Exactly one week from the day on which thousands of state transport workers stopped work after failure of talks with the government, a High Court order has forced the unions to call off the strike and resume work. In what seems to have become the routine way to break workers’ struggles, a PIL was filed immediately after the strike started citing inconvenience to the public After several court hearings that unfolded over a week, the court ruled late on 11th, Thursday evening, that the workers must resume duty in the larger interest of the public given the upcoming Pongal festival. However, in what unions are claiming to be partial victory, the court also ordered a commission headed by a retired judge Padmanabhan to arbitrate on the demand of wage hike by 2.57 points and recovery of dues to the tune of Rs.7000 crores.
On 4th January, transport union representatives and government officials were engaged in a negotiation to finalise the 13th wage agreement. The 12th agreement had come to close in October 2016 and despite several rounds of talks throughout the last few months, no consensus had emerged. While unions are demanding that, on principle, their pay be on par with other workers in the public sector, the government continues to say that it is not in a financial position to do so. Moreover, it has made no commitment on how it will repay the dues of Rs.7000.
Given this situation, the unions have been continuously engaged in negotiation on one hand and a legal case relating to the PIL filed in May 2017 to make their case for repayment of dues and wage increments. The breaking point in the last round of negotiation was the factor based on which the wage hike would be calculated. The unions were willing to settle for a factor of 2.57, which would bring their wages on par with their other public sector counterparts while the government stood firm on 2.44 for a three year agreement. 10 unions, representing a majority of the workers, walked out as it was not acceptable to them. The strike began that very evening as news of this spread. However, the government went on to sign an agreement with other unions and claimed that it had therefore been accepted by the majority.
On the next day, workers assembled at their depots despite police presence. The government resorted to strike breaking activities by forcing temporary drivers to work on daily wage basis and some private buses were also deployed. Meanwhile, individuals also filed PILs seeking an end to the strike claiming it hindered public mobility. While the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court refused to rule on the matter saying that it had asked the government to settle workers’ dues several times, the First Bench of the Madras High Court took an anti-worker stand. Saying that the strike hindered the right to movement of citizens, it ordered that for a mere difference of Rs.600, the workers have no right to strike. It also allowed the transport corporations to take action against workers who did not report to duty.
Despite this order, the strike was near-total over the weekend. Unions continued the strike as they had not received the order copy. On Monday, a large contingent of lawyers intervened in the case in the First Bench asking for workers’ grievances to be heard. The Chief Justice modified the order to a certain extent – workers cannot be dismissed or suspended without permission from court. The case was transferred to third bench where other transport workers cases were already being heard.
As the court case went on, each day workers assembled in the thousands in a show of spirited resistance and unity. On 8th January, workers gathered in large numbers at MLA Hostel in Chepauk.
Several leaders of the central trade unions addressed the gathering, lambasting the judiciary. Responding to this, one worker said, “The Chief Justice who ruled that we must not strike has just received a large pay hike. Forget her salary, ask her to find out her car driver’s salary – we earn a fraction of it.” Comrade A. Soundarajan of CITU also said that Minister Vijay Bhaskar and the government was in denial as he had just given an interview saying that most of the workers were reporting to duty in attempt to legitimise the agreement signed with the pro-government unions. Com. Soundarajan said that the government was carrying on a sustained campaign of misinformation despite which the public was supporting them as they understood that the government was essentially eating up their money.
In a another display of their plight, on the next day workers assembled before the MTC headquarters with their families.
Children and the elderly braved the rain to support their family members who were on strike. One driver brought his two young children and his wife to the protest. With 7 years of experience, he earns Rs.20000. As his wife was pursuing her studies, he had to constantly take loans to make ends meet being the sole breadwinner of the family. Workers were visibly angry, not only about the government’s refusal to increase wages but also about its lack of commitment to pay back Rs.7000 crores of their PF, insurance and credit society money. “Can a conductor say that he will use his collection at the end of the day for his household expenses and return it later”, asked an angry worker about the double standards. Workers were also wondering why the judiciary refused to see this.
Com. Padmanabhan and Com. Nagarajan of TTSF also reiterated these issues when they spoke to Thozhilalar Koodam on Wednesday at the Labour Commissionerate, DMS Complex.
“We are the only public sector unit left where the workers and the officers are treated so inequitably. While the higher officials get massive pay hikes based on a 2.57, 2.62 and 2.77 factor, we continue to remain at the lowest rung”, said Com. Padmanabhan. Several workers also pointed out that the government had given incorrect calculations of their wage increments to mislead the public into thinking that they were being greedy. One conductor from the Avadi depot said, “I am urging public to realise that our identity is of a worker who is protesting now, but once we step out of this protest, we too are like any ordinary citizen who uses the public transport. We and our families are equally inconvenienced by the strike. We are only asking for what is ours and yet this government is refusing to talk to us.” Several workers showed us their wage slips showing that wages ranged from Rs. 16000 for a worker with 4-5 years of experience to Rs. 30000 for a worker with 20 years of experience.
On 11 January, the Central Trade Unions held a hunger fast in support of the workers.
During this time, the case was being heard before the third bench. In the morning, the judge appealed to the unions to exercise their conscience and call off the strike given that Pongal was looming. As arguments from each of lawyers went on for several hours, the final order was passed by late evening, directing workers to return to work and referring the case to arbitration. Accepting this judgement, the unions announced that the strike was called off and claimed that the setting up of a commission under retired Judge Padmanabhan was the first of its kind and therefore a partial victory.
The Interim Order
On Friday, 5th January, the Chief Justice of Madras High Court, admitting a PIL on this issue, had ordered the striking workers to rejoin work. The workers had not been heard. When it became apparent that the workers had refused to comply with the order and were continuing the strike, Chief Justice, transferred the case to the third bench while rescinding her warning to take summary action against workers. Rather than engage in the merits of the PIL, the third bench began a court mediated negotiation to end the immediate impasse. The government remained unrelenting on its stand that the agreement signed with 32 unions would not be repealed. It also refused to give any guarantees for the repayment of worker dues amounting to Rs. 7000 cr. The court rather than censuring the government for its lapses and obstinate stand, insisted that the workers withdraw the strike in the larger public interest. Eventually, the workers and their representatives offered to withdraw the strike, if the government was willing to renegotiate the wage agreement through arbitration by a retired judge. With the government willing to agree to this, the third bench passed interim orders appointing Justice E Padmanabhan to be the arbitrator and for the agreement to be reached within a month.
Unions’ demand for a renegotiation of wage agreement through arbitration (as per section 10A of Industrial Disputes Act) was conceded. The judge will discuss the validity of the union demand to further increase wages by a factor of 0.13 (2.57 union demand – 2.44 government agreement). He would also decide on the date from which the increase will be effective and the payment of arrears. But the arbitration does not go into the illegality on the part of State Transport Corporations and state government in retaining wage dues of the workers and arriving at a wage agreement separately with few unions. It also does not extend to cover payment of wages during the strike period. There is no reference either by the government or the terms of arbitration about the time frame to settle pending dues of pensioners and workers. The court has ordered that the arbitration begin before 1st Feb and end within 1st march and the report placed before the bench.
Public Support vs Media Bias
The visible public support for the strike, especially from regular commuters, was an important factor in keeping the morale of the workers high. This played a crucial role in sustaining the strike for 8 days. While the commuters did complain about the hardships due to the strike, in interviews by TK as well as during informal discussions, people supported the demands of the workers and laid the blame on the government. The workers, in the run up to the strike, had engaged in public demonstrations, leafleting in depots and through social media. The legitimacy of their demands and their efforts at public engagement had contributed to this show of public support. Workers from other sectors, through their unions and associations had also supported the strike. Factory workers affiliated to CITU and AICCTU, bank and insurance workers, IT workers affiliated with FITE and Democratic Advocates Association had all extended their support. Some had even organized public meetings.
But most of the mainstream print and broadcast media played a dubious role in portraying commuter as the principal victims in a tussle between workers and government. The narrative was often about how the intransigence of the workers was resulting in difficulties for the public. The media also failed to provide substantial space prior to the strike as a way to inform the public about the position of either party. They also often relied on court statements and government statements leading to unverified information. The unions had to use social media to constantly correct media information and present their position. The headlines in leading news papers like ‘The Hindu’ all too clearly revealed the inherent anti-worker bias within mainstream media. Headlines like “Commuters experience fleecing and rash driving” in The Hindu and “Private bus services come to Chennai’s rescue, offer free rides” in the News Minute are some examples. Here are some other examples.
A Successful Strike?
For eight days, in the face of government threats and court warnings, the workers carried out an near-total strike. The government could not mobilize transport workers in enough numbers and had to resort to calling unlicensed drivers on contract to run the services. Even this could only increase services marginally. The resolve and morale of the workers remained very high throughout the strike period. With pongal festival arriving fast, the government was in a very tight situation as of Thursday.
But eventually, the order is a hardly a setback for the government. It does not guarantee even a single demand of the workers and merely extends the process into further negotiations. The judiciary has not heard the case on the principles of natural justice, rather passed hurried judgments and conducted arbitrary negotiations before it ordered arbitration. Asokan, an MTC worker and CITU office bearer said “but the order does demonstrate the justice in our demands and forces an arrogant state government to negotiate. They had refused to negotiate with us stating that the agreement they reached with government union was final. But the judgement opens it up. It is also being arbitrated by a retired judge which is better than through labour department. We are sure we will be successful as our demands are just.” But he further added that the court did act in a partisan manner by putting the onus of ending the strike on the workers. “The court did not state a word against the government, it did not ask them how you have not paid the workers wage, it did not appreciate that we had scaled down our demands. It insisted that we give up the strike in public concern”.
The union leadership has argued in favour of the judgment in televised interviews. They have also said that they are resuming services so that general workers can travel during the festive season and not be inconvenienced by the strike. They have also clearly stated that the withdrawal of the strike is a interim measure contingent upon the arbitration process.
While the outcome of the arbitration cannot be predicted, it can not be denied that only the effectiveness of the strike forced the government to even engage in this process. The workers, through their resolve, have shown their ability to challenge state power. It is important that they maintain the militant momentum so that they can successfully win their demands.