After Empty Promises Fail, State uses Judicial Threat to Break Strike
A spirited three day sit in strike by Government contract nurses was broken by the collective might of State machinery after Judiciary used harsh statements to term the strike illegal and demanded that the strike be withdrawn as a precondition for Government to negotiate with the workers. Over 3000 nurses, predominantly women and mainly working in rural health services all over Tamil Nadu, had come after their request for regularization had been ignored by Department of Rural Health and Medicine.
The workers had stayed in the DMS complex for three days from November 27th till November 29th even when both nature and humans tested their resolve. While they had to weather monsoon rains in the open ground where they were trapped after the police locked the DMS complex, they also had to deal with lack of proper toilets and water after Police denied access to the inside infrastructure, making the environment much more hostile to the workers.
High drama had ensued on the second day of the strike, when representatives of the strikers were asked to meet with Government officials. The representatives gave a brief statement on 28th night stating that the strike was being withdrawn as the Government had agreed to 90% of their demands. However, the workers at the complex were not convinced and continued to strike until their demands were met. A Public Interest Litigation that was started and promptly heard by Chief Justice of Madras High Court, took a hostile stand to striking workers and the workers strike was broken by the interim order of the High Court. The workers left in the late evening of November 29th after oral assurances by Department officials that they will not be penalised for the three day strike.
LISTEN : A Nurse Discusses their Demands
The Origins of the Conflict
There is a commonly held view that the State and Central Governments are exemplary employers who pamper their employees into indiscipline. But it is grossly untrue. Though a small section of the organized employees are treated to regular pay rises, tenure security and improved working conditions, the public sector and the government departments do employ a vast number of workers on contract under abysmal pay and work conditions. From public sector mines to factories, to conservancy workers and workers in Indian railways, the lower tiers in government service fare as badly as in any private employment. Perhaps taking a cue from the capitalists, the government, in order to cover the violation of its own laws, use various nomenclatures to classify and maintain contract work.
Origins of the Nurses strike could be traced back to the Tamilnadu government’s plan to recruit over 11000 nurses to its public health system in 2015 to implement various health schemes funded by Central Government. The backlog had been created over decades of restricted recruitment of nursing staff only from public colleges. In a judgment on behalf of private college students, the Judiciary had ordered the State Government to not discriminate against private nursing college students and to use Medical Recruitment Services Board for recruitment.
In order to fill all the vacancies, it even relaxed the age criteria, and qualification. But the advertisement did mention that the selected candidates will be taken on consolidated pay. A writ petition seeking injunction of the notification and examination was filed in the high court of Madras, which gave an interim order in 2015, dismissing the plea. But the dismissal was contingent on the submissions made by the Advocate General representing the state, who had assured that the workers will be absorbed into regular work in 2-5 years (WP No 16774 and 17039 of 2015, Madras High Court). He also mentioned that their pay scales will rationalized on par with the regular nurses. Even in the order dismissing the writ, the judge mentions that the consolidated pay was way below the regular pay and it will have to be dealt with in the final judgment. But there was no categorical assurance by the State Government on these counts.
Over 11000 workers, from all age groups, experience levels and educational qualification were recruited in 2015 after the examination. They were posted across the remotest areas of Tamil Nadu to manage PHCs. In many rural areas, there was only one nurse per shift, making work tiresome and long. They had no support for housing, commute or leave. Many nurses claim they have worked continuously for 12 hours a day and more, when relievers could not make it in time. They were in charge of both medical as well as administrative tasks at PHCs. Their wage was a meager 7000/- for the first year and 7700/- for the second year. (about Rs 250/- a day). yet the nurses had toiled with the hope of getting regular employment after two years. Some of the nurses were over 40 years and had left more remunerative work in private hospitals and other kinds of services in the hope of getting a ‘Government Job’.
The demands of the nurses are clear and simple. They seek the implementation of the 1962 GO 191 that has said that those recruited though an examination by the government should not be employed under contract. They want to be treated on par with the other government nurses, with equal wage, benefits and tenure security. They care less for the internal classifications of the department. After all, their demand for ‘equal wage for equal work’ has been upheld by the Supreme Court. The workers claim that they had sent a letter with their demands to the health secretary a month ago. When it became clear that the government would not move hastily to regularize their jobs and grant them equal pay with regular nurses, they were forced to resort to strike action.
The Government on the other hand claims that the nurses were recruited under schemes managed by National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and these workers cannot claim either tenure or pay on par with State nurses. In addition, they have said to the agitating nurses that they will lose their jobs as and when the schemes wrap up. Even at the end of the agitation, the government did not officially commit to any time frame to regularize them and increase the wages to the scale of regular workers.
The government argument has at least two major flaws. The first major flaw, is that the Government’s advocate, in the high court, said that the nurses recruited through the board, will be absorbed over a period of five years. The second major flaw is that the nurses recruited under the MRB, have been employed in PHCs and have been given the entire gamut of duties with little difference in nature of work. Their absence would effectively shut the PHCs as the government has not employed regular staff to service the PHCs.
This method of underpaying workers for their full service is not uncommon. Most of the conservancy workers in city corporations, dealing with garbage collection, have not been regularized even after 7-9 years of service, citing similar scheme based recruitment. They are grossly underpaid. Similarly, the staff teachers, recruited to run anganwadis, are categorized differently and not paid on par with kindergarten teachers in government schools. Thus the much famed welfare model of Tamil Nadu state is laid on the shoulders of workers, who are grossly exploited for their services. Any demand by the workers, be it in the transport sector for their salary dues, or the nursing sector, is dealt with Judicial coercion and police violence by State.
Solidarity pours in amidst repression by the state
The workers had assembled from various parts of Tamil Nadu on November 27th morning in DMS complex where the Department of Rural Health and Medicine is situated. According to the workers, prior notice had been given about the strike and this is confirmed by news reports (http://www.dinamalar.com/news_detail.asp?id=1901021). As workers assembled in front of DMS, the Police blocked the workers from entering DMS complex initially after which the workers tried to do a road roko in Mount Road. As the number of workers swelled, the Police rounded them up in DMS and locked the main gate.
The nurses then initiated a sit-in strike in DMS complex continuing their struggle through the night. In an effort to break the strike, the Police locked the toilets and water facilities, allowing access to only one toilet. The Police also cordoned off the area allowing no access to the complex, in a bid to cut off workers from interacting with unions, civil society groups and mainly journalists. This created a hardship among workers, who were predominantly women. The image of filthy toilet with overflowing sanitary pads is a stark reminder of the length to which the Police was willing to go to deny basic human dignity to the striking workers.
This was especially hard for workers who had come with their infant children. A grand mother who had accompanied a nursing mother was hospitalised following the harrowing conditions to which she was subjected. Workers reported that two nurses had seizure on the second night and had to be taken in ambulance for treatment. The workers braved this hardship resolutely, even finding some humour in the situation, as one worker quipped: ‘Is this any less worse than what we face daily in the hospital. The facilities are much worse where we work everyday’.
In the meantime, workers said that the State Departments resorted to various intimidation tactics to quell the protest. The representatives of the nurses who went on the second day to meet with the State Department, made an abrupt and brief statement announcing the end of the strike. However, workers could not meet or communicate with the representatives after the strike, leading the workers to conclude that the representatives had been intimidated. The Department had also posted notices (via whatsapp) to workers asking why they should not be terminated for failing to report to duty. While this prompted about 500 workers to leave the strike, the rest of the workers carried on and continued the strike.
As reports of the conditions of the protest emerged via social media, unions, social groups and political party leaders expressed solidarity with the workers. Two political activists of Tamil Nadu Youth Movement were detained for a day on November 29th on undefined charges. Women’s groups including AIDWA and Manithi visited and demanded that basic necessities were allowed for the striking workers but alleged that they were forcibly evicted from the premises. Tamil Nadu Government Employees Union expressed support for the striking workers by asking their members to hold protest in front of public hospitals. Comrade Nallakannu and other communist representatives met with the striking workers. Through the best part of the third day, Police refused to allow the public and journalists to meet with the striking workers. This led to a brief protest by journalists in front of the DMS complex. Later in the evening, just prior to the judicial announcement, the rules were relaxed and people were allowed inside.
READ : Statement by TNGEA Union
The Apathy of the Judiciary
On evening of November 29th, even while the agitating nurses were preparing for yet another harrowing night on the open spaces of DMS, the order of the Honourable High Court of Madras dropped as a bomb shell. From media reports, the workers came to know that the Chief Justice had deemed the strike illegal. This order was passed on a Public Interest Litigation and without going into the merits of the demands of the nurses and the earlier assurances by the Government. The order, while taunting the nurses to quit their job if they felt they needed more wages, also threatened to take penal action if they don’t vacate their protest and rejoin work by the next day. Reports also said that when the lawyers representing the workers requested for one extra day for workers to go to various remote worksites, the Chief Justice was said to have retorted that if the workers knew how to come for the strike, they should know how to go back. The Director of medical services addressed the nurses post the judgment and assured them that no action would be taken against them for their protest. The Court has also asked the Government to file an affidavit post Christmas as to the status of the negotiations with the nurses.
It is ironic that the Judges felt that the nurses, who get a paltry 7700/- a month should quit their jobs rather than seek a wage increase. The Chief Justice of India had sought a 100% increases in salaries of supreme court and high court judges on March 2017. This wage increase has been approved promptly by the Central Government and will be passed in parliament. The High Court Judges would get an increased wage of 2.25 lakhs per month, an increase of 1 lakh. They would also get arrears for 2016 and 2017 (nearly 20 Lakhs). They would also continue to enjoy housing, car, driver, and personal servants over and above their wage.
This is not the first instance when the judiciary has come down against the interest of the working class and even rescued the government which is in grave violation of basic laws. The transport workers, who had to call of their strike after the threat of penal action, are yet to have a meaningful dialogue with the Government. The members of JACTO-GEO are facing contempt action from the court, which has done little to resolve their issue. In numerous cases, the courts have slumbered over labour cases, allowing the companies (private and public sector) to deny wages and employment to the workers. These judgments only go to further expose the class bias of the judiciary which has come out in open in recent times in the judgement against Maruti and Pricol workers .It also shows the clear need for the working class to fully recognize this aspect while planning their struggles.
Lessons for working class and unions
As the traditional unionism is being severely curtailed by State and unions are unable to go beyond legal framework to resolve their dispute, the nurses had not waited to get consent of the State to organise themselves in unregistered collective process. They had used collective leadership to decide and plan the course of the struggle. Even when the State isolated the representatives from the rest of the workers on the second day of the struggle, the workers cohesively held on to the struggle. In fact, on third day, in an attempt to pacify the workers when the department asked for representatives to come again, the workers refused to identify individuals and asked the State to discuss in public with all the workers. As per workers’ statements, the Officials ridiculed such a notion stating that the organization is mature enough to elect its leaders. However, what really emerged is a form of collective leadership where individual weaknesses were overcome by the strength of the workers as a whole.
That the collective process has long ways to go is evident from the lack of strategy in dealing with the judicial judgment. The nurses had not prepared for the response of the State and a mechanism to cohesively decide under pressure. They also did not reach out to workers who are facing similar issues to build solidarity. However, what is clear is that the workers are learning to self organize to fight for their class based interests.
The unions and other civil society groups could have played a significant role in helping the workers strategize to deal with the State responses which they themselves were subject to. Not only did they fail to warn the nurses to prepare for such eventualities, they did not go beyond symbolic solidarity measures such as statements and speeches. More importantly, they did not mobilize their workers, especially transport and Government employees, to express and provide concrete solidarity measures, which could have changed the dynamic of the struggle. The mobilization was restricted to mostly union leaders and the discourse on this issue was hardly visible among the rest of the working class. In fact, news reports suggest that Government employees in the complex assumed hostile attitude towards the workers which is not conducive to building revolutionary mass movements. It is apparent from the recent events that the space for such struggles is shrinking and unions have to devise new strategies as well as improve their response to such struggles.
Though the strike did not end with fulfilling the demands of the workers, it is exposing the capitalistic interest of the State and the coercive processes that it has to resort to curtail workers’ rights. It is not a time to be demotivated and despair but learn to march ahead.