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 its 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 targeting 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. Far from making workers’ wages stable such a move would only serve to pacify into believing in the illusion that they would be treated like partners of the company !
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 harassment 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 its 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 focused 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.