to the growing number of customer complaints, UNITES asks why it took eight long years for the company to realise that. "Can we infer that Santander failed to train their staff effectively?" reads an entry in the UNITES website.

Acknowledgment Due

While confrontation has new teeth with technology and a more educated workforce, a discourse is only possible if unions get recognition from their managements for all labour-related discussions. There are umpteen cases, including Maruti's Manesar plant union, that are awaiting recognition.

In its turn, Maruti says that it recognises only one union at its Gurgaon plant (not Manesar), the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union, which, says Managing Executive Officer (Admin), SY Siddiqui, "has been at the forefront of new initiatives like flexible manufacturing, kaizen and regular training of workers".

Last year, when workers of multinational giant Foxconn demanded that their union be recognised by the management for all labour-related discussions, the subsequent strike led to 400 arrests. Almost simultaneously, workers of the MRF United Workers Union were arrested by the police in Tamil Nadu for raising similar demand. A few years ago, a workers' agitation in the plant of Graziano Italiano in Greater Noida over the refusal to recognise a workers' union ended with the company's managing director being killed.

Currently, workers at Tata Motors' Rudrapur plant that produces the Nano, have formed a union and are awaiting recognition. "There are about 6,000 workers in the factory of which 750 permanent employees are union members," claims Dinesh Bhatt, president of the union, which is demanding wage revision and more downtime, among other things. Bhatt, though, is hopeful of his union getting recognised by August.

Wages are always a sore point but Nestlé India workers seem to have sorted out their problems uniquely - by approaching international bodies. In 2009, unions representing more than 1,200 workers at Nestlé India's factories in Moga, Ponda and Bicholim signed agreements on wages and benefits for the first time marking a major achievement in their year-long struggle for the right to wage bargaining.

In November 2008, the unions, which are members of the International Union of Food-affiliated Federation of All India Nestlé Employees, called for an end to the system of unilaterally imposed annual wage increments and demanded the right to negotiate wages.

Nestlé India management stood its ground and instead obtained court injunctions permanently banning union actions within 50 to 200 metres of four factories (Moga, Samalkha, Ponda and Bicholim). In its defence, a Nestlé India spokesperson states that "the court injunctions were not against the workers' right to assembly....(but) to ensure smooth entry and exit of people and materials and to ensure proper functioning of the factory operations".

There were demonstrations and a formal complaint filed against Nestlé for violations of the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises. With a barrage of pressure at local, national and international levels, Nestlé India management finally entered into wage negotiations for the first time in September 2009.

Internationally, trade unions have delinked from politics. In the UK and US, they are powerful in negotiations with individual employers, but have no significant political clout. Ditto in Japan. Even in Germany, France and Italy, the role of trade unions has become more focused on negotiations with employers rather than on politics. Trade unions in India have come a long way since 1918 when the first organised trade union, the Madras Labour Union, came into being under Bahman Pestonji Wadia, a theosophist who found the Madras textile mill workers' conditions oppressive, to say the least.

Though BP Wadia got disillusioned with the Theosophical Society in Madras and left a year later for Los Angeles, one of his descendents would return more than six decades later to lord over Mumbai's mills and set up one of the greatest clashes between labour and capital in Post Independent India - Nusli Wadia, the enfant terrible of India Incorporated, and one of the nemesis of the late Dutta Samant. But that, again, is another story.

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