Over 500 transport workers, supported by auto drivers and even workers from factories, came together on Anna Salai, near Monroe Statue, Chennai, protesting the anti labour policies of the Central Government. Thousands of transport workers across Tamilnadu had struck work in support of the call given by Central Trade Unions. Even as the government managed to maintain transport services by employing contract workers in extended shifts, it also curbed any action by the workers through active deployment of police across all vehicle depots and protest zones. The police did not allow the workers to take out a peaceful rally. Workers courted arrest, with some even trying to block the arterial road for several minutes. Eight workers unions participated in this strike action.
Arasandoss, a conductor with Metropolitan State Transport Corporation, said that they were fighting against the new pension scheme that had effectively removed social security provisions to workers who joined later than 2003. “We are not fighting just for ourselves, we are fighting for the new comers, for the contract workers, for the pensioners, its about all of us.” He also said that they were awaiting some news from the transport minister vis a vis their wage increase and if they find that it is not satisfactory, they might be forced to go on strike again.
While workers from TVS factories in Paadi, who had come to join the strike action on behalf of INTUC, did not want to make any comment, they said that some of their workers are participating in the strike and taking part in solidarity actions in other places. Auto drivers from various areas had also joined the strike. Saravanan, an auto driver from Virugambakkam, said “the move to privatize RTO functions will increase our cost. The government is also trying to curb informal repair shops by insisting that spare parts can be sold and replaced only by company authorized dealers. Both moves will increase our cost substantially. We also want a raise in the auto fare to alteast Rs 30/- per 2 kms.”
Sesashaiyanam, Gen Sec of Auto Drivers Union affiliated to AITUC, said that over 80% of autos were off road in Chennai and news reports indicated that more that 90% of autos were not plying in Tamilnadu. He again reiterated the demands of the para-transit workers seeking the repeal of the Motor Vehicles safety act 2016. He also added that they were also fighting for the rights of all informal workers and demanding that the government increase their social security benefits.
Speaking about the demand for a hike in minimum wage to Rs 18000/- a month, A.S Kumar, AICCTU state secretary, said that the government is trying to cheat and fool people by propagating that they have raised the minimum wage. “Our demand is for Rs 18000/-. It is the same minimum that they pay commission has fixed for government workers. Everyone is human with the same basic needs and it is only logical that this should be the floor minimum wage. The Delhi government has announced a minimum wage of Rs 17000/-, and Rs 18000 is definitely possible. But Modi government, has only raised the minimum wage to Rs 9100 for unskilled workers. Further when the government announced Rs 10000/- for contract workers a few months ago, the capitalist lobby immediately complained saying it would lead to a loss in profit of over 11000 crore rupees. The measure was immediately rolled back. They were not even willing to make a loss in their profit and this government was only too happy to withdraw. Increasing the minimum wage will only boost the economy, the government will get a fair share of the increase as tax revenue, the workers will go and buy durable goods, improving our manufacturing. It will not increase inflation it will only increase economic output.” Making these points, he claimed that over 70 lakh workers across Tamilnadu were on strike and in Chennai, and that many factories in the industrial area of Thiruvottiyur were shut down due to strike. He further added “this is not just a fight for our wages, our first demand is to curb inflation that is affecting all the people, we want the government to immediately control the prices of essential commodities. We have also demanded that the government not sell our public sector enterprises. These belong to all people and are national assets. We are also demanding parity of wage between contract and regular workers so that workers cannot be divided and equality of pay is assured.” Click play below to hear his interview
There was significant police presence and they seemed to be in control of the situation right from the beginning. The police were very cooperative allowing press to interview the leaders and get their photos and sound bytes. After most of the workers had assembled, the leaders from all the representing unions moved to the front of the crowd and as slogans were raised, courted arrest. The police, removing the barricades, allowed the workers to get onto the police vans that were ready at hand.
As the leaders along with some of the workers were being taken into custody an errant group of workers decided to break order and blocked the roads towards Central Railway station. The police took some time to respond as they were caught unawares. With traffic piling up quickly , it looked as if the workers would be successful in blocking the road, but with little support from the leadership and their colleagues, the group of workers were quickly cleared of the road and loaded onto waiting police vehicles.
While a large number of workers did gather to register their protest with the policies of the current government, their strike had little effect on the transport sector, atleast in Chennai. Most of the busses were plying and even though it is claimed that maintenance work was affected and contract workers had to do longer shifts, it had little impact on the commuters. Overall the demonstration played to a regular script where the workers are arrested after a really short visible protest and released at the end of the day. While the workers expressed their strong desire to see their demands met, they were unsure if such strikes would actually gain them anything as they have seen this repeated many times over.