The Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS) office in Jamul in Bhilai lies in the shadow of a hulking ACC cement plant. From the plant, massive chimneys thrust out into the sky. These chimneys loom over the landscape in more ways than one. Ever since its formation in 1989 with the legendary Shankar Guha Niyogi, PCSS has been organizing and fighting for workers from the plant on issues of regularization, wages and better working conditions.
But with the expansion of the plant, the tenor of the struggle changed. The new plant has thrice the capacity of the first and is almost completely automated – requiring about 80 people to operate. This would require a massive retrenchment of contract workers unionised under PCSS. The ACC management, and later the Holcim management when they bought the company, had fought dirty and violently but, as we had written earlier, PCSS won a landmark victory in 2016. After running an international campaign with the help of IndustriALL, PCSS signed an agreement with the management that vindicated their strategy and vested genuine power with the union. Their actions protected the livelihood of hundreds of families and marked another milestone in the labour movement in Chattisgarh and all of India.
This is especially important because the members of PCSS are primarily contract workers. In many parts of the country (including Tamil Nadu), unions are refusing to engage with contract workers – either for ideological reasons or for pragmatic ones. Pragmatic reasons include the fear that if contract workers are allowed in unions, the management unions will enroll them all and use them to wrest control of the factory floor from the left unions. The workings of unions like PCSS are an antidote to this kind of thinking.
History of Organizing Contract Labour
PCSS is a part of the Mazdoor Karyakarta Samiti (MKS), a faction of the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM). To understand PCSS’ views on contract labour, it’s essential to understand the history of the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha. It is a history that begins with the organization of contract labour at the coal mines of Dalli Rajhara. The mines employed more than ten thousand contract labourers and a handful of permanent employees. At that point, the primary union was INTUC which organized only the permanent workers but entered into agreements regarding contract workers. The contract miners organized under CMM and forced the management to negotiate with them. They weren’t made permanent. But their collective bargaining rights were recognized and this was seen as vital. The difference between contract and permanent shrinks if the workers are similarly empowered in terms of collective bargaining.
With these roots, it isn’t hard to see why PCSS takes it for granted that they would organize contract workers in their factories. After all, the number of ‘skilled’ workers in their highly automated factory are few. PCSS sees contract workers as their primary constituency. These workers are more likely to see value in their leadership than permanent workers who can be ‘bought’ by the management. Thus, PCSS includes among its members the sweepers, canteen workers, water and electricity staff, etc. These workers fight side by side with ‘skilled’ production workers and thus embody what a united working class would look like without the arbitrary barriers of permanent and contract.
Hierarchy of Experience
A common refrain from PCSS members is that the management-enforced wage structure (within which they negotiated wages) was unfair. In their own words, someone with 29 years of experience could earn less than someone who was 29 years old. Or to put it another way, the difference between the wages of ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ labour was too high. PCSS see skilled and unskilled as a false dichotomy. From their point of view, it’s a matter of chance that one person is a fitter and another is a sweeper. So then it becomes imperative that a sweeper receives, for example, retirement benefits. When they negotiated their settlement with Holcim, they fought for a fairer four tier wage structure which would apply to the workers that retained their jobs (http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/lafargeholcim_end-of-25-year-dispute-with-indian-labour-union/41944364).
Experience was their primary criteria for deciding which union members would keep their jobs at the new factory. The settlement was a victory but it still meant more than 300 people would have to lose their jobs. First, the union decided that anyone above 55 would have to leave. The compensation offered by the company would make up for their loss of wages. Second, anyone with less than five years of experience would leave as they had less invested in the company than the others. This was a large number of people – around 250.
Genuine Collective Bargaining
It is also essential to point out how the negotiations around the settlement took place. It was not the case of a few union leaders agreeing on terms and then informing the rest. Each offer made by the management was brought to the general body of the union. Sometimes there were 300 people sitting in the small courtyard of the union office, listening to the latest offer. The discussions that followed could be extremely charged affairs. Through a slow and deliberative consensus-building process, the union ensured that the settlement was a genuine example of collective bargaining. All decisions had to be seen as being in the best interest of the group as a whole – both men and women, both contract and permanent. While this method is undoubtedly more drawn out than top down decision making, it leads to more investment on the part of the workers and drives home the ethos of group solidarity.
So, in this way, PCSS show how contract workers are an asset, not a liability to the working class movement. They show that the truly pragmatic choice is to expand union memberships, to organize contract workers, to radicalize them and thus move towards a more united working class movement. A working class movement that is not on the defensive and can articulate and fight for even more radical economic and political demands. Two ideas that PCSS proposed for the future during our meeting were a switch from an 8 hour day to a 6 hour day (which would boost employment and lower the physical burden on workers) and two extra holidays for women (so they could rest when they were menstruating).