On 5th June this year, exactly six years after the first strike on 4th June, 2011 in the Maruti Suzuki Manesar plant which marked the beginning of the Maruti workers’ struggle, nineteen revolutionary trade unions came together on a common platform in Calcutta to reflect on and learn from the struggles of Maruti workers almost five years after the Maruti management and the State began the sustained onslaught on the maruti workers’ movement to re-shape the capital-labour relationship in the Gurgaon region by removing 2500 contract workers and arresting over 150 of the permanent workers. There have been many conventions, meetings, and protests held over the last year to discuss the role the Maruti struggle is playing in the contemporary working class movement in India and to fight for justice for the jailed Maruti workers. What made this convention a rather unprecedented event was that many of these nineteen unions have not worked together on any issue, let alone share a common platform for more than two decades. Sectarian divisions run deep among many of the revolutionary organizations, and so it was heartening to see that the Maruti movement brought many of these organizations together to discuss and perhaps carry forward the lessons learned from the Maruti struggle. It shows that when workers show the way, revolutionary organizations follow.
The convention started (after a revolutionary song by a comrade from Bengal) with a speech by Com. Khushiram of the Maruti Suzuki provisional working committee. Khushiram explained what made the Maruti workers’ struggle a pillar in contemporary workers’ struggles. This was mainly due to an unprecedented unity between permanent and contract workers. The management tried various ways to break this unity by intimidating the permanent workers and their leaders using coercive tactics and by offering pay rises to permanent workers. However the permanent workers at the plant were not interested in even discussing the issue of their wage increment until contract workers were regularized. Khushiram spoke about how it was a norm in the Gurgaon Industrial belt that as soon as a protest by permanent workers started, the company would suspend them, get a stay order from the court that protesting workers cannot be few hundred meters near factory gate and continue production using contract workers and trainees. Maruti workers broke this ‘tradition of capitalists’ by occupying the factory on 4th June, 2011 for thirteen days.
Khushiram explained how the strategies used by the Maruti workers also spread to neighboring factories, and how this scared the capitalist class the most. In the period that followed the Maruti strikes, workers at Suzuki Powertrain, Suzuki Motorcycle, Munjal Showa, and Senior or Ghosi India in Bawal also occupied factories and organised a sit-in protest which halted production. He talked about how the struggle at the trade union level, in which unions negotiate and workers are led by unions to protests that stay in the legal realms, are proving to be inadequate and ineffective for workers today; they are looking for new forms of struggle or to revisit certain old, more militant ones like sit-in strikes and tools down strikes. Maruti workers’ strikes inspired workers in Gurgaon, where capitalist repression was too intense to look for other/newer forms of struggle. Sit-in strikes, despite being illegal are proving to be an apt medium of taking forward the struggle in this entire region. Khushiram spoke about how during the strikes as well as after the arrests, Maruti workers tried to involve different progressive sections of civil society into their movement. Via pamphleteering, social media as well as various rallies, they spread the word among students, social activists and neighboring village communities.
A Comrade from Calcutta who is a member of a legal aid organization for workers spoke about the legal struggles of the workers and his organization’s involvement in them. He spoke about the absurd allegations that companies make against workers. In West Bengal, one company supposedly sued a group of workers for dropping bombs on the factory, and one of those workers had in fact been dead for quite some time. Comrade spoke about occupational safety of the workers. He spoke about how though the 5th of June is World Environment Day, nobody ever mentions workers’ health, workplace pollution, and occupational hazards. He offered the example of Meenakari workers in Rajasthan who fell severely ill due to exposure to chemicals but did not receive any compensation.
Comrade Kamal Tiwari, who used to be a worker in a factory in Mathkol, West Bengal, and is now a political activist, spoke about how due to increasing contractualization, the transitory nature of the work force and increasing migration, unity among workers from all over India is the priority. He pointed out that the factory level solidarity between the Maruti workers showed how different sections of workers can unite and mount a protracted struggle, but what was needed was a far more broad based unity. He said he hoped that conventions such as these where unions from all over India had come to a common platform could assist workers in achieving such a coherence.
Comrade Milind Ranade with Kachara Vahatuk Shramik Sangh spoke about how the fact that Maruti workers kept the contract workers demands above everything else (even general pay hike was secondary) was a very important and rare thing. He spoke about his own experience with contract workers in Bombay Municipal Corporation, whose fight to get permanency began in 2006 and only ended successfully this year. Com. Ranade spoke about how the permanent workers in BMC had a union, got better wages, and were even better equipped than the contract workers; it was because this union never fought for the contract workers that the union that com. Ranade is part of had to be formed. Com. Ranade said such intra-class divisions within unions is really unfortunate and that this was the most remarkable thing about the Maruti workers for him.
He spoke about how the Maruti case showed that when it came to criminal inquiry on the workers, various other factors always came up. In Maruti’s case one of the judges remarked that the outcome of this case was related to FDI. The justice system viewed the case involving a capital-labour dispute not purely from a legal perspective but in the broader realm of its impact on neo-liberal parameters like FDI.
Com. Ranade ended his speech with a suggestion – wherever the unions present in the convention had presence, where there is also a Maruti showroom or service center, they should try to organize and unionize the workforce in such areas.
Com. Samanway Chatterjee from Bengal emphasised the need to center working class struggles around the contract and informal working class: He said that the contract workers are the real proletariat today as permanent workers inside big factories are often forming a sort of ‘labour aristocracy’; so even to ensure that permanent workers do not transition to the middle class and stay as proletariat, their unity with contract workers is a must. In today’s time when the systemic subjugation and depredation of both workers and farmers have reached unprecedented levels, the unity between workers and farmers is need of the hour. He cited an example of a harsh punishment of 11 farmers in Bengal precisely when Maruti case was on, which was not highlighted by the media.
Comrade Murari Chatterjee, a former Hindustan Motors worker who is now a full time activist with TUCI, spoke about the conditions of workers who used to work in Jute mills in and around Calcutta (most of which have closed down now) and workers who work in tea gardens. He spoke about the inhuman conditions these workers continued to face and how unionizing them very difficult. It was heartening for him to see that at least in the manufacturing sector there were struggles like the one that Maruti workers were fighting from which one can draw inspiration and learn many lessons. He spoke about how the current West Bengal government is even more anti-worker then the previous CPM government, which according to him was blatantly anti-worker. He talked about how TMC’s union was co-opting the tea garden workers with the charade of fighting for their rights. He observed that the emergence of pro-management and right wing unions was a growing phenomenon which added to the difficulties of organizing workers, and this is something that he urged the convention to fight against.
Comrade Sanmatha Nath Ghosh who is an 87 year old retired worker talked about how seeing the evolution of capitalism and it’s perpetual state of crisis world over made him certain that the desperation the capitalist class is currently showing means that this is the final phase of capitalism. He however found it vexing that trade unions were not taking the fight to the ruling class. He said this was due to what he called the identity crisis of the trade union movement, because of which the old inertia of focusing on permanent workers still remains deep seated.
He said that it was ironic for him to say it as an 87 year old, but that new ways would have to be embraced by the unions as the world has changed from his time. It must be mentioned here that despite being close to ninety years of age, Com. Ghosh continues to work with the Panihati area jute mill workers, trying to get them their PF and gratuity funds, and has succeeded in a few places.
Bengal has an old autonomous union of Sales representatives which has historically aligned itself with the revolutionary struggles. Com. Abijit Roy, who is a president of this union, spoke about the need to take the lessons learnt from the Maruti struggle to broader sections of the working class. If different sections of the working class, from the organized manufacturing sector to a class of sales representatives, came together, it is conceivable that the fight against neo-liberalism could enter a new phase, he said.
The convention was organized and attended by:
(1) Sharmik Sangram Committee
(6) IFTU Sarwahara,
(7) All West Bengal Sales Representative Union
(8) Eastern Coal Field contract workers union
(9) Lal Jhanda workers union
(10) Hindustan Motors SSKU
(11) Bauria Cotton Mill SSU
(12) West Bengal Shramik Karmchari Union (Nava Paryay)
(13) Chay Bagaan Sangharsh Samiti
(15) Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Union
…as well as four other unions from Bengal.