Can Legalism Win Workers Demands? Workers raise issue at a Hall Meeting in Thiruvottiyur

MRF Union Leader Responds to critical questions

MRF Workers, former union leaders and labour leaders questioned the strategy of ‘legalism’ currently pursued by the MRF Union leadership. The speakers claimed that the excessive adherence to court battles to win workers’ demands was prolonging the struggle while demoralizing the workers. The meeting held on 24th of October was organized by Thozhilalar Seeramaippu Iyakkam, Thozhilalar Ottrumai Iyakkam, MRF LPF and MRF Anna Thozhilalar Peravai. Com. Kuchelar, former president of MRF Union and president of Working People Trade Union Council, was the main speaker at the event. The meeting was attended by over 500 workers, mainly from MRF, MRF retired employees, Ashok Leyland, Hinduja Foundries, Enfield, Carborandum, Coromandal, Kothari, and Eveready.

mrf workers meeting at Thiruvottiyur

mrf workers meeting at Thiruvottiyur

Highlighting that it has been 40 months since the wage agreement was to have been negotiated and finalized, Com. Sivaprakasam, former vice-president of MRF Union said that while legalism is one of the strategies available for working class, it cannot be the only strategy. He insisted that organizing struggles should not be tailor made to fit this strategy.

MRF management and union settle a wage agreement every four years. The last wage agreement was signed in 2009 and its term expired in 2013. Recounting the process of negotiating a new wage agreement in 2014, Comrade Sivaprakaram said that the management had indicated orally on its willingness to increase wages to Rs 8250 for next 4 years with retrospective wage arrears during negotiation under Labour Department. But the union had decided to get a directive under Labour Department seeking failure of negotiation and pursued the case in labour tribunal. Similarly in January 2016, when Comrade Sivaprakasam was an elected union official, the management had said that it would settle for a wage agreement increasing salaries by Rs 9250 and Com.Prabhakaran, general secretary of the union, had initially agreed to this increment but later backtracked. “Currently, through the legal process, only one interim wage agreement has been achieved for last 40 months. It shows that this is not the course for workers”, he said.

mrf-hall-meeting1

Com.Sivaprakasam said that while Com.Prakash, president of MRF Union was not working for the interest of the management, his strategy is only helping the management. While management has increased its repression on workers, the union has failed to protect the workers and this has created a sense of defeatism and fear among workers in taking up more confrontational struggle. Recalling the 30 day strikes waged by workers against the management at one time, he criticized the recent protests including 5 day hunger strike which concluded with no significant changes for the workers.

Com.Sekar, MRF worker and coordinator of Kumuka Viduthalai Thozhilalar said that since the union has taken legal option as the only tool in its struggle against the management, dismissal (48), suspensions (15), warnings and show cause notices have increased in the factory and the union was powerless to respond to this. While the union had said that they would take these issues with the Labour Department and Court, so far no case has been filed.

Questioning the strategy of going to courts to settle wage agreement, he said that this process only aids the management as they can keep postponing the case for years by way of adjournment and that struggles and protests are the way to go. He alleged that there was no democratic functioning in the executive committee as those opposing the legal route had sought for a ballot for seeking workers’ opinion on the issues and strategies and this has not been done.

Com.Kuchelar, said that while meetings are usually conducted to publicize and condemn the exploitation and repression of workers, this was the first meeting where a trade union strategy has been publicly criticized. He felt that the lack of democratic space in the union is the reason why this approach has been adopted. He said that one of the fundamental duties of trade union is to control the repression of management against the workers and recent trends show that MRF union has failed in this.

As erstwhile leader of MRF union for several decades, Com.Kuchelar traced the struggles of MRF workers and their victories. He recalled the fight in 70s* in which all 1100 workers were dismissed after the State Government banned workers of MRF to strike and asked them to approach the court for their grievance. He said that the union was resolved to continue the fight and they had called all the parties, trade unions and traders movements to back them up. When they chose to burn the Government Order banning the workers to strike, Com. Kuchelar was arrested and remanded to jail. He said that workers in various factories immediately went on strike demanding that he be released and the Government was forced to release him. He went on to say that the workers won the struggle and the management was forced to take back all the workers who were dismissed and that not a single worker was left behind.

On why such protests were lacking today, Com. Kuchelar quipped ‘Did the workers get the leaders they deserved or the leaders get the workers they deserve?’. He recalled his own defeat as president of MRF union 8 years ago, and said that it was a democratic process in which he was voted out. He felt that the young workers in MRF union may not see the need for such protests and see the court as an option and that has to be accepted.

On the struggles of wage agreement, Com. Kuchelar said that usually wage increases are demanded on the basis of industry and the region. He said that MRF used to be forerunner in setting up wage standards for the region as unions in other factories would point to MRF and demand parity in wages. He said that now when unions in other factories demand wage increases, the managements point to MRF wage as example.

The workers who had organized the meeting have given one month time for MRF union to reconsider these strategies and take ballots to decide workers’ opinion on legalism.

Response by Comrade Prabhakaran, General Secretary of MRF Trade Union
On responding to the issues raised in the hall meeting, Com. Prabhakaran said that since 1966, there have been 11 wage agreements between the union and the management, 6 of them involving struggles including strikes, lockouts and protests and 5 wage agreements were won without any struggles. The last wage agreement with the management ended on July 2013. In the region (North Chennai), workers in Ashok Leyland were earning over Rs 50000 per month and factories including Enfield, Hinduja Foundries and Carborandum were earning Rs 40000 per month and MRF workers wage was at Rs 22000.

One of the major reasons why the workers in MRF were earning such low wages was due to the fact that wage agreements were drawn for 4 years whereas in other factories, the agreements were for 3 years. Also, in all these factories, wage increase for permanent workers has been accompanied by increased contractualization in core operations and reduction of permanent employment. For example, Enfield has only 90 permanent workers but over 3500 contract workers. In MRF too, there has been demands by management to outsource 50 employment which has been opposed by the union.

On Feb 24th, in a meeting between union and the management, the management agreed for a wage revision of Rs 8250 but did not concede on demands not to reduce employment and collective wage bargaining every 3 years. Com. Prabhakaran said that the union is very particular about not allowing any reduction via outsourcing. In 2009, as per the wage agreement under the leadership of Tha.Pandian of CPI** , there was a wage increase of Rs 3500 for next 4 years while over 100 jobs were outsourced. The current union leadership has got an interim wage agreement of Rs 3500 via the court order while the case is proceeding on all demands. While this case is taking long, due to delays by the management, once this order valid for 12 months is got on behalf of from the labour court , the union will be in better position when it comes to future bargaining.

On the issue of dismissals and suspensions, out of 14 workers who have been dismissed, 12 workers had been chronically absent, one worker had low performance and one worker had abused the supervisor. The union has asked workers not to involve themselves in nondisciplinary activities as this would impact the court case where the management can use these in its favor.

When the union took up strike actions, Thiruvottriyur factory was the only production center for MRF and any strike actions ensured that the production process would be seriously impacted forcing the management to negotiate. Now, MRF has 8 such factories and Thiruvottriyur factory contributes to 4% of MRF’s production and a strike will not significantly impact MRF’s production. In 2009, the Kottayam branch had gone on strike under INTUC and was backed by then Congress State Government. Even after 10 month’s strike, the struggle failed as MRF could import tubes from Taiwan and brand it.

Due to the current strategies, the union may not be directly confrontational with the management, but it has consistently brought up issues of unfair labour practices and contempts of court orders and fought against them. The union was able to get minimum wages implemented for the 500 contract workers in non core production activities. In 2007, when management enforced a lockout, the union was able to get the State to declare the lockout as illegal and succeed in the struggle. He also cited lack of sustained and successful strikes in any factory in Tamilnadu in the recent years. as a reason why the union leadership has taken up judicial process. He also mentioned that their strategy has been approved in a democratic election as Com. Kuchelar rightly pointed out. He further maintained that the same strategy will be pursued in the future.

Errata :
* Earlier recorded as 15 years ago
**Earlier recorded as WPTUC leadership

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