A gathering of over a thousand workers from various parts of Chennai took place at the MLA hostel in Chepauk, on 13th April. Workers came together to protest the life sentence meted out to trade union leaders of Maruti Suzuki, Gurgaon and in support of the drought-hit farmers from Tamil Nadu who have been camping out in Delhi for almost a month. The demonstration was planned after a series of meetings by leaders of central trade unions (CTUs) including – AITUC, CITU, AIUTUC, AICCTU, HMS, WPTUC and LPF. This is the second major event organised by the all-trade union platform in last few months; on 23rd February, there was a large gathering of workers at the Kamraj arangam on the issue of Equal Pay for Equal Work.
After the March 17th judgement which sentenced 13 workers, 11 of whom are also union office bearers of Maruti Suzuki to life in prison, there have been a series of actions across India and the world condemning it as a class attack by the state and capital on freedom of association of the workers. The CTUs in Chennai are adding their voices of support to the jailed workers. However, on 5th April during the planning and deliberation meeting, a decision was taken to also raise the issue of the farmers and agricultural workers whose livelihoods have been affected by the worst drought to hit TN in decades. The farmers have been protesting in Jantar Mantar in New Delhi demanding drought relief and waiver of loans. According to Com.Sampath, Vice President of Working People’s Trade Union Council, the issue has struck a chord with workers and the general public in the state. “The farmers have been protesting for almost three weeks now and the Prime Minister has not bothered meeting them. We feel that this is an issue which is important to everyone in the state and need to use it to rouse the workers”, he said.
Thozhilalar Koodam spoke to workers from various sectors who attended the demonstration as senior leaders addressed the gathering. A group of railway employees from Perambur Loco Works listened to their leader, Com.Raja Sridhar of HMS who spoke about the various demands being raised by the unions. One of the few women in the crowd was one among this group. Com.Arivalagi is a senior technician and the Vice President of the Perambur workshop division. Almost 200 women workers are employed working on various technical aspects like marking and safety in the coaches. Along with her were Anandraj and Balaji who are branch secretaries in the union. They said that the demand calling for release of the Maruti workers was legitimate and important.Com. Anandraj said “These workers are ordinary workers who are in jail because they started a union. They are not there because they wanted something for themselves, they were talking for other workers. Freedom to form a union is a common demand. We have to raise our voices for this.” These workers are also facing the heat within their own workplace as a large number of jobs are being outsourced despite them meeting and in fact exceeding their targets. Com. Venkatraman, General Secretary of the Alsthom factory in Pallavaram said that as workers of a multinational company, they understand the need for solidarity with Maruti Suzuki workers, as they are faced with similar issues.
Com. Durairaj, General Secretary of the Working People’s Trade Union Council, reiterated the demands calling for the immediate release of the 13 workers . Com. Diwakar of the AICCTU recalled that 13th April was the day of the jalianwala bhag massacre, when unarmed citizens were shot at by the imperialist British army. Com.AS Kumar of AICCTU, talking to Thozhilalar Koodam on the sidelines of the demonstration, said that it was also important to recollect the Rowlatt Act passed in 1919 which could imprison citizens without trial in certain cases. It reminded one of the fact that more than a hundred workers who were released on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove the charges against them, had in fact spent almost 4 years in jail. He stressed that unions must also demand compensation and justice for these workers. “The working class is facing attacks at different levels. There has been a spontaneous uprising against liquor by women and we all saw the visuals of a police man slapping a woman protestor. These are the issues which we must take to the people and rouse their anger”, he said.
Com. Moorthy of AITUC spoke at length about the apathy of the BJP led central government and Prime Minister Modi in particular, who refused to meet the protesting farmers in Delhi. Ridiculing his priorities, he said that Modi had time to pose for pictures, to travel to foreign countries, but no time to meet with farmers who were starving. He said that forests and trees have been systematically wiped out due to which there is no water. He also condemned the RBI governor Urijit Patel who said that the government could not afford to waiver farm loans, one of the most important demands of the farmers. Drawing a parallel to Vijay Mallaya and the government’s tacit support to loan defaulters, Com.Moorthy said “Acche din will come only when workers and farmers come together to fight for their rights.”
Com.Soundarajan of CITU also criticized the Modi government and said that in the past when union leaders like VOC were arrested in Chennai, massive strikes took place. He said that this sort of mobilisation is the need of the hour, urging the workers to get ready for a bigger campaign. A group of workers from Korukkupet area in North Chennai, organised by the AIUTUC said that as workers in small steel workshops, they were facing the brunt of the BJP’s push to reform labour laws.
Com.Mohan Raja said “Modi wants to increase hours of work, we work in a small factory where nobody enforces labour laws. If this happens, the owner is going to tell us – you sleep here and work the whole day. We will be finished.” Com. Sivakumar of AIUTUC mentioned that the Maruti union leaders did not leave out the contract workers.
Although a symbolic demonstration that sought to provide solidarity to the Maruti workers and the farmers of Tamil Nadu, several important issues have been raised. First, With the farmer’s protests capturing the imagination of the public at large, there is deliberation by central trade unions on an alliance between workers and farmers.
Secondly, while there is a general agreement on the Freedom of Association as a right, most workers, when asked about the struggles within their own factories, admit that they are facing the brunt of contractualisation and outsourcing of jobs. For example – In Alstom, there are 320 contract workers as compared to 235 permanent workers. Contract workers earn Rs.10000 per month, a fifth of the salary of the unionised category. While the union leaders say that they are talking on behalf of contract workers to provide them access to the same canteen but admit that contract workers have not been organised yet and that it remains a challenge. It is no different in the public sector as well. In the Perambur workshop, the workers in the division say that operations such as painting and carpentry for 180 coaches were outsourced last year. This is the phenomenon in majority of the manufacturing sector. The strength of an existing union not only diminishes, but it also becomes harder to win union recognition due to the sheer numbers of contract workers. The demand for Equal Pay for Equal Work, resisting contractualising and right to unionise are therefore intrinsically linked.
The all trade union platform began with a resounding call for this. They must see it through for unions to survive and eventually thrive.