(Interview conducted by Prathamesh, transcribed by Meghna)
This is an interview with AICCTU general secretary S. Kumarasamy about the struggle of Pricol workers. Kumarasamy talks about the history and the present of the Pricol struggle, in the backdrop of the Government’s attack on labour all around the country, and how workers are fighting back everywhere.
This is the second piece in our two-part series on Pricol — yesterday we posted an interview with Gunabalan, one of the eight Pricol workers sentenced to a double life sentence. Gunabalan got bail recently, but the other seven are still in jail.
Interviewer : Can you briefly summarise the history of the Pricol struggle and basically the current situation of the Pricol workers.
Kumarasamy: Pricol workers formed a union of their choice in 2007. The management said that Maoists and left extremists have come and taken over the union and this will cause harm to the industry. We may have to move out of Coimbatore. Then they started a series of victimising activities. The workers, they with withstood all these things. There were more than 40 criminal cases. Even women workers were jailed. Criminal cases are always quite difficult to handle.
There have been a lot of terminations and more than 150 dismissals. There have been wage cuts, there have been refusals to pay wage increases. There have been break in service. So many things… but in spite of all these things the workers fought back and ultimately the management recognised the union in 2011. And they had to sign two settlements with the union. One in 2012 and another in 2014.
In 2009 there was an unfortunate death of Mr.Roy George, the Vice President of the Human Resources Department. This unfortunate incident was utilised by the management as well as the police. They framed a criminal case of conspiracy and murder against 27 workers including four women workers. The judgement was delivered on 3.12.2015. 19 have been acquitted. The charge of criminal conspiracy has not been accepted by the court but 8 have been convicted to double life imprisonment one for murder and one for criminal trespass with intention to kill.
There has been an appeal and petitions have been filed for getting them out and bail.One of them has come out on bail on 22nd March 2016.
Interviewer : What about the other bail applications?
Kumarasamy: Other bail applications the high court has not accepted it at the moment. The workers, they are at liberty to file it at any point of time in future. They will do it at the appropriate time.
Interviewer : So you are going to go the higher courts?
Kumarasamy: In any case of life imprisonment, the appeal lies before the division bench of the high court. So they will send an appeal to the division bench of the High Court in the future. Now the management, they have filed an appeal against the acquittal of 19 people. That has also been admitted.
Interviewer : So why is management pursuing it so hard?
Kumarasamy: Actually, it is a matter between wage labour and capital. They try to finish us off. They try to that in 2009 this criminal conspiracy, somehow that did not finish off the union. They signed settlements with the union. Now they feel that somehow we will have to get rid of this union. They have done it by denying, reducing bonus this year… from 35.34% to 8.33. See this criminal case judgement.
But all these things do not deter the workers from their chosen path of struggle and their own union. Actually, the union and the workers have entered the 10th year of their struggle. And they are celebrating that struggle. This 13th March, there was a big social gathering of workers and their families.
Interviewer : What is the significance of 13th March?
Kumarasamy: Actually it so happened that on 13th March in Thirunelveli there was a big uprising against the British. Basically it was very significant V.O Chidambaram, he was a patriotic leader, he was also a worker leader, he fought for the workers. He was sentenced in the same Kovai jail where the Pricol workers are there. 13th March uprising, the British parliament discussed it for two days. There was a sedition case against V.O.Chidambaram Pillai for 13th March 1917.
We thought in view of the JNU happenings and the assaults on the freedom of expression, the assaults on democracy, the assaults on Dalit rights by the Sangh Parivar it would be appropriate to celebrate the struggle entering the 10th year on that 13th March.
But the whole Pricol struggle started on 3rd March, 2007. But we chose this date because of this reason. Through out the year we intend to reach out to the people with he message of struggle.
Interviewer : Do you plan to pursue this issue politically or legally?
Kumarasamy: Politically and legally. See politically all the Central trade unions have signed.. They have signed a statement at the Central level and at the Tamil Nadu level. The WFTU has come out in support of the Pricol workers. From throughout the country, solidarity funds are reaching the Pricol workers.
That was it has assumed national and international importance and significance. Because in independent India, double life imprisonment for workers who carry on struggle is unprecedented. It is an assault ont he working class movement.
Interviewer: Can you briefly tell us about, you mentioned about the working class movement, as you said before there are parallels with the Honda and the Maruti struggles, as well as its importance in the context of Make in India because this is why in Rajasthan you say dilution of labour laws and most importantly the crushing down of labour struggles.
Kumarasamy: Throughout the world, finance capital is trying to restructure everything. Basically, it is re-distribution of wealth and incomes in favour of a very few people.
There is a concerted attack on Indian working class. Particularly, the Modi government has intensified the attack. Make in India is only that. It is an invitation to multinational and monopoly capital to come and exploit India’s natural and human resources. See they are shamelessly saying labour here is cheap. Everything is cheap. We will offer our services – come, exploit. See that is Make in India. Whatever rights are there, they want to snatch away.That is why labour reforms are initiated.
Rajasthan and Haryana governments are in the lead. Actually it is a fait accompli, the Central government. See Rajasthan will do something, Haryana will do something then the Central government can very well say – well it has been carried out in Rajasthan, it has been carried out in Haryana, we will do it here also. That sort of a thing is taking place.
The workers won’t take it lying down. See Modi Government, the initial days of euphoria are over. In the land issue, they took a beating. JNU, they have taken a beating. Now workers are also fighting back. See the Honda workers, in spite of heavy…. against them in Rajasthan, they are fighting.
See Maruti workers are still fighting. The Maruti Workers Union President Ram Niwas has been remanded to judicial custody for coming out in support of Honda workers.
But they refuse to die down. Whether it is Maruti workers, or Pricol workers their indomitable spirit of struggle and sacrifice is something very important. In spite of everything workers are fighting back. That is the most important thing.
Interview – There are many parallels between the Pricol and Maruti struggles.
Kumarasamy: One difference is that in Pricol, the union ultimately got recognition and signed two wage settlements. This is all the more problematic for the management. For capital in general. Not only you dare to struggle, but dare to succeed. That is why this excessive harsh punishment has come.
Interviewer : So earlier you mention the politicisation of workers,
Kumarasamy: AICCTU has got two basic fronts. One is politicisation of the workers and the other one is the democratisation of unions. Whether Maruti, or JNU or killing of a Dalit youth, Pricol workers have always come out in solidarity with them.
They are even participating in electoral battles. The President of Pricol workers is contesting this assembly elections from Mettupalayam, Tamil Nadu. They are supporting another candidate in a nearby constituency. On 3rd December the judgement came, on 5th December the Pricol workers collected 5 lakhs for the flood affected people of Chennai. See this has become something internal. It has got internalised. They are playing a social role. The union is playing a social role.
People are also acknowledging it. That is why throughout India people feel that the punishment for the Pricol workers is a punishment for the Indian working class.
See this is working out in its own way. One for all, all for one. One for the workers who are in jail. Attempts are being made to bring out the remaining people also, and their families are being taken care of by the union. Not only their families, people who have been dismissed, they are fighting court cases. Even those workers are getting solidarity fund from the union. Pricol workers have contributed and spent more than 35 lakhs towards solidarity funds for the dismissed workers and for the workers in jail. They will continue to do that.
Interviewer: In terms of contractualisation, what is the situation now?
Kumarasamy: Actually now the whole thing has changed. Earlier they were having contract labour. Now they are using apprentices. This is a part of this Make in India. They are exploiting, but they are saying we are imparting skills by way of training. Nothing of that sort is taking place, it is naked exploitation. They pay a pittance – Rs.8000 or Rs.10000 for degree engineers, diploma engineers. Actually it is not training, it is regular production.
Actually Pricol workers and AICCTU have come out with a working class charter for 2016 elections wherein we have raised a few demands. There is Legislative Amendment 47 of 2008 if you want apprentices, but central government has not given its ascent to the bill. Even though the bill has been unanimously passed by the Tamil Nadu government. We are demanding that any party that comes into power in assembly elections should get the ascent of the President.
In Tamil Nadu, contract labour rules 25(5) says that if contract labour are made to perform the work of regular workers, they should be paid the same wages, given same working conditions and holidays. We are insisting on that, we are trying to sensitise, motivate the workers to reach out to apprentices. I think that will be the next big issue that the union will take up. It needs a lot of preparation. The union’s main demand will be increasing permanent employment, regular employment. That will be a big plus to society.
Interviewer : The working class struggles in India. We have seen the struggle of Tata Nano workers the fight that has recently started. So where do you see these struggles going and how does one really see this matching the brutal assault and these kind of tactics used by the management.
Kumarasamy: Actually auto mobile industry, two wheelers or four wheelers, that has become the centre of class battles in India today. It is a good thing but workers don’t take it lying down. Honda workers struggle, Nano workers struggle they are quite encouraging to the whole of Indian working class movement. We may lose many battles, but the whole point is to remain in the path of struggle.
The larger picture is that the flag is not thrown away, but is passed on from one hand to another. In spite of all the oppression, in spite of all labour laws and in spite of all government colluding with capital, in spite of restructuring taking place in the industry, the workers are fighting back. That is the silver lining in the dark clouds.
Interviewer – Who controls this Pricol company and why were they so influential?
Kumarasamy: Pricol is an auto component major. In Tamil Nadu, they manufacture speed limit devices, speed governors. They have got units in Uttarkhand, Pune, Gurgaon. They have got a plant in Jakarta, Indonesia. Sao Paolo Brazil. They are also opening units in Mexico and Vietnam.
Interviewer – It’s an Indian company?
Kumarasamy: Ya, it is an Indian company. It is run by a Coimbatore industrialist. The family of one Mr.Vijay Mohan. They have got a controlling interest in Pricol.
Interviewer – So it is a classical national bourgeoisie?
Kumarasamy– I would not put it that way. The national bourgeiose shoud stand up to feudal governments, imperialists, loot. People who make compromises with feudal elements and imperialist loot they cannot be called national by any stretch of imagination.
Interviewer – Thanks for spending your time.