As the State Government dillydallies over the dues accrued to existing and retired transport workers and the judicial process seems to be going nowhere, the mood of transport workers is turning disgruntled. Between 12th and 15th of this month, the 10 federated unions including CITU, AITUC, TTSF, LPF and HMS, had called for ‘katthiruppu’ porattam (meaning waiting protest) and taken to various forms of protests in Tamil Nadu to highlight their displeasure with the State. This prompted a partial strike in the state, with upto 50% of the buses not plying in the state.
However, the mood of the workers turned more militant when a meeting between the Transport Minister Vijayabaskar and the trade unions resulted in postponement of the discussion to 27th and 28th of this month. According to trade unionists, Mr. Vijayabaskar had promised resolution of the issues of the transport workers and asked for postponement of the negotiation to the end of this month after the RK Nagar election. The workers were in no mood to hear the explanation by the trade unionists and spontaneous protests erupted in various parts of Tamil Nadu that day.
When transport workers had previously struck work in May demanding the dues of over Rs 7000 crores which were owed to the workers in forms of DA, gratuity, pension and other arrears, the State Government had requested a 3 month extension to solve these issues. The Government had also assured Rs 1500 crores would be released towards paying these arrears. It has been 6 months since these assurances were made. Despite repeated negotiations between Government and the unions, there has been no substantial progress in the resolution of any of these issues or progress in the pending wage negotiation. Hence a new wave of protests are emerging from these workers.
As part of the planned 4 day protests, the workers campaigned among the commuters and general public on December 13th from 4PM at various bus depots. The general public was mostly unaware of the issues of the workers, most did not remember or had no clue about the strike in May. The pamphlets provided a way for public to understand the transport workers’ issues. Only one of the commuters that we spoke to was aware of the issues in detail. He said that while the it may very well be true that State Government does not have funds to solve the ongoing crisis, it is not fair to deny the dues to workers and lay the burden of transport system on workers. He however cautioned that disunity among the workers and the trade unions was a major cause why this problem has not been resolved. Comrade Ashokan, Deputy Secretary of MTC Union said that the transport system was in major disrepair and workers were plying the buses which were literally being glued with minor repairs and adjustments. Only a major haul of the system can be the solution, he opined.
On 14th, over workers attended a massive protest in Pallavan Salai opposite Transport Corporation headquarters. While over 2500 workers attended the event, the two day long protest meeting between 10PM and 6PM is drawing more workers as those who are not in their shift keep attending the event. The workers and the unions do not seem to be in any mood to give any more time to the State Government. As one of the leaders explained, it has been the union leadership which has kept the workers on the leash and ended the strike when State Government asked for time to resolve these issues.
Comrade Subramanianpillai of HMS, addressing the workers deplored the inaction by both State Government and Judiciary. He highlighted some of the major issues around which workers are still trying to keep an effective transport system on ground. This includes damaged fleet, outsourced maintenance services, lack of training to maintenance staff, low wages etc. He demanded wage commensurable to Government employees and 7th pay commission for transport workers.
Speaking to Thozhilalar Koodam, Comrade Balakrishnan, President of MTC Transport Workers Union (affiliated to CITU), said that while State Government did indeed make contribution of Rs 1500 crores to pay some of the dues, the management continues to use the gratuity and PF dues of existing workers to maintain the day to day operations of the corporation. Hence, the dues owed to the workers has not come down from Rs 7000 crores, according to him. This is because, the corporation is running at a loss of estimated Rs 3-6 crores as per official calculations. Comrade Balakrishnan was emphatic that the public transport is a public service and hence would have to be subsidized by the Government, which is the norm in other countries. He said that there was a high level meeting with Ministerial committee and the course of the struggles would be dependent on the outcome of the meeting.
The High Court, which had threatened to invoke ESMA on striking workers in May, does not seem to be able to bring order to the chaos in the governance of Tamil Nadu. Even after 6 months of proceedings in the Court, there has been no progress in resolution of any of these issues. In a suomoto case involving a retired transport worker, the High Court has denied 1 month extension to State Government for paying the second installment of retired workers in a hearing on 14th December. However, the Judiciary, which has been hostile to working class strikes, has not found any mechanism to solve the transport workers issues substantially.
On 15th, reports emerged that public transport service was affected as more and more workers attended the protests. While trade unions estimated that over 75% of the buses were affected, news reports put them at 40-60%. According to one of the news report, the corporation has maintained that 80% of the buses were plying. In a meeting with the Transport Minister and Corporation officials, a resolution passed by the federation comprising 10 trade unions has said that the minister has agreed to resolve all the issues of the workers and requested postponement of discussion to post RK Nagar election on 27th and 28th of December.
Based on the assurances by the Minister, the federation decided to end the protest. When union officials attempted to share this information with the protesting workers in Pallavan House, some of the workers got agitated at the outcome. There were reports of property damage including one bus and chairs etc in the protest meeting. There are also reports of a road roko. While trade unionists maintain that the agitation was due to internal union squabbling and elements sympathetic to previous ADMK transport minister, what is clear is that the protests erupted all over Tamil Nadu and hence cannot be the outcome of internal squabbling alone.
This is not the first time that workers have gone beyond trade union leadership. In May last year, sanitation workers had also not accepted the trade decisions of union leadership. The spontaneous protest has captured the anger of the workers who are fed up with endless negotiations and attempt by State to muzzle the voice of workers. For now an uneasy truce lies as workers go back to their lives waiting for 27th negotiations. While the State may either turn up the heat or try and placate the workers through giving doles, its time for union leadership to articulate permanent solutions for these issues and channel the workers’ anger towards these demands.
In the mean time, the workers continue to be at the brunt of the crumbing infrastructure in transport sector. In October, 8 workers died in Nagai district after the rest area where they were sleeping after their shift was over, caved in. On 13th December, a worker escaped a narrow death in Karaikal District when the cement on the roof fell. The buses are in major disrepair and pose serious hazard to both the workers and the general public.
The monetary assistance by State Government and the judicial oversight to ensure this minimal assistance is only a palliative measure and is not going to solve the transport workers’ issues. As Comrade Balakrishnan rightly points out, the State has a mandate to provide affordable transport for its citizens. He points to general decline in services, such as exclusive services for women, students which were provided earlier. To ensure this, the unions and workers need to reach out more to the general public. The drivers and conductors are interacting everyday with the general public and the unions must devise strategies to tap into such existing communication outlets to build a cohesive platform for working class to demand affordable public transport for all which is not built on the backbone of workers exploitation.
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