After the Wildcat: Another Report by Honda HMSI Worker

Detailed additional information, including participants' reports about the wildcat strike of Honda workers in Gurgaon, India in December 2010.

The short wildcat strike at Honda HMSI on 17th of December 2010 has to be seen on the background of growing anger of a casualised workforce in the main industries of the global south. Be it temporary workers at Hyundai in South Korea, Honda supplying workers in China or Nokia workers in Chennai, in the shade of a minoritarian ‘permanent’ work-force – which bourgeois media focuses on when reporting about gains of development – the unrest increases. We first document additional information on the strike based on Honda HMSI temporary workers reports; we then have a short look at recent international conflicts which bear an systemic semblance to the Honda Gurgaon strike and conclude with some preliminary thoughts on ‘What could be done?’ on an immediate and local level.

The Wildcat Strike at Honda HMSI in Gurgaon

After publishing a first general report in the last issue of GWN we spoke to workers hired through contractor employed at Honda who took part in the strike. The report is being circulated in the January/February issue of Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar.

HMSI Worker

(Plot 1, Sector 3, IMT Manesar)

On Friday 17th of December, after having worked for about two hours, the A-shift workers at the scooter line suddenly stopped work, they went in groups to the other departments of the factory, where they were joint by the rest of the workers. The arriving B-shift joined them, they did not start working. At 11:30 pm management suddenly announced that the weekly day off would be shifted from Sunday to Saturday – the following day. The A-shift workers, who arrived ay 5:30 – 6 am at the bus stops waited in vain for the company buses, they then found out by phoning work-mates and supervisors that the day would be off. On 19th of December the A-shift resumed production, the factory then ran continuously till 27th of December, the time between 27th of December and 2nd of January is the annual maintenance time off… On Friday, the 17th of December, a worker hired through contractor told his work-mates that he had been mistreated by a security guard. The workers immediately stopped working. Permanent workers, casual workers and workers hired through contractor were together in this… The strike spread from the scooter line to the motorcycle lines to the weld- and machine shop to the PI department… the entire work-force was involved. Both A and B-shift workers joined. It was the first time since 2005 that the entire work-force would be in action together, 1,800 permanent and 6,500 workers hired through contractor together. Under the impact of wildcat action of 8,000 workers the management was shaken. “Keep calm, the union president is currently not here, he will be coming at 5 pm”, the workers were told. The main manager for plant security apologised in front of the workers and told them that the security guard would be kicked out. A senior member of management said that he has come all the way from Jaipur to sort out the issue. Workers showed their anger: “We don’t want your apologies, bring the security guard, he should apologise. And you could have come from Japan instead from Jaipur, we don’t care. We want that you stop the clearance.” 1 At 3:15 pm the busses of the A-shift left the plant and quite a few permanent workers left the factory. At 4:30 to 5 pm the union president arrived and said that everything will be arranged in favour of the workers, but that they should go back to work. The permanent workers retreated, but the workers hired through contractor catcalled the union president and accused him to have done nothing about the ill-treatment and discrimination of workers hired through contractors. Had the workers started the wildcat shouting “Down with management, long live the union”, these workers shouted some hours later “Down with management, down with the union”. The rumours spread that management would resort to a lock-out, which caused the permanent workers to withdraw further, but which did not result in controlling the workers hired through contractor. The union president requested several times to resume work, the workers ignored the requests and the union president left the scene angry. The B-shift did not start working – without the workers hired through contractors production could not have been started. The company then announced that Saturday would be off. After A-shift did not arrive at the factory and after 150 to 200 police turned up, workers left the factory on Saturday at 11:30 am. The shaken management did not put up any notice in reaction to the strike. The company did not undertake any open repression apart from suspending a permanent worker, accusing him of instigation. There is talk about 170 workers hired through contractors having been put on a list in order to kick them out ‘secretly’. When workers were assembled together it was mentioned several times that a similar strike had happened in 2004. Back then a group of five workers hired through contractors had been sent to negotiate with management, they left in a company car and disappeared from the scene without workers knowing what had happened to them. It was also said that this time workers should be careful not to expose themselves.”

We want to give some additional information concerning the general background of the strike and encourage you to read the reports from Honda HMSI predating the dispute. In these reports the general day-to-day divide between permanent and temporary workforce becomes clear.

The permanent workers earn up to 31,000 Rs per month, while temporary workers earn around 6,500 Rs. The wage divide has been growing since the establishment of the union in 2005, so has the relative numbers of temporary workers and their work-load. Permanent workers are mainly employed in supervising positions and departments like maintenance, welding, machine shop, final quality check. The line-leaders are permanent workers who have been employed for a minimum of two years and who underwent extra-training. Each of the three main assembly lines is segmented into three-four zones, line-leaders are in charge of these zones where between 25 and 60 workers work. The assembly lines themselves are spacially separated in two main halls. Below the ‘line leader’ there is a supervisor, who normally reports for 8 to 10 workers, The supervisor tends to be a worker hired through contractor himself. A temporary worker reported that while a permanent ‘line leader’ initially supported the strike, the temporary worker himself was rather anxious to be seen taking ‘actively part’, because his supervisor was standing close by – who was a temporary worker, too.

In general temporary workers did not show too much fear, despite the fact that one of the managers present during the dispute was the manager who runs the ‘tests’ of temporary workers. The test is the only chance for temporary workers to become a casual company worker. The next test will be in February 2011 – allegedly around 1,200 temporary workers will take part and 80 will have the ‘chance’ to become a casual worker. The test contains – apart from general questions of production details, such as colour of electrical connection used for this or that vehicle part – the name of the Japanese capital or the Indian Minister for Industry. During the last years less than 80 temporary workers were are made ‘company casual’. The fact that this year the number increased is – according to rumours – due to the opening of the second Honda HMSI plant in nearby Bhiwadi, which is approximately 40km from the existing plant and approximately 90km from Delhi.. Production there is supposed to start in April. According to other sources no workers are transferred from Manesar plant to Bhiwadi, only some middle managers are shifted. Officially there is no ‘production’ shift planned, the capacities in Bhiwadi are additional to those in Manesar.

We finally want to say a few words about the question whether the coming union election played a major role in the dispute – as stated by a Honda manager. The fact that the suspended permanent worker belongs to the oppositional AITUC faction indicates that the ‘faction’ struggle has some influence. The AITUC faction is the original union faction, which fought for recognition in 2005. The current leading faction – which took over two years ago – is portrayed as a ‘management friendly’ faction of mainly ‘local workers’. The current union leadership put up a notice immediately after the strike saying that they regard the dispute as trivial – which was a blunt sign for management that they would not oppose a suspension. The management in due course suspended the permanent worker on 20th of December.

When using phrases like ‘management friendly faction’ etc. we would ask you to bear in mind that during the wildcat strike of temporary workers in October 2006 [http://gurgaonworkersnews.wordpress.com/gurgaonworkersnews-no7/#fn43], the now opposition AITUC faction was the leading union body and they denounced the strike as ‘instigated and anti-union’, as much as the current leadership denounced the December 2010 strike. The conditions of temporary workers has not only declined since the last two years of ‘new union leadership’, the wage gap and work load started to increase before that. The temporary workers demonstrate that they are more than mere pawns of this faction or the other. Historical experiences, e.g. during the 1980s restructuring period in nearby Faridabad, show that the last straw of management, when having to deal with mass-level of unrest, is to turn it into a representative/factional struggle. If necessary they are happy to accept a ‘management hostile’ faction, too, as long as they have at least someone to talk to.

The International Character of the Dispute

In the Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar issue distributed in Delhi industrial areas in January/February 2011 we concluded the report – see translation above – with an example of the recent strike of automobile workers at Denso in China. Facing management and state repression these workers had refused to put forward ‘delegates’ for negotiations and instead confronted management with anonymously written demand letters. Here we don’t want to go deeper into the question of ‘potentials and limitations’ of ‘anonymous struggle’, but rather stress the point that the Honda HMSI dispute has a wider international background. We picked three examples of recent struggles of a casualised workforce; a workforce outside of the ‘recognised’ employment and union status, but right at the core of the new global workbench which emerged after the mass-relocation of industry and casualisation of work-force during the 1990s.

Hyundai/South Korea

The wildcat strike of temporary workers at Hyundai in Ulsan (South Korea), began on 15th of November 2010. Around 570 out of 2,000 temp workers stopped assembly lines, demanding permanent contracts – according to Korean law they would have to be made permanent after two years of employment. They occupied a factory department which links the automatised storage halls and assembly lines of the factory. They resisted police attacks and harsh conditions – but by 6th of December technicians managed to bypass the occupied part of the factory, numbers of occupiers came down to 260 by that time. On 9th of December they evicted the building. During the dispute they received no solidarity from permanent workers unions: three days after occupation 600 permanent workers and middle management organised protest against strikers. In a formal spectacle FKTU union asked members whether to join the strike, but 77 per cent members voted against joined action.

Honda/China

The morning of 17th of May 2010 workers in the automatic transmission department halted the assembly line by pushing the red stop button, normally used for emergency shutdowns over quality problems. The company offered various raises in bonuses and subsidies for different groups of workers, but the workers insisted on a general raise in the base wage. The company fired two workers who had initially stopped the line. The harsh reactions of management galvanized the workers.
On 24th of May, the strike became indefinite, soon affecting Honda’s main assembly plants in Guangzhou and in Wuhan in central China. Both factories had to stop production on 26th and 27th of May. The local government, along with the union and management, took a more and more aggressive stance, resulting in the mobilization of a group of about 100 thugs clad in union uniforms, who confronted the workers physically.

http://www.labornotes.org/2010/12/auto-worker-strikes-china-what-did-they-win

http://chinastrikes.crowdmap.com/

Honda/Mexico

Since December 2010, after sacking of an active worker, struggle at the Honda plant in El Salto, Jalisco intensified. Twenty-one hundred workers on two shifts assemble 5,000 trucks a month, most of them exported to the United States. Since 2009 workers have been resisting and have held several work stoppages to demand that management modify its demands and its attitude. In every case management has responded with repression and firings of the workers it saw as leader. Management maintains a “protection union,” the CTM (Central de Trabajadores de Mexico, the largest official union in the country). The atmosphere at Honda is one of constant hostility and contempt for the dignity of the workers on the part of the foremen. Meanwhile, Honda’s logo reads “The Power of Dreams.” This charro union, as Mexicans call unions that serve the employers, plays the role of formally complying with Mexican law, but in reality it is an instrument that management uses to keep salaries the lowest of all assembly plants in the country. The daily wage is $10-$12.30 per day.

What Could be Done?

There are a few things which any small group of workers/activists can do. Situations like on 17th of December will emerge again and again, question will be whether workers a) will be able to enforce their demands because they actually hit the company; b) they manage to avoid giving management opportunity for open repression as far as possible c) develop stronger organisational links within and beyond the Honda factory as a result of the dispute. We can do out bit to help, which could mean:

* keeping in touch with workers directly – not only their official representatives – in order to follow general developments in the factory (individual repression etc.)…
* finding out whether the information of the 24 hours strike has spread to workers in the surrounding/supplying industry and through which means (through room-mates, security guards, actual production-stops, by seeing police etc.); this would tell us something about to which extend workers can rely on ‘organic forms of industrial and proletarian communication’ and how we can intensify it…
* analyzing current economic situation and production system at Honda with workers, if possible by facilitating regular meetings between Honda workers and workers in the nearby supplying industry (see reports of automobile workers in this issue)…
* arguing for both, need for avoiding traps (‘faction union struggle’, ‘making delegates’, unnecessary physical confrontations, lock-outs, left isolated during factory occupation etc.) and the necessity of extension of future struggles,
* making sure that these positions find a voice and practical support in future struggles…
* looking for acquaintances among workers in the new Honda plant as quickly as possible and inform new workers about experiences of struggles at Manesar plant since early 2000s…
* encouraging flow of information between workers in similar situations on local, regional (Chennai etc.), international level…

  • 1. Management kicks out workers hired through contractors once they have completed a year of employment and often re-hire them two weeks later. They do this in order to prevent the workers gaining legal right to permanent status.