State transport workers victimised following strike in May
The consequences of the successful strike carried out by thousands of transport workers which shut down Tamil Nadu’s state transport corporations for two days in May, are slowly becoming clear to the workers. While the Rs.1250 crores that was promised to cover workers dues has been paid, the managements of the transport corporations have found another way to quell the spirit of the workers – by victimising the active cadre through transfers and suspensions on fabricated charges. According to CITU, 226 workers have been charged under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. As negotiations between the 47 unions and the government continues, some of the basic issues remain to be addressed.
For the first time, the two-day strike, which Thozhilalar Koodam covered in Chennai, was not over a wage hike or bonus but on recovery of dues to the tune of Rs.7000 crores. This included deductions from workers’ salaries like pension, provident fund, contribution to the employees’ credit society, gratuity, dearness allowance and earned leave. The workers were steadfast in their demands, but as the threat of ESMA (Essential Services Maintenance Act) loomed large, the union leaders called off the strike on the night on 16th May after the government promised to pump in Rs.1250 crores to clear some of these dues. This amount has been used to clear the dues of hundreds of workers who retired up to March this year, as well as the DA arrears of the current workers.
Despite this, Com.Chandran of CITU admits that there was a sense of dissatisfaction among some workers. “Workers were united no matter which union they belonged to. They were willing to continue the strike until the full amount was received. But, when the government was willing to dialogue, give an enhanced amount and look into the issues, it would not have been the right move to continue the strike”, said Com.Chandran. The CITU leadership says that workers must understand that these are financial issues whose resolution necessitates a change of policy from the government, and this is what they are explaining to workers. According to them it was this understanding and not the threat of ESMA that led them to call off the strike . Although they have publicly denounced the judiciary’s one-sided pronouncement. The CITU and LPF challenged the Madurai bench’s order the very next day and the judge was forced to withdraw the order. Whether these protracted negotiations will suffice to bring a change of policy without direct confrontation by workers demanding their fundamental rights, remains doubtful.
While the money promised has been received on the one hand, the government and the management of the corporations have systematically targeted union activists. For instance, Com.Padmanabhan and Com.Manivannan of Tamil Nadu Transport Staff Federation (TTSF) have been suspended on fabricated charges. The memo issued by the Salem Corporation alleges that both, did not perform their duties as maintenance staff, due to which one bus broke down. Similarly, many workers have been transferred to remote locations and some of the older workers who had been assigned light work in the terminus due to their ill health have been shifted back to their regular jobs. According to Com. Bhaktavachalam of CITU, the union representatives and the government had agreed that the strike period would be treated as leave, but some of the workers have been marked absent. If marked absent, workers’ increments and other benefits would be affected.
Com.Kaliappan, Vice President of the State level committee of the CITU is based in Coimbatore. He squarely places blame on the Anna Thozhilsanga Peravai (ATP) affiliated to the ruling AIADMK for some of these actions. In the Coimbatore corporation alone, 18 workers were suspended and returned to work recently after 47 days. “In each of the corporations, we warned the officers that we would strike if these actions are not revoked. However, it is the ATP that is facilitating these actions, by identifying whom to target. They are deliberately focusing on workers who have less experience or who have not been made permanent and asking for money for confirmation orders”, alleged Com.Kaliappan.
Post-strike there have been 5-6 rounds of talks between the officers of the corporations, Transport Secretary and the union representatives. Union leadership does not believe there is any value in taking up the issue of the wage hike right now. In principle, if the wages were to come up to the level of workers in the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board and other public sector undertakings, they would have to go up by 50% according to Com.Kaliappam. However, CITU believes that unless the fundamental issue of the government agreeing to compensate the difference between revenue and expenses of the corporations, they will continue to eat up workers money and will never be able to meet the wage hike. Meanwhile, TTSF reported that as per the last round of negotiations on 14th July, clearing of pension and other dues to retired workers on the date of retirement was not agreed to by the MDs of the corporations. The leadership has decided not to attend further talks and instead meet the Secretaries of the Transport and Finance Department in the coming week.