Interview with Dilip Pawar of the VKKS

On the 13th of May, comrade Adhiraj Bose had conducted an interview with Dilip Pawar of the VKKS (Vishwa Kalyan Kamgar Sangathana) which led the previous 50 day work stoppage at Bajaj and is leading the present work stoppage for an indefinite period to pressurize the management of Bajaj Auto Ltd to concede to the major demands of wage revision in Bajaj.

Q1. We have been interested in the developments around Bajaj Auto Ltd since the 50 day work stoppage you had undertaken last year, as this was a landmark in industrial worker struggles in Pune. We would like to know more about your union. What is the origin of the VKKS and how was it founded ?

The VKKS was founded in 2003. Before the VKKS the main union representing the workers in Bajaj’s Akurdi plant was the Bharatiya Kamgar Sanghathan or BKS which is affiliated to the Shiv Sena. They were a corrupted union and catered to the interests of the management. Often they would just pretend to act for the interests of workers taking token actions now and then, but nothing would result from this. In their 10 years of existence they could get only two very meagre pay rises.
The workers in general there were very discontented with this union.

Together we decided that enough was enough, and made our own new union independent of any political party. This was how the VKKS came into being in 2003. Our aim was to create a militant trade union independent of the bosses which could properly represent the interests of the workers. With our formation most of the workforce at Bajaj joined our new union. Our first action was to stage a hunger strike to get an urgent wage revision which had been pending for years that the previous union did nothing to achieve. We achieved it. The management still decided to suspend all striking workers for 4 days just to ‘save their pride’.

During this time we also built a coalition of trade unions across the industrial belt. The Shramik Ekta Mahasangh, was built out of militant company based unions throughout the belt. At present 112 unions are part of this coalition.

Our success had strengthened the union. Almost immediately the management’s heavy handed tactics and harassment started. Now that they had lost their pet union, they felt threatened by our existence. We thus, had to start a struggle for recognition. A court application was made at the tribunal. The rival union, BKS tried underhanded tactics like giving false affidavits to show a bloated union membership. We insisted on a physical check up to counter this. It was settled that the majority of the workforce were with us and that we had a separate existence.

The management hadn’t stopped harassing us though, the worker’s cooperative society premises within the factory was made a target. They cut off electricity and necessary infrastructure to try and break us. We had to move our office out of the factory premises to the present office building. We never stopped the struggle for recognition and finally achieved it in 2007.

Towards this time our union membership within the company had increased to around 2200.

In 2007, Bajaj had just established their new factory at Pantnagar and desired to move production over there as labor costs are much lower over there. They were also planning to close down the factory at Akurdi in Pune, which had been their main factory thus far. We were told to leave work and would go unemployed the next day. We were told “we would get paid at home”. We started a protest against this arbitrary shift of the plant. For 65 days we had gherraoed the plant with hundreds of workers sitting at the factory gates in strike. It was a massive show and a great success, we had support from all unions across the belt as well as from across the nation. 200 unions in the industrial belt alone joined our action at Bajaj as well as several social activist groups throughout the city. The result of this action was that the plant was not shifted. We made sure that none of our workers on strike were victimized.

Later on we were joined in by the Chakan unit of Bajaj as well with its 850 permanent workers who are mostly young. Now most of the production has shifted away from Akurdi to Chakan and Aurangabad. However, Pune remains their main production centre with Chakan being their best factory.

Q2. Can you tell us something about the condition of work for the workers at Bajaj factories in Pune ? What is the composition of work force in the factory like and what are the condition of work for different categories of workers like contract workers and permanent workers.

At present most of the production has been shifted away from Akurdi to other plants, most notably to Chakan. At Akurdi most of the workforce was old and aging and took voluntary retirement. The present factory workers there wouldn’t number more than 120. The majority of those who work there are company staff workers, they number around 2000.

At Chakan we have around 850 permanent workers as well as 700 contract workers. The main concern we face over there is that the wage revision has not happened in a long time. That is the core of our demand for which we are striking. The other core concern is the harassment at the hands of the management which continues.

The workforce at Akurdi gets an average wage rate of around Rs. 38,000/- while the equivalent worker at Chakan gets around Rs. 14,000/- as starting salary which rises up to Rs. 24,000/- at the third level of promotion, i.e. After 10 years’ work. The difficulties at work however, started when the total productivity methods were implemented in the factory which has led to straining the workforce with extended work hours, harsh shift timings and very little benefits.

The situation for contract worker is far worse than the permanent workers however. They are not given more than the minimum wage and their situation at the plant remain precarious due to the flexible scope of hire and fire at the plant. The same goes for so-called trainee workers who are basically students but made to work for nothing under a traineeship program from their respective colleges/institutions. The company makes liberal use of these trainee workers and contract workers as part of strike busting tactics, hiring extra workers to make up for the shortfall of permanent workers and keep production levels intact. More often than not, the police who would be called in would force them to work.

However, our union focusses only on permanent workers. It is very difficult to organize contract and temporary workers due to their temporary and precarious nature. An isolated struggle of such a workforce is bound to fail as the management can simply resort to firing them when they agitate. What can be gained then ?

However, we are concerned with the issues of contract workers and trainee workers. We have launched a legal action for this in the industrial tribunal. The issues facing the contract workers include absence of basic facilities like canteen, transportation and pathetically small wages (Rs. 150 to 200 per day, just bordering on minimum wages) .

An important point to note, is that Bajaj hires most of its workforce from out of state. There are workers from Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra etc. There are hardly any workers from Maharashtra now. The purpose is to sow divisions among the workers. One of our biggest success I believe, was to overcome this and preserve the unity of our organization.

Q3. Tell us about the upcoming action you’re taking and the background behind it. The issues are the same as the work stoppage last year isn’t it ?

The present action is being drawn along the lines of the last one. Again, it will be a work stoppage and not a ‘strike’ as such. It was supposed to start on the 28th of April but we deliberately delayed it and welcomed the management to negotiations. This was a deliberate action on our part, as the management had made preparations to curb our strike in advance.

By delaying the strike we are basically harassing them since they will have to pay for the contract and trainee workers which they will employ to curb our absence in addition to the permanent workers. Basically, this was a harassment tactic on our part. It will also give us more time to organize better for when the day does come to stop work. We will now begin our action on the 15th of May.

Like in the last work stoppage, this time too the entire industrial belt is in support of our cause. The Shramik Ekta Mahasangh is active this time as well. We are again gearing up for an indefinite strike in the same vein as the one last year.

The issues are again the same. The demand for shares it should be known is only a cover for the real demands for a wage revision and an end to management harassment of workers. We have no illusions on what to expect from the management, even during negotiations they don’t talk seriously and just waste time leading every negotiation to a dead end. The management which isn’t willing to give our legitimate wage revisions won’t ever give us shares in the company. We must fight to coerce our just demands from them.


Q4. What are your expectations in terms of outside support and solidarity ? How can we help ? What has been the role of Central Trade unions in this struggle ? Have they been proactive in supporting your struggles ?

At present we have international solidarity from the IndustriAll union based in Switzerland. They have been helping us with finance and raising awareness nationally and internationally on our struggle here.

We have solidarity from the industrial workers in Pune as well. We welcome as much support as can be had nationally and internationally. What we would appreciate most is to raise awareness on the coercion tactics the management uses against us.

We would really appreciate proactive support and solidarity from Central Trade unions like the CITU and AITUC etc, but most of them don’t understand our struggle. They are taken aback by the demand for shares and just sit on the sidelines confused. They don’t seem to understand or appreciate the core of this struggle or the energetic support from the workers.

We need all the support we can get here as we are fighting alone against a very well funded and well entrenched enemy. Bajaj is getting all manner of support from the government and political parties who are beneficiaries of Bajaj. Of late there was a report of the villages supporting Bajaj as well. I would like to point out, this is only half true. It is not the whole village or ordinary village folk who are supporting the management against us in any way, it is only the elite of the village, the sarpanch in particular who are supporting the company, as they get benefits from the company by way of labor contracts and land rents. This is not a new tactics for the management, at Mahindra and Mahindra they used this tactic to break a strike there. I feel this was due mostly to the lack of leadership there. This won’t work here, because there is a solid organized leadership uniting the workers.

We are a union which believes in solidarity actions. In the recent strike actions like in Godrej and Bharat Forge we were there supporting them. We participated in their rallies and meetings.

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Perspective on the work stoppage at Bajaj

The nearly 50 day long tool down action at Bajaj’s Chakan plant was a landmark action by the workers of the Chakan industrial belt, both for it’s duration and the impact it has had in radicalizing the otherwise ‘peaceful’ situation at the Chakan industrial belt. The core issue of the struggle was over the ill-effects of the imposition of total productivity methods at Chakan modelled on the system at Maruti Suzuki and union busting tactics of the management at the Pantnagar plant.

The action at Chakan may be linked to the developments at the Pantnagar plant in Uttarakhand where the workers were deliberately denied from joining the Vishwa Kamgar Kalyan Sangathana ( VKKS ). The harrassment of workers at that plant led to the union at Chakan break the old agreement and make a fresh set of demands targetting an improvement of their working condition. The union leadership however, was limited from the start, by targeting shareholding in the company for workers as a ‘lasting’ means of improving worker’s wages. The leaflet distributed by the union expressed the ideological basis for their demand for shares, the belief in trusteeship, championed by Jamnalal Bajaj. This demand more than any other was what was highlighted by the union.

There were other issues as well. During the meetings, the question of condition of work for contract workers was raised more than once. Bajaj like every other major industry prefers the hiring of contract labor to use of permanent workforce. In the slump period in the auto industry, contract labor again gave way to the use of trainee workers. This together with the total productivity methods, squeezed out the highest possible productivity out of the workers at the plant, not to mention rendered them precarious owing to the contractual nature of work and the temporary or trainee status of the workers. However, the union did not raise these questions concretely in their charter of demands. On the contrary, the allotment of shares, which was stressed by the union, would only aid the management in exploiting the workers. With shareholding, the workers are tied in to the profits and losses of the company, and consequently, hostage to the policy of the management.

At no point was the tool down action directed towards more militant forms of protests like gheraos or factory occupations, or pickets. The result was that the company had a free hand in forcing the trainee workers to work overtime to compensate for production losses due to the tool down. Even though this was illegal, the union leadership preferred a legal course to tackling this than the more militant alternative of installing a gherrao of the factory. However, the enthusiasm of the young workers at the union ( their average age being 26 ), proved to be an inspiration for other workers to join in solidarity. The Shramik Ekta Mahasangh which was the umbrella body of industrial unions in the Chakan belt expressed their solidarity with the workers. However, no tool down action was taken by them.

All in all, the workers at Bajaj had to go on their own. The workers showed both determination and unity in carrying on the tool down action for more than 50 days beginning from the 25th of June till August 14th. This was all despite management tactics of harrassment and attempts to break the strike, not to mention, threats of shifting production away from the Chakan plant to neighboring Aurangabad. In the end the strike was ended ‘unconditionally’. The union leadership under has promised to ‘continue to press for the demands raised by the strike action including wage revision’.

Thus, the work stoppage action ended without any demands conceded, and a murky uncertain future awaits for the suspended workers. The management feels emboldened with its success in ending the struggle without any concessions made, and in potential for shifting production to any other plant in the country.

The unity of workers which has been building up albeit in a somewhat distorted manner since the general strike of 2010, has tremendous implications for the future of the worker’s movement. The Bajaj tool down action represents both the problems and the potential in mobilizing workers in India.

The larger picture :

Though the action at Bajaj ended without consequence, the significance of this work stoppage action can’t be ignored in the larger picture. Since the beginning of market reforms and what is generally called ‘neo-liberal’ growth, the condition of workers in India has become more and more precarious. Contractorization, casualization and rationalization of workforce in addition to privatizations of public companies have added to the burdens of the working class. The ‘boom years’ of the Indian economy also saw the birth of a new phase of class struggle, with the workers at Honda revolting. Soon after, the Gurgaon industrial belt became the scene of the most significant labor movement in recent times centered around Maruti. The rest of the country has not been immune to this. It was not too long since the workers at Mahindra’s Nasik plant struck work after the arrest of it’s union leadership there.

With worsening conditions of work, and the entry of millions upon millions of freshly proletarianized peasant populations ( people who’ve been rendered wage slaves due to loss of subsistence income from the countryside, pushed into the cities or factories to find work ), a new young working class has been created out of the most rebellious and desperate section of india’s populace. The increasing intensity of struggles, with frequent cases of workers turning violent, is an unsurprising outcome of the brutality of the system upon the lives of these populations. With shrinking stable job opportunities, owing to a stagnation of organized employment, most of these wage slaves end up with the worst kind of work in the unorganized sector, if not end up unemployed yet again.

The increase of this reserve labor has strengthened the ability of capitalists to impose their will upon the workers. It is not for no reason that the management at Bajaj could compensate the loss of man hours as easily with trainee workers. The system favored him, but the times are against him. The world crisis has affected india, and the problems of a proletarianizing economy founded on the systematic destruction of peasants and petty bourgeois, has come crashing in. Workers become more rebellious and there is an ever present danger of it becoming violent. The example of Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt stands as a warning before the greedy bourgeois.

With this new method of exploitation, there have been new movements of resistance against it. The movement for organizing contract workers for decent, secured job opportunities through their regularization, epitomizes this. The proliferation of contractorisation in Indian industry has given new impetus to the movement to organize contract workers. There is not a single major company where contractorisation has not taken roots, and consequently, there is an ever present struggle against the conditions which it brings about. This is one area which can combine the struggles of workers in private industry with those in public industry where contractorisation is emerging in a major way. Take the case of BSNL where almost 100000 workers work as ‘outsourced’ contract workers. But while the significance of the struggle seems obvious, the nature of the movement is restrained to a company specific approach. No focussed effort seems to be in place to create a movement of all workers against contractorisation uniting both public and private sector workers. Building such unity is the need of the day !

This is not unconnected with the developments in the public sector. The crisis has forced the government to aggressively target the public sector for increased privatizations. The results have been a spree of strike actions by workers against privatization. Coal India Ltd, BSNL, Neyvelli lignite have all been witness to workers protesting efforts at privatizing these companies. These have so far been successful in restraining any efforts at completing the privatizations of these companies. The question of contract workers and overall, the question of improving work conditions are not unrelated to this. Privatization brings with it a worsening of working conditions, and increasing precariousness of work. The workers of the public sector companies are essentially waging a defensive struggle against privatization and against losing the security that comes with state ownership. This stands in contrast with the actions in the private sector where existing conditions of work are being challenged.

The public sector is a fortress for the working class, and a lifeline for giving sustainable secured employment. It accounts for a majority of organized workforce in the country as well as being in the commanding height of the economy. Uniting the workers of these two sectors would strengthen the working class in their struggle against Indian capitalism. This would not be possible without the necessary political leadership.