Strike by Comstar Workers

I, hereby undertake not to hereafter, instigate, indulge or participate in any illegal activities against the company such as illegal strike, sabotage,….tools down, hunger strike, go-slow, stoppage of work for any sort (of) grievance……I will adhere to the staggered work timings, staggered breaks/meals, follow all lawful rules…and work on Saturdays/holidays/over-time work strictly as per decision of management……In case I fail to adhere…I will accept immediate disciplinary action…

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Well it should if you have been following the workers’ strike in Maruti Suzuki’s Maneswar plant in Haryana. A month long strike and then a hard rap on the knuckle for ‘indiscipline’ and ‘bad’ behavior by the management, ably supported by a brokering state, forcing the workers to fall in line. This is called the ‘good’ behavior oath, which only the workers have to take, not the management.

Something similar is happening in Chennai. The above passages are not from the ‘good conduct bond’ that the Maruti workers signed last week, but a similar document that the management of Comstar Automotive Technologies Pvt Ltd (Comstar India) is asking its striking workers to sign if they want their jobs back. A key supplier of alternators and starters to automobile majors like Ford, Volvo, Jaguar, Mazda, Aston Martin, Tata Motors, Fiat, Ashok Leyland-Nissan, General Motors, the company started in 1998 in the outskirts of Chennai. Formerly Visteion Powertrain, it was set up to cater to the Ford European operations and later expanded to become a global supplier.

Proudly announcing on its website of according “highest priority to freedom of expression, which is key to employee creativity (sic) and satisfaction”, the company since its inception has not even recognized the basic rights of the workers to form a union. Since 2004, the workers have tried to get the management to recognize their union, and every time failing to do so.

420 permanent workmen and women of Comstar have been on strike for over two months, behind the giant Ford factory in Maraimalainagar on the way to Mahindra city SEZ. Unnoticed by the media, except for a stray report here and there, the strike entered its 54th day today.  After 20 failed conciliatory meetings, mediated by the labour department, 3 of which were not attended by the management on the false pretext that they were ‘beaten’ by the union leaders and therefore ‘in protest’ refused to attend the meetings, all the striking workers decided to come to the Deputy Labour Commissioner’s office today (3/10/2011) to press for their demands.

Formed in September 2008, the independent union-Comstar Automotive Technologies Employees Union, has been demanding for recognition since its inception. Having submitted a 35 point ‘charter of demand’ to the Comstar India management on 31st March 2011 and having failed to elicit any response from the management, the Union served its first strike notice on 11/7/2011. On 11/8/2011, all 420 members of the Union (out of total 490 permanent workers and 400 trainees/apprentices that the company hires) started their strike infront of the factory gate. On its part, to intimidate the workers and thwart any form of ‘freedom of expression’, the management resorted to dirty tricks before the strike commenced. “On 23rd and 30th July, both of which were Saturdays and normally off days for us, the management punished us by cutting 16 days of wages for failure to come to work without any warning”, said T Nataraj, Gen. Secretary of the Union. In total 32 days of wages were deducted, including for 6th and 11th of August.

The Labour Department on its part kicked it in with the conciliatory process on 29/7/2011 under Industrial Disputes Act, including issuing a ‘failure of conciliation’ notice by the Assistant Commissioner of Labour (Sriperumbadur) on 10/8/2011.

Besides being adamant, the management also slapped false cases against the key union leaders, including its general secretary and treasurer. Two chargesheets have been filed against these two leaders for assaulting the management staff, besides 5 workers suspended for stopping the company buses, 3 served show cause notices for tearing management notices and additional notices to be served against 14 workers (yet to be confirmed) for instigating the strike. And while the strike is underway, the management started an ‘Employees Committee’ represented by 6 employees and 5 management staff to undermine the union and the strike by its members. Not just that, the management has also employed 200 trainees to cover for the permanent workers, for which show cause notices have been served by the labour department against 11 managers for violating the Industrial Disputes Act, which prohibits such retaliatory behavior by the management while the workers are on strike. The production is down to 40% due to the strike.

“Our key demands have been recognition of our union, wage rise, better working condition and social security”, said Natraj.

The permanent workers, all of whom are in a single grade, have been demanding the pay to be raised by atleast Rs 15,000 (currently they get about Rs 16000/month). The ‘tedious’ work hour of 9.5 hours to be changed is also a key demand. The factory runs on 3 shifts- 7.15am-4.45pm, 4.45 pm-2.15am and mid-night shift of 9.45pm-7.15am. With a 30 minutes meal break and two 7 minutes tea breaks in each shift. “We find the work hours very tedious and stressful. We travel for over 3 hours and then work for 9.5 hours”. The company provides transportation. “While we do not have major issues about safety, there are always minor injuries, especially hand injuries due to malfunctioning of machines. Last year there were 3  ‘lost time cases’ where workers had injured their fingers badly, but no compensation was paid to them, only medical treatment through a private medical company was provided”.

A.Kothandaramal, who lost half of his index finger in 2005, while he was trainee, when it got caught in a machine due a faulty sensor, noted that he wasn’t given any compensation, but some medical treatment.

While I write this piece, hectic negotiation are still going on where workers are pressing on with their demands with the Joint Commissioner of Labour (conciliation) to forward their ‘Charter of Demand’ to the Industrial Tribunal, an interim relief of Rs 5000 to all striking workers, wages for the strike period, pay for the 16 days wages that were cut in July, withdraw disciplinary actions against 10 union members and reinstate the workers in the same department where they were working prior to the strike (maintenance of status quo).

Postscript: After I finished writing the article, I got a sms late in the night from the Union stating that the strike has been called off. It was called off after an agreement was reached between the Union and the Comstar management brokered by the Joint Commissioner of Labour. The basis for calling off the strike were three – the management will negotiate on the charter of demand with 6 workers, which would include members from the union; disciplinary proceedings against 10 unions members will be withdrawn; the issue of 32 days illegal wage cut would be taken up in the labour tribunal (after the JCL issues a failure notice since management failed to agree to reinstate wages).Thankfully the workers did not have to sign the ‘good conduct undertaking’.

Late into the night, thinking about the outcomes of the Comstar strike and before that the month long strike by Maruti workers, one was left wondering whether  strikes are becoming increasingly irrelevant infront of  unrelenting corporations and the complicit state. Does the working class need to rethink its strategy to counter the onslaught of the capital and a brokering state?

– Madhumita Dutta

Madhumita Dutta is an activist and researcher based in Chennai and works on issues related to labour and environmental justice.

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