Thousands of transport workers across Tamil Nadu participated in a week-long strike last month. Due to intervention by the High Court, the strike ended without a decisive outcome. In a move that has further angered workers, the transport corporations have cut wages for the seven-day strike period and have issued charge memos, including transfer orders and have withheld pension benefits to workers who participated in the strike. As a continuation of its anti-working class policies, the Tamil Nadu government has also announced a substantial bus fare hike. The hike has been criticized by transport workers unions.
The week-long strike by state transport state ended with the High Court ordering that the issue be settled through arbitration. (http://tnlabour.in/news/6302) Despite the successful stoppage of work by a majority of the unions, the government had refused to budge on the quantum of agreement. The government claims that the 12(3) wage agreement that was signed between the government and some unions is binding on all. Barring for the Anna Thozhilalar Peravai (ATP), which is the ruling AIADMK’s union wing, all the other unions that have signed the agreement have an insubstantial membership, and many merely exist on paper.
The mood among workers is not very upbeat as many felt that the outcome of the court case was not a victory. One maintenance worker said “many of us in our depot were disappointed as we felt we did not achieve anything. The government did not have the humility to even call us for dialogue”, he said. However, leadership of CITU sees a positive side to the outcome. “The fact that that court did not rule against the workers is a victory of a united struggle” said Com. Bakthavatsalam of CITU. Com. Balakrishnan added that it is an uphill battle to break an existing 12(3) agreement that has been signed. In their petition to the High Court, CITU pointed out various procedural issues in the way that the agreement was signed. Unions are continuing to demand action against the labour officers who finalised it. Therefore, the outcome of the strike should not be seen as a failure, said Com. Balakrishnan.
The government continues to act with complete impunity as they target workers for participating in the strike. Several workers have been issued charge memos in the weeks following the strike. One MTC conductor who belongs to CITU said that the supervisors were purposely raking up old issues and sending charge memos to workers’ homes. Com. Nagarajan of TTSF also confirmed this and said that the government has gone back on their promise that workers will not be victimised. Usually the strike period would be considered as leave and adjusted as such so that workers will not lose wages. “In this case, the government said in court that they would not pay wages according to the ‘no work-no pay’ principle. However, in many corporations, they have marked workers absent opening up the possibility of disciplinary action”, said Com. Nagarajan. Some workers in Erode, Salem, Kumbakonam, Nagercoil and Vellore have been given transfers to far away places as punishment.
Meanwhile, another unpopular move of raising the bus fares further created anger against the government. In their original press release, the government claimed that the hike was intended to meet the mounting losses of the transport corporations which amounts to Rs.20,488 crores till date. The main reason for the loss is cited as the increase in fuel prices including diesel which has risen by more than 50% since the last fare hike in 2011, as well as the wages, pensions and other dues to workers and retirees.
The Tamil Nadu State Transport Employees Federation affiliated to CITU issued pamphlets last week to commuters condemning the AIADMK government for this move. Com.Balakrishnan of CITU said that the government cannot view this as losses in a traditional sense. “Public transport is the responsibility of the government to its citizens. They must start looking at it as a social investment through which education and the economy is boosted”, he said. The hike has affected lakhs of public transport commuters, majority of whom are working people in the informal sector, students, etc. One worker also told Thozhilalar Koodam that the government has timed the fare hike in such a way that the public perceive the workers to be the cause. It was the drivers and conductors that faced the wrath of the commuters on the day that the hike was announced.
The central trade unions met on 1st February 2018 to discuss the future course of action. The committee has called for a public meeting on 9th February to communicate the resolutions taken during this meeting as well as to explain why the existing 12(3) agreement is unfair and illegal. Several challenges lie ahead including the impending amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act as well as recovery of dues to the tune of Rs.7000 crores.