Workers of ULF Union joined the recognised union; have demanded elections to executive committee
Workers reached a settlement with Renault Nissan management after three years of industrial disputes at the factory. On 20th February, the workers who were part of the United Labour Federation (ULF) branch agreed to the wage agreement drawn between the company’s management and Renault Nissan India Thozhilalar Sangam (RNITS, a plant level union recognized by the management). The settlement signed under section 12(3) of the Industrial Disputes Act includes reinstatement of 5 dismissed workers and 58 others who were suspended. Though various charges had been filed against them, the common thread had been their participation in the ULF union. With this, the numerous disputes that erupted since the formation of the ULF branch at Renault Nissan has been resolved. According to the workers in the know of this settlement, this agreement was reached after many rounds of informal talks between the highest officials in the HR department and ULF Union leadership including with Adv V. Prakash. Five members of the erstwhile ULF union have been appointed as office bearers in RNITS and are also signatories to the agreement.
A section of permanent work force in Renault Nissan had joined ULF and officially launched a Renault Nissan Branch in April 2014. They had then sent a charter of demands to the management that included a raise in wage and other allowances. However, citing the presence of non employees in the executive committees of the branch , the management refused to recognize the union (The Trade Union Act does not prohibit non employess to hold executive office in the union). On the other hand, in 2015, with the support and recognition of the company management, the Renault Nissan India Workers Union was formed. While numerous disciplinary actions were mooted against members of ULF, the company settled a ‘historically generous’ wage agreement with the plant union. This has been covered in previous posts on Thozhilalar Koodam. ULF members resisted and went to the Labour Department demanding recognition as they had a higher membership.
However, with this settlement, the members of ULF have dissolved their branch and joined the plant union. Given that the ULF branch had a significant proportion of the workforce as members, 5 members from this group have been nominated to the post of Joint Secretaries in the RNITS replacing 5 members from the union. The new office bearers have collectively signed the wage agreement before the Assistant Commissioner of Labour under section 12(3) of the ID act. Earlier, ULF had rejected the wage agreement and had asked its members not to sign it in their individual capacity (i.e under 18 (1) of ID Act).
It is in lieu of conceding to these demands, that charges have been withdrawn and , 63 workers have all been taken back to work. . However, this does not include the four workers who had been dismissed in 2013. The workers successfully challenged their dismissal in the labour court which ordered their immediate reinstatement with back wages and experience related increments. Even after more than a month of the order, the management has taken no steps to implement it. On this issue, senior leaders of the former ULF branch said “they were not part of either union at that time. In fact there was no union at that time. So they are not part of this general agreement. But we have informally raised this issue with the HR department and feel they would take them back at the earliest.”
While there are no written guarantees, the former members of ULF, believe that a free and fair election for the plant level RNITS will be held in the coming months. The workers also believe that back wages and experience incentives will be provided to the 63 workers who have been re-instated. While those under suspension had been receiving partial wages, the dismissed workers have to be fully compensated for the loss of income. Yet this has not been an explicit agreement and the company has only said that it will discuss this issue with the union and settle amicably. Workers are also hopeful that demands related to issues of shop floor, canteen and transportation will be taken up in the coming days and months despite the fact that these were not explicitly part of the agreement.
Speaking anonymously to Thozhilalar Koodam, workers expressed mixed feelings about this settlement. On the bright side this brings to a conclusion the prolonged dispute which had no clear end in sight. The legal system is notoriously slow and does not guarantee the protections enshrined in the law. It is also a costly process to fight. While allowing them to accept the enhanced wages, the deal also brings back their comrades who have been victimised for their participation in the ULF union. However, this also means that their struggle to maintain their right to form a union of their choice is severely undermined. Even though they believe they have a larger strength in membership, they are outnumbered 6 to 5 in the office bearers team of the RNITS. There is also apprehension that the office bearers, who resigned to accommodate the ULF members, may systematically resist their leadership and participation.
“We do not support the RNITS leadership as we do not trust them. We have agreed to this deal only because it resolves the issues between the management and us for now. We strongly feel a new election should be called at the earliest so that we can decide our representatives freely” said a worker. The officer bearers of the former ULF branch, while reflecting about this, felt that it will not be easy to conduct new elections. “The present office bearers know very well that we have the support of the workers and we will win easily. So they will find ways to postpone the elections. Already they are saying that members have to be part of the union for at least 6 months before they can vote. This would debar all of us from voting let alone contesting” said a leader of the ULF branch.
One of the representatives said that the deal was a consequence of the prolonged struggle and though a compromise, had certain advantages. “The management recognized that they could not break us and make us submit to their agenda. We stood out and only got stronger with time. So they had to negotiate. But for us, this is important as the workers were severely divided. One group was being provided all benefits while others were getting unjustly penalized. This was having an adverse effect on workers solidarity. This move brings us back together. Things have improved with the management and they are more willing to listen to us. We have to see how the RNITS union leadership accepts this deal and moves forward.”
The workers felt that while the settlement has allowed for the coming together of the disputing parties for the moment, underlying fissures have not been fully addressed. The workers remain distrustful of the management given the history of punitive actions taken against them. As per inside sources, the management and the office bearers of RNITS, who were working closely are now at logger heads because they were forced to relinquish their power and positions to get the deal through. It remains to be seen how cordially and effectively the new team that includes members from both unions can work together.
On the surface, the deal seems to be skewed in favour of the management. The workers have unanimously agreed to the wage settlement announced by the company. They have dissolved their union to join a union that was supported by the management. Their experienced leadership may perhaps have a limited role to play in the new union at present. Further, a lot of issues remain outside the purview of settlement. The needs of the contract workers and trainees(who have faced retrenchments at different points of time) is sorely lacking in the union’s agenda.
Yet workers feel that this is a new beginning which provides some opportunities. This has brought all permanent workers under one banner after more than three years. It has proved to managements in the region and the auto industry that a negotiated settlement, rather than confrontation, is a viable option. The agreement may pave the way for free elections which can bring back independence to RNITS and not suffer the oversight of the management. In coming months and years, it will be vital to watch how the situation of the the workers and their union at Renault Nissan India pans out and it will indeed be a valuable lesson for the working class movement.