In the first part of this two part series we looked at how Renualt Nissan Workers were moved towards forming a Union after 5 years of service. The second part of this story explores the various attempts by the Management to break up the workers union and to replace it with a management supported union.
Over the past week, media has reported an unprecedented pay rise for Renault Nissan Workers. One of the headlines in a leading daily reported that the pay rise was over 50%. This is a historic high in the auto sector, and the reports alluded to a cascading effect of this pay rise on other auto makers in the belt. The actual wage agreement did provide for Rs 18000/- per month increment over the next three years. Along with upward revisions to various allowances like travel, insurance, and night shift , the pay increase will work out to be Rs 19000/-. This is definitely a significant increase for the ‘technicians’. How could the company that had hitherto raised wages by about Rs 3500/- every year, agree to a double wage hike? How could the company afford such a steep increase in wages when demand in auto industry remains sluggish and volatile? Why did the company that refused to recognize any union since it’s inception, and then sign an unprecedented wage agreement with a union formed only few months back after a management facilitated elections?
By 2014, the workers had come to realize the management’s modus operandi of setting up toothless workers committees that would not provide them the security at the workplace or address their concerns. The actions of the new Vice President of Human resources, who had a history of suppressing workers struggles elsewhere was also leading to anxiety. When a worker was suspended for posting certain concerns on his face book page, the workers had sought out a leading labour lawyer in Chennai, to fight the enquiry and the case. It was during this interaction that they had come in touch with United Labour Front, headed by the same advocate, Mr Prakash. After many rounds of informal consultation with the workers and the ULF leadership, the large number of workers joined ULF on April 20, 2015. When the membership crossed the 1500 mark, the office bearers of ULF, began to send letters to the management seeking recognition, and asking the management to initiate wage negotiations with them. The management did not respond to any of these intimations. Instead it began the deliberate practice of threatening and/or penalizing the prominent members of the union.
The number of disciplinary actions against workers jumped from a mere 6 between 2009 -2014 to over 96 in the last one year. Workers record the number of times they were threatened disciplinary action for minor mistakes. It was clear to them that this was simply because they had decided to form a union. The leadership was constantly transferred from department to department and their access to workers is curtailed by placing them in departments which restricted interaction with the workers. Some were even transferred out of the plant. On one hand, management was adapting these anti-worker measures to stop them from unionising and on the other hand, as workers acknowledge , management was gracious to help individual workers during medical emergencies. Inspite of all these attempts and contradictions, the workers remained steadfastly committed to the union.
The union was steadily taking increasingly legal recourse by escalating their case to labour department. In September 2015, the union officially wrote to the labor department, listing the office bearers and seeking the department to declare them as ‘protected workmen’ under the ID act. Atleast on paper, this would prevent the company from victimizing them for forming the union and stop the arbitrary transfers. When this was done, while company did not recognize the union or acknowledge the letter, they began informal discussion with the plant leadership, suggesting that they all come into a plant level union, without any ‘outsider’ influence. Thus they began to accept the inevitability of a union with full powers of collective bargaining. Now they were trying to isolate the workers from the working class beyond the factory gate. The workers were not entirely averse to the idea of having a plant level union, provided it allowed Adv Prakash to represent them as legal advisor and honorary President. This was not acceptable to the management.
In October 2015, the management mooted an idea of internal election to decide about the union. Even as the workers were discussing this process, it initiated the formation of a plant level workers union that barred persons outside the plant from participating or even supporting the union. Elections were slated for December to fill the executive posts for this union. ULF members decided to boycott this process as they felt the union would be controlled by the management. Over 2000 workers planned to go on mass casual leave. Workers report that they were personally asked to participate in the elections by the staff and even threatened action if they don’t show up. Yet, according to workers, only about 1000 workers showed up for the elections and that included a number of probationers. After the elections the Renault Nissan India Workers Union was registered and the elected committee took office. But the ULF union has refused to accept this and join them. ULF members believe that this is a clear attempt by the management, especially the HR. VP, to control the association and divide the workers . They even claim that the election was a farce as the probationers who were elected were asked to resign in favour of the management selected candidates. The management has effectively recognized this union against ULF.
Many workers we spoke to report that ever since this development, management has gone overboard in penalising workers, issuing show cause notices and warnings. In informal discussions they have asked workers to sign up for the internal union. Management has even resorted to bribing the workers to lure them away from the ULF union. For example, some of the workers have also been offered transfers to departments considered less cumbersome, while others have been offered off the turn promotion to staff positions. Yet very few have moved into the management sponsored internal union as the numbers remain with ULF. In order to force recognition and consolidate their position, ULF workers went on demonstration in Chennai, demanding better working conditions for the workers and initiation of the wage negotiation. 43 show cause notices were issued on various charges, subsequent to this meeting, even though only those not on shift participated in this demonstration. When their demands were not considered, and not even acknowledged, ULF gave a strike call and sent notices. As the Auto sector in TN comes under public utilities, when ULF gave a strike notice, it automatically moved into reconciliation process mediated by the labour commissioner. The conciliation process is presently ongoing with the Asst Labour Commissioner, Sriperumbudur. After multiple rounds of absence, the management has joined the conciliation process, but has maintained that the only recognized union is the internal union. They have also said that as there has not been any profits, wage increases would have to be minimal. Remarkably enough, even as this process is ongoing, and while claiming that profits have been minimal this year, the management worked a deal with the internal union on wage. Outside the process, un-signed leaflets were circulated criticizing the ULF leadership for not having a clear demands and playing a disruptive role. ULF union has taken measures to counter this propaganda by conducting a number of meetings with the workers, explaining what happened at the ACL meeting.
It is in this context that the wage agreement between the internal union and the management need to be studied. Apart from the Rs 18000/- increase across the board to all RN technicians, the wage agreement also provides a number of perks, like health insurance, accident insurance, enhanced allowances etc. As the RN technicians are not covered under ESI, the health insurance is of great significance. These have also been long pending demands of the workers. Therefore the wage agreement delivers on many of their financial demands. Yet, leaders of the ULF union allege that workers are being asked to sign individually accepting this agreement in a form that endorses the minority internal union. This, they allege is an attempt to legitimize the minority union against ULF which in the long term would prove disastrous. They also point out that, outside the agreement, the union has agreed to make ‘Non – Production Days’ as ‘no pay’ days. The management has been seeking to convert atleast half of the two weeks of non production days as non paid work days. The NPDs are used to maintain and overhaul machinery and conduct security checks. Presently workers are paid full wage during this period, even though they are on leave. This conversion is also a concern for the workers.
Given these issues, the management has declared that June 20th is the final day to accept the new wage agreement after which it says it cannot provide wage increment to those who have not endorsed the agreement. It has also clearly mentioned that workers will be subjected to intense scrutiny and their activities both within the plant as well as outside will be monitored and attract penalties. This is a big stick and a juicy carrot trick that managements often try to employ, whenever an legitimate union becomes a possibility. The wage increase for the first year is nearly 25%, which is considerable. To not accept it might actually lead to not only loss of wage, but also to disciplinary actions. Yet to accept it will be a de-facto recognition of the management sponsored union and a loss of freedom and workers rights to demand improvements. This moment will the test the will power of the workers, while also the strategic thinking of the ULF leadership. In this fight for better working conditions and a greater share of the productivity gains, the workers have steadily exerted their collective pressure to achieve their demands. Even the present wage agreement is a product of their collective spirit. But at every turn they have had to face numerous hurdles and attacks. The ULF union and its leadership has supported many workers in the time of need. They have raised lakhs of rupees to support families of deceased workers, and pay for medical expenses. They have also pooled in funds from members to support victimized workers on suspension. Who would the workers choose? What would it mean to the trajectory of collective bargaining at the plant level? These remain very pertinent questions for the future.
But this movement has once again challenged stereotypes that capitalists try to propagate. Union do not emerge as an implant by overzealous/disruptive ‘outsiders’ but emerges as a consequence of the internal dynamics between wage workers and share holders. It is also evident that the unity of the workers and their determination to fight together, can and does procure to them their just needs. The mere threat of a union has led to vast improvements in the quality of perks as well as wage rates. Even though the burden of work has increased and the shop floor interactions has become acrimonious, the steadfast unity of the workers has been able to constrain management vindictiveness while also being of support to victimized workers.
There are aspects of this struggle which will require further commitments and efforts on part of the union. While the permanent workers have been able to come together under ULF banner, they have had very limited success in bringing together the contract workers, apprentices and learners, workers in the ancillary factories and vendors. The conditions of work in the supporting factories are even more pathetic, yet the workers have not come under the ULF rubric. Even women workers who constitute about 5-7% of the workforce are scantily represented by ULF union. If they fail to draw in their demographics and also to create networks with other unions in the region, their struggle might be very hard.
The management on the other hand has consistently worked towards dismantling the union and restricting collective action. Through a complimentary policy of offers and penalties, they have tried to thwart the formation of independent unions and having failed, promoted compliant unions to keep them in control. Wage agreement in only the latest act in this play. While they might not have immediately tasted success, their persistence can eventually bear fruit. But will they be able to control the internal union to their interests or will it turn around to become truly representative of the interests of the workers? Haven’t we seen these plots play out before, both in the real world as well as in the fictionalized world of books and movies. Whatever the outcome of this battle, the manner in which this conflict plays out will be an important experience for the working class movement. It is important that we closely monitor the developments and lend our support to the workers at the time of their needs.