Interview with BSNL woman worker and union activist on public sector and trade unionism

Thozhilalar Koodam talks to a woman worker with BSNL on conditions of work, trade unionism and lack of women leadership in trade unions.

Entry into trade unionism and trade union functions
I have been working with BSNL for past 35 years when I was barely 20. On day one of my employment, there was a lunch hour demonstration regarding working conditions. Some women did not participate and I participated as I felt this is about our welfare so we should join. I participated in the demonstration and that impressed the trade union leaders. There were two prominent unions – NFPTE National Federation of Postal and Telecom Employees which was dominated by left unions AITUC and CITU, FNPTO – Federation of National Postal and Telecom Organizations, which was backed by INTUC. I decided to join NFPTE, the union which had organized the demonstration.

They used to have trade union classes explaining various issues that are being taken up, why such demands are important. These are general classes for all trade union members. Our union(NFPTE) was different from the other union FNPTO, which was pro-administration. On all administrative functions such as staff allocation of work, duty changes, FNPTO will toe the administration viewpoint. Our union will fight for the workers but there is a limit. When they reach this limit, instead of continuing the fight, they will convince us to compromise. When we question such compromises, they will say you are too ideological and one needs to compromise. If we have to compromise, there is no point in questioning itself.

We enter into unions with the conviction that the unions are fighting for our rights but when we are inside and observe, we realize that there are differences and questions. We may be thinking that a great leader will do justice to the staff. It may not be like that. Sometimes we find that like management, the leader is trying to convince us. And when we differ with the union, we get isolated.

On Women leadership in unions
In Telecom Sector, 80% are women workers. In 1967 strike which is called glorious railway strike, the entire women workers in this exchange participated. These workers participated and they got arrested. There are lots of women who are working on the ground but there is no leadership role given to women. In Trade Unions, they expect 100% women workers’ participation but women are given leadership only as treasurer or Vice President. These roles have certain duties but these are not important roles. When women are given only these roles, they become mere token representation. In basic functioning of the union or negotiation with the administration, women have no role to play.

The trade union movement is about understanding the issues, character of the people who need to fight for them and to get them to fight on these issues. Fighting is an
inborn quality of women as far as I am concerned. Every year we have 5 to 6 protests. Recently we have seen in the case of Una struggle and after Rohit Vemula, leadership emerging from cadres and taking up sustained struggles. But in trade unions, why then can we not identify women leadership?. Even in all India level, if out of 20 leadership posts, 1-2 posts are filled by women. Even that is usually as assistant treasurer, treasurer or organizing secretary. Some times, just to show women representation, they will give auditor position to some women. Even in left parties, if well known women have risen to high ranks, its also because of their parents having worked for the party. While we are criticizing other parties for dynastic rule, we are not looking at how it manifests in left parties. Promoting women leadership from ground level is absent.

Then they have working women’s committee in the union. So any issues that are seen as women’s issues, the working women’s committee will take these up as if its the duty of women only. They will have women’s convention every year and celebrate women’s working day and they will glorify women. That is all that happens otherwise women are relegated to being cadres. In BSNL, at one point, we fought for the right of creche, and yet we don’t have any creche facility today. The union said they got us child care day off but that is not enough especially when there is so much work at BSNL (due to ban on recruitment).

Decline in unionism..
In BSNL starting 1983/84 during Indira Gandhi period, there was a ban on recruitment. Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda as Chairperson of Telecom Committee introduced changes which led to globalization and modernisation of Telecom Sector. They started reducing staff on one side and ban on recruitment on another side and increased burden of work on existing employees. Employees’ health and right to time off were not considered. Style of functioning in work and work culture changed and there was also change in trade union functions. The leaders started enjoying more privileges.

When Postal and Telecom sectors were bifurcated, slowly telegram service was systematically dismantled by stagnating the price of the telegram while the cost of providing service was increasing, thus making it increasingly non-viable. Eventually, The telegram service was closed permanently. This was a deliberate policy move to end such public infrastructure that was crucial to the rural households. When these services are dismantled, the workers had to be shifted and accommodated in other positions. The union leaders started concentrating on how to get their people in good positions. Instead of fighting for general recruitment or to retain the service, we are forced to divert from the main issue and focus on getting people into convenient positions or to retain them in the same place.

In the last 5-6 years, the fighting culture in union has declined. This is also facilitated by the management. Earlier, they used to give us memo or take action under FR17A(a disciplinary rule) A disciplinary action can mean break in service with a lasting impact impact on wage, pension etc. Nowadays they are not giving any such punishments. Earlier when you struck work, you will lose one day pay. Nowadays when we say there is a strike, workers go on medical leave. We will take medical leave from one medical officer and the management will not ask anything. We cadres will go near each office and ask the employees (coming to work) to strike. Then they started having an officer near the office so the workers could come to the officer and give attendance and will go away. So they don’t even have to take a medical leave. But the union will claim the strike is 100% successful. How can this strike be 100% successful. Instead of convincing workers to strike, we are just pretending.

Contractualization has increased in the work force. Housekeeping and line workers are all contract workers. They have been working as contract workers for past 10-15 years and they get Rs 4000 per month. Earlier they were getting only Rs 2800. Only now it has been increased to Rs 4000. For the clerical staff, there has been no replacement. So when workers are retiring and its expected that by 2020, 90% of clerical staff will retire, there are no replacement workers brought in. Either the work is shared among the old workers with comp off or contract workers who are paid Rs 8000 (a skilled entry level worker is paid Rs 30000) are brought in. The union must be pressurizing for new employment to be created especially with new graduates having need of employment. Instead, they are only looking at protecting the current members. The upper management is made of bureaucrats from government sector and the workers are public sector workers. The union does not talk about these conditions and make demands to get the public sector viable. Instead they just say they will oppose privatization .

On Reviving the unionism..
If the trade union movement needs to revive, then the leaders must connect with every worker and understand the views and perspectives of the workers. Branch leaders should know all the workers like their own family members. In DMK, ADMK, when there are protests, all family members will support but trade unions deal only with workers.They dont involve the family members and convince the family on the necessity of class struggle. They develop publications such as Theekathir but don’t ensure that they are left at offices so workers will read. There is no space for workers and families to come and be educated. Trade unionism is about fighting and there is a need to revive that culture.

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