With judiciary threatening ESMA, transport workers strike ends with partial success

The two-day state wide strike of transport workers was called off on the night of 16th May, following a meeting between trade union leaders and senior ministers of the government. As hundreds of workers from Chennai gathered outside the MTC headquarters prepared for a public meeting at 4pm, leaders announced that the government had called the senior union representatives for talks at the Secretariat. Previous rounds of talks – including on 14th May before the strike began – had failed to yield any positive results.

However, at the end of the public meeting, news came that the talks were still on-going and workers dispersed. Adding to the uncertainty was the direction of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court that workers must report to work or face action under ESMA. Later at night, the union leaders announced to the media that the strike was being called off as an agreement was signed.

Agreement signed between the unions and transport secretary

**According to the agreement, Rs.750 crores and Rs.500 crores originally offered to be given in September, would be made available at once to clear the existing DA arrears and pension dues. This includes Rs.250 crores as an advance for student concession (GO 37), Rs. 375 crores as a short-term loan to settle provident fund and gratuity of retired workers (GO 38) and Rs. 121.84 crores as a Ways and Means advance (GO 39).After three months, pension dues of the retired workers would be cleared. Apart from this, the statutory deductions which have not been paid to the respective departments (PF, LIC, gratuity, etc) will be looked at on a policy level. Wages will remain as per the 13th wage agreement until a new one is signed.

The strike was near complete as most workers including technical staff stayed away from work. The ten unions that led the strike are LPF, CITU, AITUC, HMS, TTSF, TMTSP, PTS, MLF, AALLF and TWU. However, union leaders said that members of the Anna Thozhilalar Peravai (ATP) affiliated to the ruling AIADMK also struck work. “They are also workers facing the same problems. Their dues have also not been paid; just because they belong to the ruling party’s union, their problems do not magically disappear. They also have families to feed and empty stomachs”, said Com.Chandran of CITU on 15th May, Day 1 of the strike.

While wage negotiations ought to take place once in three years, the unions decided to shift focus to recovery of dues to the tune of Rs.7000 crores which include PF, gratuity, pension benefits, etc which have not been paid. As Thozhilalar Koodam reported earlier, the demands put forward included that the government compensate the loss incurred by the transport corporations and pay the accumulated dues. There was a feeling that unless these systemic issues were not addressed, a wage negotiation would go nowhere.

Particulars Amount in crores
Credit society Rs.320
Wage deductions (LIC and Housing loan) Rs.360
Provident Fund Rs.2200
Contributory Pension Rs.1400
Gratuity Rs.450
Earned leave Rs.210
DA arrears Rs.40
Retired workers
PF Rs.310
Gratuity Rs.900
Earned leave Rs.100
Commuted pension Rs.170
TOTAL Rs.6460

The government, represented by the Transport Minister Vijayabhaskaran, said that unions had a political agenda rather than the interest of the workers at heart. He said that Rs.750 crores had been sanctioned through various GOs and yet, the unions were determined to strike. On Monday, the minister made a round of several depots in the city and claimed that a large number of private busses were called in to ensure that services were not hit. Some of the MTC busses were also operated by drivers of private busses.

Private buses at the Anna Square depot in Chennai

According to one driver in the Basin Bridge depot, some of the buses were taken out and driven to the nearest bus stop just when the minister came, but as soon as the minister left the buses were back in the depot. Workers also said that only MTC drivers are equipped to drive the buses as they are bad condition. A technical staff from the Madhavaram depot said “the buses are in bad condition, even the breaks don’t work properly. Only our drivers have the experience to drive these vehicles. The government is risking the lives of passengers by engaging other drivers.” According to the workers, the strike was a big success and even the private bus drivers came only out of compulsion and threat of violence.The general feeling among workers was that it was a legitimate strike engaged as a last resort and that they were merely asking for part of their wages, i.e, statutory deductions, due to them.

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During the public meeting, leaders from each of the unions blasted the AIADMK government and their refusal to negotiate with the unions. CITU leader Com.Balakrishnan said “If they were a responsible government who is interested in the welfare of the workers, they would have called us for a dialogue in February, soon after the strike notice was given. It is not a sudden strike, we gave them enough notice, so nobody can say we indulged in an illegal act.”Workers said that they faced tremendous pressure from local goons as well as the police. One LPF member from Red Hills said that he had not been home for two days as the police were visiting his home and intimidating him. There were constant threats of false cases. Com. A.S Kumar of AICCTU also said that workers were being forced to sign bonds that they would work on the days of the strike and those who resisted were threatened with transfer or arrest.

Although media reports suggest that the transport corporations will ensure that the two days of the strike will be counted as leave and no action will be taken, workers were skeptical and felt that they could face other types of victimisation like transfer or punitive action through memos. CITU, LPF and TTSF have also approached the Madurai bench and have succeeded in quashing the interim order regarding ESMA as they claimed that the order was passed unilaterally without giving opportunity to the workers to explain their side. Com.Sampath Srinivasan, senior leader of TTSF characterised the strike as a 75% success. “The strike has definitely brought the government’s attention to the issue of the workers. The agreement was reached in light of the fact that if ESMA was implemented, our focus and energies would shift to protecting workers from arrest and divert attention from the original demands”, he said. He added that the Right to Strike is a serious issue which needs the attention of all trade unions. Meanwhile, the specifics of the agreement are being worked out and wage revisions talks are set to begin on 24th May. However, given that the demands only sought to provide ad hoc relief, it is likely that these issues will re-emerge.

** This paragraph with information on the terms of the agreement was inadvertently missed out in the original post and has been added.

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