Transport Workers Strike: A Review

What went Right; Where to Improvise;

One Month ago, thousands of state transport workers struck work demanding that arrears and dues to the tune of Rs.6000 crores be paid. The strike was successful to the extent that it crippled bus services as majority of workers including drivers, conductors and technical staff, stayed away from work. This show of a united and spirited resistance was commendable despite more than 40 unions in the sector negotiating on behalf of the workers. Moreover, this time, the fight was not just for those currently employed but also hundreds of retired workers who have not received their retirement benefits. Significantly, even though Anna Thozhilalar Peravai (ATP), the union affiliated to the ruling AIADMK, did not support the strike, many of its members did not report to work.

Transport Workers at Pallavan House — Awaiting news of negotiations

The government, as always, resorted to several measures to break the strike including hiring inexperienced drivers to operate the state transport buses on a daily wage basis and hired private buses to ply on some of the routes. There were instances of coercion and threats of criminal cases to instil fear in the workers; unions also reported that workers were asked to sign an undertaking that they would compulsorily report for work on the days that the strike was announced.

By the second day, the government was on tenterhooks even as they continued presenting a false picture to the media that transport services were not hit. However, it became clear that even the public was not happy, as private buses were charging arbitrary and exorbitant rates for tickets. By Day 2, the government was nervous enough to summon the unions for a negotiation at the Secretariat. This time, two senior ministers accompanied the relatively inexperienced transport minister. As the negotiations were taking place late into the evening, workers gathered in large numbers outside the MTC headquarters in Chennai hoping for a favourable result and determined to continue the strike if need be.

The situation quickly changed however, with the judiciary threatening to invoke ESMA. The unions did not seem prepared for the risk of facing victimisation and police action. After a long meeting at the Secretariat with senior ministers, union leaders settled for an agreement whereby the government would pay up Rs.1250 crores, a meagre fifth of the overall arrears due to the workers. The details of the agreement are as follows –

Rs.750 crores and Rs.500 crores originally offered to be given in September, would be made available at once to clear the existing DA arrears and pension dues. This includes Rs.250 crores as an advance for student concession (GO 37), Rs. 375 crores as a short-term loan to settle provident fund and gratuity of retired workers (GO 38) and Rs. 121.84 crores as a Ways and Means advance (GO 39). After three months, pension dues of the retired workers would be cleared. Apart from this, the statutory deductions which have not been paid to the respective departments (PF, LIC, gratuity, etc) will be looked at on a policy level. Wages will remain as per the 13th wage agreement until a new one is signed.

The state clearly used the threat of ESMA to their advantage and offered an amount marginally more than what they had promised before the strike began. Why did a successful strike result in such a tepid result? ThozhilalarKoodam examines the demands and strategies of the unions.

How did this strike differ from previous ones?

While similar strikes have taken place in the past (in 2000, the strike was for enhanced bonus and in 2014, the strike was for a wage hike), this one was unique, this time the unions were only demanding their dues. The 8 transport corporations owe more than Rs.6000 crores to workers currently employed as well as those who have retired. This includes social security benefits like provident fund, earned leave, gratuity, insurance premiums, and payment to the cooperative society which provides much needed credit to workers. Apart from this, thousands of pensioners were left in lurch without receiving their commuted pensions, DA arrears, etc.

Stealing a Lighter Moment – Worker dances to tune

Given that most employees in the transport sector are willing to tolerate low wages only because of the marginally better social security benefits that are available to them, this wage theft clearly struck a chord and the demands resonated with all the workers, including retired workers. Therefore, even members of the ATP, which was against the strike, participated.

Apart from this main demand, the unions called on the government to compensate for the losses incurred by the transport corporations and to provide subsidies and grants instead of short term loans at high interest rates. Unions felt that without addressing the financial health of the corporations, wage hikes would be minimal at best. The transport department in the various GOs passed in the lead up to the strike claimed that they were facing a loss of Rs.2981.57 crores and a cash loss of 2710.75 crores. As on 31st March 2017, the cumulative loss adds up to more than Rs.18000 crores.  In view of this situation the corporation has used Rs.6000 crores of the workers’ money and claims that given the existing losses, payment of these dues is impossible.

Can government use losses to justify wage theft?

While transport services are carried out through eight state owned corporations, registered under the Companies Act, the government and its bureaucracy, through the Transport Department, continues to retain control over the decision making and functioning of the corporations. The Secretary of the department is the ex-officio Chairperson of all the Corporations as well as the Managing Director of Tamil Nadu Transport Finance Development Corporation through which loans are obtained to finance the transport corporations.

 

The Transport Department claims that more than 50% of its operating expenditure is wages. They also claim that fares are extremely low and have not been revised for almost 16 years even though the last revision took place in late 2011.

from Policy Note of the Transport Department 2016-2017, Government of Tamil Nadu

However, in an analysis of the bus fare revision in 2012, ThozhilalarKoodam found that a considerable part of the expenditure incurred was related to payment of taxes on fuel, permits, tolls, etc.  This scenario has not changed till date with almost 40% of the cost incurred on diesel, taxes, interest rates and toll fees. On the one hand, the state claims that dues to workers cannot be paid due to losses, but on the hand, it continues to collect money from the corporations as taxes, toll fees and high interest rates on loans.

Additionally, by continuing to provide the various free passes and subsidies in tariffs for students, senior citizens and other sections of the population, but not fully compensating the corporations for these subsidies, the government is only further running the corporations to the ground.

So far, the total reimbursement from 2011-2016  is Rs.2262.97 crores. As part of the agreement signed this time around, Rs. 250 crores (out of a total allocation of Rs. 540.9905 crores for the year 2017-2018) will be advanced to the corporations. However, unions feel that this is not even close to the amount that is lost by the corporations.

Unions rightly draw a parallel to the situation of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board/TANGEDCO and their workers. Both corporations provide merit goods, but the government is much more willing to assume a greater responsibility to ensure the financial health of TANGEDCO. Not only have they provided Rs.9000 crores in subsidy, they have also taken over bonds and are providing interest on those bonds.

Government of Tamil Nadu has sanctioned the following financial assistance to TANGEDCO in Budget Estimate 2016-2017. (Rs.in crores)

Tariff subsidy 9007.38
Equity Share Capital Assistance 400.00
Transmission System Improvement Loans & Grants 1737.88
Cyclone Resilient Electrical Network under Coastal Disaster Risk Reduction Project (CDRRP) Grants 165.00

 

 

Hydel swing subsidy 125.00
Taking over of bonds under FRP 2000.00
Interest on bonds of TANGEDCO issued under FRP 420.74
TOTAL 13856.00

Further, the government also took over a debt of more than Rs.22000 crores of TANGEDCO. Times of India reported that a part of the debt was converted into share capital assistance and the rest of it was compensated through financial assistance from  the Central Government’s UjwalDiscom Assurance Yojana (Uday).

Transport workers feel that they must be treated on par with counterparts in these departments as public transport provided at a subsidised cost is indeed a right of every citizen, no different that electricity or civil supplies. Why then, must those who provide this service be penalised for mismanagement and chronic losses.

Making the case for workers management

Workers across unions challenged the notion that they had to bear the brunt of these losses, articulating several issues in the functioning of the department ranging from corruption at senior management level, bad planning by a top-heavy bureaucracy and excessive salaries and benefits to the officers of the higher cadre as reasons for the heavy losses facing the department.

For instance, workers say that a huge amount of money was spent on procurement of volvo air conditioned buses, very few of which continue to be on the roads now. MTC did not have the resources to maintain these vehicles which are therefore lying idle in the depots, their spare parts being used for other vehicles and some even being sold for scrap.

Similarly, much of the maintenance, especially in the Metropolitan Transport Corporation has been outsourced considerably reducing the quality of the work that is being done and adding to the burden of workers who are forced to operate buses in severe disrepair on bad roads while still being forced to meet targets set unilaterally by the management.

Consumers of state transport have a right to safety and good quality, but there is no mechanism whereby they are involved in ensuring that these services are of a good standard.

If the state has failed to effectively manage the corporations, with both the providers and consumers of the service dissatisfied, fighting for workers to collectively manage public transport is an idea that unions must strongly explore. This must be done before the state proposes its favourite panacea of privatisation. Undoubtedly it is the drivers, conductors, maintenance workers, and others who have an intimate knowledge of the job to be done, and if the state has failed so miserably in managing public transport,maybe it is time for the workers to take over.

What could have been done?

Unions, however, do not seem to be thinking along these lines. Even as they claim that systemic and fundamental changes are needed, the demands which were limited to asking the government to compensate the losses and pay up the dues, is evidence of this. There is a lack of discourse on workers’ involvement in finding solutions or even participating in decision making about their own working conditions.

Although public meetings were held in some depots in the city, unions could have been more pro-active in taking the demands to other sections of the working class, who are in fact users of public transport. Moreover, unions could have more effectively countered the state’s narrative of losses and to take their case to the public. This can be a common ground between the workers and the public as consumers since it was the same reason given to increase the bus fare in 2011.  The state, which is happy to provide tax concessions to the rich and the private sector, is refusing to do so for public transport without passing on the burden of losses to workers through wage theft and consumers through fare hikes. There was also a valuable opportunity to forge alliances with private transport workers unions including cab drivers and auto drivers who are facing their own crises.

But arguably, the biggest deterrent to the success of the strike, was the judgement pronounced by the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court directing the government to invoke Essential Service Maintenance Act (ESMA) if the workers did not return to work. Not only were the orders issued ex-parte, without listening to the workers’ point of view, it also meant that the judiciary has, in effect, supported the notion that workers must work even without receiving pay. This would amount to forced labour and a violation of Article 23 of the constitution. With no reference to the stated reasons for the strike, by demanding that workers work even though the state refuses to meet its obligation, the judiciary failed to be an objective arbitrator.

As more and more employments are added into the “essential services” ambit, it is becoming clear that the state is extending the legislation’s use to absurd extents to curb any form of dissent, including thwarting all legitimate claims from workers. The onus is on the government to ensure that an essential service remains undisrupted, but not at the cost of exploiting the workers who are employed to provide that service, particularly if they are not being paid, as is the case with the transport workers.

With the judiciary taking a narrow and anti-worker view on the matter, worker’s right to strike will gradually be eroded away. The unions ought to actively engage with this issue and question the need for such a legislation in the first place.

Unions intervened only on the next day and the order to enforce ESMA was set aside but by then the damage was done and the unions ended the strike with few concessions. Union leaders also admitted that they were unwilling to face action under ESMA as they feared it would divert energies and attention from the issue at hand. But surely, it is something that they ought to have anticipated. And if indeed, unions believe that workers too are not ready to face police action, perhaps there needs to be different forms of “strike.” For instance, one Ola cab driver speaking to ThozhilalarKoodam suggested operating the buses for free or collecting the bus fares and retaining them towards settlement of dues – these could have been forms of protest without “disrupting” service and opening themselves up to attacks through ESMA.

As negotiations begin for wage increments, it remains to be seen what gains have been made for the workers through this strike. While one hopes that the hardship of working class both as workers and consumers of public transport translate to solving these immediate issues, going forward, left and independent left unions must introspect about their alliances, demands and strategies in the larger and more long-term interests of the workers.

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