This Deepavali was a ‘quite and somber’ affair in the homes of 1300 workers of the Cine Technicians Union (South India Cine and TV Outdoor Technicians Union) who have not had a job for over two months. Tamilnadu Producers’ Council, led by Actor – Producer Vishal Krishnan, has refused to work with any technician affiliated to the union. FEFSI has expelled them from the federation. After two months of this unresolved conflict, the workers face a painful choice. Either the technicians betray the union, which had fought for them against every errant producer and secured their wages or they have to see their children, wife and parents suffer the consequence of their unemployment. “it has been difficult, we have survived on savings and small loans. My wife works, but its still difficult. With festivals, the expenses are also high. We got Rs 2500 from the union as festival assistance, but nothing more. We watch serials every day, that’s what we are doing” said a technician who has been working for past seven years. While the media is abuzz with the fight between producers and state government over GST and ‘Mersal’ being bullied by the representatives of the Central Government, there has been little space for the stories of 1300 workers, who are part of the process that creates these block buster movies.
FEFSI, federation of 23 craft unions within the Tamilnadu cine industry, had expelled Cine Technicians Union late August. FEFSI had stated that they had broken its code of conduct, threatening the jobs of other workers. This had been seen as an attempt to placate the producers’ council which had threatened to hire non union workers in making movies. The producers’ councilhad circulated a letter to all equipment providers, stating that it will not hire technicians from the Cine Technicians Union. The double blow effectively has deprived all the technicians their job unless they were willing to let go of the union. The union has been trying to negotiate with FEFSI and the Producers’ council with little success. The producers’ council has slashed the wage rates for camera and other technicians, undoing the previous agreement. This is the first time that wages have actually been reduced. The ‘general conditions’ have also been adversely altered without consent from the union.
The attempt by the workers to sit in an ‘indefinite’ hunger fast at FEFSI, was thwarted after the police orally refused permission and has threatened them with arrests. While the technicians union leaders maintain that the other unions in FEFSI are supportive of their issue, most of the unions have not officially expressed their support. The Lightmen Union that works closely with the camera technicians alone has shown solidarity and raised the issue of expulsion with FEFSI leadership. Their union leader said that FEFSI, taking cognizance of their opinion, has sent a letter to all affiliate unions on this matter. The letter requests them to present their views in writing to FEFSI on the issue of expulsion. Technicians union members feel that they will be re-inducted into FEFSI soon.
Celebrities like Kamal Hassan and Rajanikanth , who have been vocal about other public issues have not spoken about this issue in public. Political parties or other trade unions too have not raised this issue or lent their solidarity to the cine workers. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VcK) had initially supported the workers and participated in their one day hunger fast. During the protest, their leader Thol Thirumavalavan had even said that his party will launch a major agitation to resolve the issue in fourty-eight hours. But a month later, the party is not clear about the strategy or its support. The party’s spokesperson, Mr. Vanniarasu mentioned there were negotiations between its leaders and representatives of the producer’s council and FEFSI. He said there was no breakthrough in the negotiations. Apart from a general comment on their support for the exploited workers, Vanniarasu did not commit to any specific action plan on this issue. The workers themselves feel that the party had effectively distanced itself from the struggle. They blame the political and financial power of the producers in isolating them.
The workers seem to be demoralized by lack of resolution on the issue. Many fear that the producers will be able to break the union if this stalemate continues. “Many non members have been recruited by the producers.Retired technicians lured by high wages are giving them training. Some of our members have also joined the crew after promising to leave the union. If this continues, they will not need us anymore and we will have no option to leave the union and work for lesser wage. We were the most effective union on the shooting set. If we go, the rest will follow” said a senior member of the union. Many assembled at the union office were facing this dilemma. Fear and frustration was dominant.
The union leadership has been steadfast in their demands. They have refused to agree to a reduction in wage and have demanded that they be re-inducted into FEFSI. But they have not been able to rethink their strategies and forms of struggle. The process has primarily attempted to negotiate with producers council and FEFSI through official and informal intermediaries. While there is a serious concern that they should not been seen to disrupt production and shooting, they have not attempted to aggressively draw attention of public and other workers to their issue. The union has also not attempted to use its membership fees, to create a strike fund that would allow members to sustain through the struggle period. Unfortunately, political parties and their mass organizations have also not come to their support. Even the left unions have largely ignored their plight, much more eager to protect the ‘free speech’ of Actor Vijay. Thus the producers’ council has been able to mount a successful assault on ‘associational rights’ and wages of the workers even as it confronts the central and state governments over censorship and tax.
The technicians have always been behind the camera. We never get to see their faces, hear their stories or appreciate their skills. Even now, their struggles have been pushed outside the frame of public knowledge. Only Minalya TV has put their issue in the front of the camera. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYklk7TZ26w&t=552s