A workers’ critique of union strategy in MRF

On 1st of November, we had carried an article on the raging debate in MRF on union strategies. The article had carried the opinion of sections of workers who had opposed the  legal strategy of the union and response by the union secretary. A worker comments on the response of the union and critiques the impact of legal strategy in maintaining workers solidarity in the plant.

M.R.F Thiruvottriyur Workers Union has been led by leaders such as T.S. Ramanujam, R. Rangasamy, Mohan Kumaramangalam, K.M. Sundaram, R. Kuchela, P. Chidambaram, V.R. Chinthan, W.R. Varadharajan, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, A. Soundararajan, V. Prakash and Tha. Pandian. While several of these leaders had been trained as lawyers, they believed firmly that only union strategies involving the collectivity of workers can guarantee collective bargaining at workplace. Comrade Prakash is the only one who believes exclusively in legal channels.

In 2009, collective wage agreement of Rs 3680 was negotiated under the leadership of Tha. Pandian. The collective agreement also included some management demands such as outsourcing, reduction and increased production. The 2009 contract was finalized after approval by workers using a secret ballot on 7.7.2009. In the union election conducted in October 2009, the faction under the leadership of Comrade Prakash and Comrade Prabakaran were placed in union responsibilities. Subsequently, they have been winning the union elections. Some of the employment that was to be outsourced as per the collective agreement were eventually cancelled after the union negotiated on behalf of the workers and the permanent workers were retained in their employment.

When management infringed on the workers, the workers ensured that management could retract their infringements using strikes. The union was also supportive of the strikes by workers. The disciplinary actions taken by management to ensure smooth production at shop floor was opposed by the union actively.

In 2013 January, the union presented its collective demands to the management. The management responded with its own demands after 6 months and the process of bilateral negotiations were initiated.
The union had placed as its main demands
1. Wage agreement every 3 years
2. Retrospective wage agreement from the end of the last agreement on 6.7.2013
3. Substantial wage increase.

The management had placed the following demands from the union:
1. Collective bargaining Contract every 5 years.
2. Outsourcing
3. Reduction in manpower
4. Rationalization
5. Production increase

The president had given a petition to provide an interim increase in wage during the negotiation process. The management turned down the petition. The management also refused the demands of the union in the first bilateral negotiation on 10.8.13. Hence the union raised an industrial dispute with Assistance Commissioner of Labour on 19.8.13. In the trilateral negotiation that followed, the management came up with Rs 750 as wage increase. The union accepted a production increase of 0.24% but a settlement could not be reached. To delay the negotiation, the management approached the High Court and asked for an extension of 6 weeks. In this, the leader(Comrade Prakash) had appeared on behalf of workers and the court gave the management 3 week time to complete the negotiation and at the end of the 3 weeks, asked the Government to send a negotiation failure report to the Labour Court.

On 21.1.14, the Labour Department Official recommended the failure of trilateral negotiation to the Government. On 12.2.2014, the management called the union for discussion and said that if the union agrees to its demands, it was willing to increase the wage to Rs 8250 to be implemented from the end of the previous agreement on 6.7.2013 and would pay arrears for the 7 months. The management reduced the term of agreement to 4 years. The union announced that it would take a decision on the agreement term to be 3 years or 4 years depending on the final settlement. The union also accepted a production increase of .42%.

The union has stated that the demands of outsourcing by the management in its final negotiation was the reason why it had gone to court. However, when the management was willing to give substantial wage increase, instead of continuing the negotiation, the union filed a contempt petition on the Government on its failure to order failure report on the negotiation within 15 days of 21.1.2014. Because of this, the Government released two orders D(108) and D(109) on 21.3.2014.

The demand for interim compensation (The increase in wage until the wage increase is settled either through negotiation or through legal mechanism) was missing in the order D(109). The union got another order after filing another order in High Court to include this demand in the case to be heard before Labour Tribunal. On this basis, the first hearing was scheduled on 28.4.2014 infront of Labour Tribunal. After several hearings, there was a decline in court activities and the union went for a bilateral discussion with the management in which it accepted a production increase of 1.4%. Also, it accepted outsourcing and reduction in manpower in several departments. But the management did not change its stance on the wage increase of Rs 8250. Also, it declined to provide 100% arrears from 6.7.2013 as it had accepted on 12.2.2014 discussions.

As the management used the union’s legal strategy in its own favour and refused to honor the earlier agreements made with the union, the current union representatives contested the election on the propaganda that only legal strategies can win the struggles. On this basis, the union gave importance to interim wage increase case and was able to win Rs 4000 as interim advance from August 2015. Now that 42 months have passed, the union is still interested to fight the cases on interim wage advances only.

The management has learnt to utilize the legal strategy in its own favor to ensure smooth production at shop floor. The union itself is helping in this process by orienting workers towards legal production discipline on the basis that if workers are suspended or dismissed or strike against shop floor practices, then this will be detrimental to the case in the court. So the union has said that do not strike, we will challenge the management’s practises in the court. The outcome is that the management has started changing workplace conditions for uninterrupted production. All these have only increased the number of cases in court but has not solved the workers’ issues.

The young workers in the plant have more belief in the legal strategy because the legal strategy won interim compensation and stalled a planned wage cut. However this has also allowed the management to implement the standing order and anti worker policies at the factory. While the union’s legal strategies are against the management its outcomes are in favour of management and against workers.

The legal activities and its outcomes in Arakkonam MRF factory have only disappointed workers. Comrade Prakash had petitioned the High Court that the wage agreement by the management in 2004 was not valid as the UWU union was the majority union and the management had recognized its own union. After several years of hearing, the High Court ordered that a secret ballot be conducted led by an IAS official and the management should negotiate with the majority union. The management appealed in Supreme Court and after much further delay, withdrew the case stating that it would implement High Court Order.

There was a secret ballot held to elect union representatives and it was announced that pro management representatives won the election. Now Comrade Prakash has gone back to court to appeal on behalf of UWU union. Through delay tactics, the management has crushed the workers voices and has ensured their silence.

Similarly the case of Manali MPL workers collective wage bargaining took more than 12 years. In 2008, the Labour Tribunal gave a judgement in favor of workers but management went to appeal and delayed the case till 2016. Due to this, majority of workers signed on the contract provided by the management and exited the union. The management used the workers’ economic conditions and delay tactics to break the union.

Secretary Prabakaran had mentioned that the wage increase struggle in Kottayam MRF factory failed after 10 months of strike in 2012. But their struggle did not fail. If the struggles gives certain lessons to workers, it also teaches a lesson to company owners. The struggles of Kottayam workers ensured that the Thiruvottriyur workers would be given Rs 8250 as wage increase even when they did not protest much more than what was won by Kottayam workers(Rs 7800). Also in 2016, the Kottayam workers won a wage increase of Rs 10000.

The Court had not ordered that the 2007 lockout in MRF Thiruvottriyur was illegal. The Labour Department released a GO on the illegality of the lockout. Also, there was a sustained struggle for 63 days and was backed by workers in the region, community, traders, social movements and political parties. There was also a pressure on the Government in State Assembly proceedings and the State announced that the factory will be nationalised if the management did not reopen the factory. We only got Rs 6000 as festival bonus through the court.

Even if the national strikes by Central Trade Unions do not win all the demands for the working class, it has ensured that the legislative reforms sought by the State and Capital is not passed and has continued to protect the minimum rights of the workers.

Secretary Prabakaran has said that the union has ensured minimum wage for contract workers in the Thiruvottriyur MRF factory. He must clarify what is the role of the union in this process. The bonus award for 2016 has still not been given for contract workers and there has been no response by the union. There is discrimination against the contract workers in the canteen, where they are served worse food than the permanent workers.

Secretary Prabhakaran has said that the union’s legal strategies will continue as it has been democratically elected. However, the executive committee is not functioning democratically. Since 41 months have passed since the last wage agreement, a majority of members of the executive committee have called for a resolution to conduct secret ballot to ask workers whether to continue the legal strategy. But the secretary has unilaterally decided against such a resolution. The list of cases filed are not shared publicly. Hence how can this be democratic functioning?

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