A solidarity meeting was organised for the maruti workers struggle in Chennai on November 13th . The event was organized by Sanhati as part of a nationwide campaign in support of jailed maruti workers. Out of the 147 workers who were jailed in 2012 for the violence inside the Manesar Plant, 34 still remain in jail and have not been granted bail. The final verdict from lower court is expected soon and it is suspected that at least 20 of them (7 of who constituted the general body of Maruti-Suzuki union before the arrest) will get life sentence.
Speaking on the occasion, Ramnivas, an ex-worker of Maruti Manesar plant and a member of provisional working committee and the president of worker solidarity centre, contextualized the workers struggle in Manesar plant. The Manesar plant started in 2006 had high disparity between wages for permanent workers and contract workers. The workers’ productivity grew so much that the average time to produce a car decreased from 72 seconds to 48 seconds. This was achieved through applying production pressure on workers. There was a mandatory of 3 hour overtime. There were hardly any breaks for drinking water, toilet and tea breaks with no reliever for workers to take such breaks. During this time, Maruti was making additional 70000 cars per year at Manesar plant.
Workers, both permanent and contract, started resisting the exploitation by forming a union in 2011. The management propped up the pro management union already functioning in Gurgaon plant. When workers went to register their own union, the Assistant Commissioner of Labour is said to have asked that given their high wages, why would they want to form a union. As Ramnivas explained, the records the commissioner had showed that the permanent workers in the plant got a salary of around 42,000 per month. When they showed their pay slips of around 16,000 even he was taken aback. Such illegal practices are of course common in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Bawal region.
Between 2011 and 2012 the workers held two strikes and a lockout. The first strike was for registration of an independent union which the management was vehemently opposing. The second strike was on behalf of contract workers who were not allowed to return to the company by the management. The management responded by giving warning letters to workers and penalizing them at worksite. The management also tried to subvert the union by bribing the union leaders. Bouncers were brought to quell workers’ protests. All of this culminated in a deep distrust between workers and management. Inspite of all these set-backs a union finally formed in February 2012, and this was a big victory for the all the workers inside tie Manesar plant.
Ramnivas spoke about the impact of the now infamous July 18th incident, in which a HR manager died. The workers were persecuted mercilessly. Over 2400 workers including 586 permanent workers were dismissed. 147 workers were jailed. The police came and picked up people arbitrarily. The opinion of the society and the surrounding villages was turning against the workers due to the propaganda by the state and the company. The provisional committee, started after the event, realized that their version of the event had to be articulated to the society. Workers and activists took pada yatras, cycle rallies, jathas to articulate questions that needed to be raised to get the facts out. The committee raised doubts on the claim of the state by posing questions on absence of CCTV footage in a plant where even toilets had CCTV, the autopsy report stating the manager died of asphyxiation, how a HR manager’s room can house so many workers as implicated by the state, presence of bouncers who were posing as “new workers” in the plant on the day of the incident etc.
One of the key protests was a 57 days long Dharna in Kaithal, Hariyana in which a large number of people, including villagers from neighbouring places participated . This dharna was brutally broken up by police and all the participants including women were lathi-charged by police with many people facing severe injuries. 111 protesters were jailed in Kaithal jail. However this has not dented the spirit of workers and activists, and the struggle has continued.
Ramnivas summarized the key achievements of their resistance. Maruti Union exists even now and management has not been able to break it. In the past, relievers never existed inside the Manesar plant. There have been cases of workers urinating while working at their stations as there was no reliever which would allow them to leave. Relievers are now present in the plant. In the past before the union was formed, unplanned leave would mean double salary cut. Now Maruti allowed 20 days of unplanned leaves annually to workers. He finally appealed to the audience to participate in the national convention which is being held in Gurgaon on November 27th, which will discuss the issue of the workers who still languish in jail as well as larger issues of industrial workers in India.
Amit, a member of Workers Solidarity Centre traced the context of political economy that underpinned the automobile sector and material conditions that give raise to workers’ conflicts. He said that while Ambassador, the premier car production industry in pre-globalizing era, was employing over 20000 permanent workers, the new automobile companies were employing only 1500-2000 permanent workers. In Manesar, Honda workers’ conflict was the fore front struggle in 2005, where the management used contract workers to weaken the permanent workers’ struggles. In 2009, workers from Rico stuck for more than 44 days and in the struggle, a worker was killed. This evoked a one day solidarity strike by 1 lakh workers in the region. With traditional unions like HMS and INTUC not leading the workers’ struggles, a form of self organization was happening. With the experience of Honda workers’ strike, both permanent and contract workers were organized and were demanding unionization and abolishment of contract workers. When strikes were organized in Maruti Manesar, Manesar being a nodal plant, this reverberated in production stoppage in supply chains.
Amit explained how the genesis of this struggle occurs at the shop-floor. Before the first strike in 2011, management had a clear upper hand on the shop floor via supervisors. It was clear that workers were intimidated by the supervisors who often exercised extremely humiliating tactics like punishing the workers for slightest of errors by making them stand in a corner or other such silly methods. After the strike and formation of union, the power on the shop floor stayed with the workers. In this way Amit explained how the embryonic part of the struggle between the two classes, the management and the workers, formed at the shop-floor.
Maruti Management was famous in the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt for never allowing formation of independent unions and having complete control of the workers. On both accounts the management has suffered heavy defeats. The union still exists, due to which the power on the shop floor resides with the workers. This defeat is the key reason why management, according to Amit, is hellbent on setting an example by punishing the workers who were at the forefront of the struggle.
Amit also emphasised how plants such as Maruti are learning to transfer the crisis of capital vs labour by internal fragmentaton of labour into permanent, contract and temporary and making it difficult for permanent workers to strike, fragmentation of production into assembly and supply chains, support of production crisis at vendor level and fragmentation of production in multiple geographies. A coordinated system of workers’ struggle is needed to fight the capital.
Santhosh, a member of Sanhati ended the talk with lessons to be learnt from the struggle. He said that Maruti struggle is not an isolated event and is outcome of the production process. In the neo liberal regime, two worlds are emerging – a rich and middle class which wants consumer products as and when it desires and a working class which bears the brunt of it. When workers’ conflicts were emerging in Maruti, there was a three month wait time for its cars, which led to increased pressure.These struggles were converted to political struggle with basic rights for workers specifically right to unionization.
The lessons that Maruti’s struggles teach us are articulation of demands politically, need for unity of the fragmented working class, simultaneous awareness in society by way of meetings with society leaders and student groups and develop creative space for organizing using jathas, pada yatras etc.