The Development of the Strike

The Development of the Strike

The company knew that trouble was brewing, they knew that some workers planned on registering a separate union and the company had already prepared legal documents for a possible expulsion of workers from the premises. The strike happened one month before union elections at Maruti Suzuki. So far Maruti Suzuki management tried to back a single union, the Maruti Suzuki Kamgar Union, for both Gurgaon and Manesar plant. This union had been set-up by forces close to management after the lock-out at Gurgaon plant in 2000/2001. Workers in Manesar did not feel ‘represented’ by this union, they did not feel that their grievances were addressed by the union. The actual outbreak of the strike, and the fact that both permanent workers – as the potential members of the new union – and casual temporary workers took part, will have surprised the management. “But why didn’t these workers raise these issues and discuss (them) with us? They have never raised any of these issues at any formal level with the management,” Maruti Suzuki chairperson Bhargava said. “It remains a mystery to me why they didn’t start a dialogue or a discussion or even (send) a letter detailing their demands.” (Telegraph, 12th of June)

“On 3rd of June, eleven leaders of the workers went to Chandigarh to meet the Labour Department to complete the formalities regarding registration of our union on June 3, 2011. On the morning of that day, the labour department officials faxed the news of our application to the management. Immediately, the management started pressuring workers inside the factory to prevent them from joining the new Union. They began forcing workers to sign blank papers. Senior officials of another Maruti Suzuki plant also joined in this activity. As soon as the leadership of our union came to know of this activity, we mobilized workers against it. On the morning of June 4, 2011, through struggle, we were able to retrieve some of the blank signed papers from the management. By the afternoon, it became clear that the management was using all kind of tricks to break our unity. In such circumstances, we were forced to go on flash tool down strike from the afternoon of June 4, 2011.” (Interview with Maruti Suzuki union leader, www.cgpi.org)

On the 4th of June after the change between morning and late shift around 2,000 workers stop work and remain in factory. Later on, the C-shift would not be refused entry by management and these workers largely remained outside the factory. All the workers of the company joint the struggle – permanent, casual, as well as apprentices. “As I was told by a young worker how the workers tied a white hanky around their faces so that the trainee/apprentice workers, casual and contract workers could not be distinguished by the management (the Maruti chairman R.C.Bhargava is seen in the news channels to lament how there is no ‘visible leadership’ whom they could talk to). The police are still inside, having occupied the canteen, and increasingly bouncers are also there. The inside-outside workers correspondence doesn’t seem to be going towards anything more substantial than food/mobile battery exchange.” (4th of June, Report by a friend).

During this initial stage, workers raised various issues and demands: low wages, incentive cuts, few breaks. The workers have demanded that the temporary workers should be given preference for permanent posts in new departments, which the company is currently building on the premises. In a first reaction management said that workers should give up the strike and make use of the upcoming union elections: “The Maruti union will hold elections next month. I am sure they can show their strength there. They can air their grievances there,” he [Maruti Suzuki chairman] said. (Business Standard, 6th of June 2011) At the same time management undertook steps to threaten and isolate the striking workers within the factory premises.

On 5th and 6th of June management sealed the gates and placed a row of security guards in front of them in order to prevent exchange between workers inside and outside, between workers and supporters and media. One of the demands of the workers visible on the self-made placards was to be allowed to speak to the media. Management also restricted water, food, electricity and toilet access. Only after a demonstration outside the gate on 6th of June, the food supply through family and friends was permitted again. Eleven workers were officially dismissed on the 6th of June. Police was deployed both inside and outside the premises, they removed some tents, which supporters had put up, but largely remained looming in the background. Workers also complained that management would call their relatives ‘back at home’ and ask them to ‘convince’ their unruly sons and nephews to go back to work.

On the 8th of June the main unions AITUC, CITU, HMS, INTUC, UTUC formed a ‘joint action committee’ to ‘support’ the strike. Although this committee dominated by AITUC had no formal link with neither the Maruti workers nor the new Maruti union in formation, it became the main broker and spokesperson of the strike. Often quoted ‘representatives’ were union leaders from Honda HMSI, Hero Honda Dharuhera and Rico Auto. On the 9th of June this action committee mobilised “workers of 50 to 60 factories in Gurgaon”, around 1,000 to 2,000 union members gathered in front of the gates. Sachdeva, secretary, AITUC, said, “As we are a major union in this area, it’s our prime responsibility to support any cause that involves the rights of our affiliated workers. We are observing a day’s satyagraha at the entrance of Maruti’s Manesar plant. If the management doesn’t accept our demands today, the workers of other neighbouring plants will go on a day’s strike.” “We are calling for the termination of the 11 workers to be revoked. The workforce says it will only start production when the 11 are taken back and given assurances they [management] will not interfere in the union.” (Business Standard, 10th of June 2011) From then on no other demands and concerns of the workers were mentioned.

Q: What are the other conditions that you have asked the management to agree with and what conditions has the management agreed to comply with?
A: There is just one agreement. All the 11 workers should be taken back.
Q: Is that the only demand?
A: At the moment.
(Interview with Gurudas Dasgupta, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) General Secretary, CNBC, 16th of June 2011)

On 10th of June the over-all pressure on the striking workers increased and pushed them further into the arms of the main unions. “The Haryana government has, under the provisions of the Industrial Depute Act, 1947, referred the matter of ongoing strike in Maruti Suzuki Udyog Ltd, Manesar, by the workers to the competent labour court and has also passed the orders prohibiting the continuance of the strike in the industrial unit,” Minister of State for Labour and Employment Shiv Charan Lal Sharma said in a statement. The strike was officially called ‘illegal’.

Two truckloads additional police arrived on the factory premises. “Though the Gurgaon district magistrate said deployment of additional forces inside the 600-acre premises was just a precautionary measure, sources informed that striking workers could be booted out of the factory with the use of police force. “We have a court order that allows us to evict these workers from the factory citing protection of the equipment,” said RC Bhargava, chairman, MSIL, adding police were there only as a precautionary measure. Ravinder Kulharia, a striking worker, said workers feared for their lives. “We do not understand as to why the administration has moved such a large number of police personnel when we have been on peaceful strike from the beginning,” he said. (Hindustan Times, 10th of June 2011)

Workers probably knew beforehand that the strike was ‘illegal’ and it is unlikely that the state would have used police-force to expel 2,000 workers from a modern car plant in one of the main industrial areas in the current situation. Nevertheless, the pressure on workers increased and around 250 workers decided to leave the occupation on 10th of June. “I fell sick. I was relieved at 3am as there was no medicine in the factory’s dispensary,” said one of the workers who has left the factory. “There is only one toilet open for 2,500 workers. The rest have been locked.” At that point the unions kept on repeating that ‘the workers are in trouble’, although actually it looked like management and state were not sure what to do about the situation.

The strike started to kick in and to build up pressure. Maruti management repeatedly reassured the market that car dealers have 20 to 28 days stock and that the loss of 6,000 cars can be “made up for”. More importantly the impact of the strike was felt down the supply-chain. Due to lack of storage space around 200 to 250 of the suppliers, most of them located in the proximity of the plant, had to reduce or stop production. To add pressure on workers Maruti management announced that the company would go ahead with a ‘closure’ of the plant for the annual maintenance work from 20th to 25th of June 2011.

On 12th of June Maruti Suzuki management offered to take back 5 of the 11 sacked workers, but the union refuses. “The management has agreed to reinstate five of the 11 sacked workers. However, we want all the employees to be taken back. Besides, the company has to give us an assurance in writing of not taking any disciplinary action,” said Shiv Kumar, a sacked technician. Kumar has been nominated as the general secretary of the new union.

The main unions announce a two-hour solidarity strike for the 14th of June 2011. “We will be distributing pamphlets across the Gurgaon and Manesar factories. The two-hour tool-down from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. will serve as a warning. If the issues are not resolved, then on Wednesday the unions will hold another meeting to decide on the date for the one-day strike,” Suresh Gaur, president of the Honda HMSI union said. Meanwhile AITUC general secretary Gurudas Dasgupta held talks with Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. “The workers’ morale is high; this unity is unprecedented; all trade unions of Gurgaon have rallied round the striking workers. After talking to the Chief Minister, I am hopeful of a positive outcome,” Mr. Dasgupta said. (The Hindu, 12th of June 2011)

While Dasgupta negotiated with the Chief Minister and asked the Prime Minister to intervene his colleague Sachdeva, secretary of AITUC announced that AITUC will ask the Maruti Suzuki workers to work overtime once the dispute is settled: “We want it [the dispute] to be resolved. Even the workers are anxious to restart the production. Hopefully, some solution will be found. We want the workers should resume production, normalcy should prevail and we will persuade the workers to make up for this loss of production by working extra hours or on holidays. AITUC wants industrial development to take place in Haryana. We are not against FDI investments but we feel these multinational corporations should respect our national laws, and should allow workers to form their own union.” (CNBC, 13th of June 2011)

On the 13th of June the company management announces that it would accept a separate union for the Manesar plant, but under the umbrella of company council, which would be responsible for wage revisions and other general issues. S Y Siddiqui, the head of human resources, said: “We are ready to be flexible on their demand for a plant-level union. However, it has to comprise only those working at the plant. It cannot have outsiders. That is how Maruti has been run for 27 years.” The proposed constitution of the new union allows one-third members from outside.

On 14th of June AITUC secretary Sachdev first announced that the two-hours solidarity strike is on, only to proclaim that it is called off. “The tool-down strike has started and about 60 – 65 factories’ workers are taking part in it. If in a day or two, no solution comes out, then workers will go on for a full-day strike,” AITUC secretary D L Sachdev said. (Times of India, 14th of June 2011) “The two-hour strike has been called-off for today on the appeal of the Chief Minister and the Labour Commissioner. They sought a day’s time to resolve the issue. Consequently, the strike has been postponed for 24 hours,” AITUC Secretary D L Sachdev. (Press Trust of India, 14th of June 2011)

On the 16th of June Maruti management told the media that it would try to ‘revive’ production lines in the Gurgaon plant in case the strike dragged on for longer – unnecessarily so, because a day later, on 17th of June, the dispute was settled. The workers were represented by leader of the proposed new union Maruti Suzuki Employees Union Shiv Kumar and national secretary of AITUC Sachdev. “The company has now agreed that we would not be asked to sign the paper. Also, the fact that Maruti took back the 11 workers shows that our demands were met,” said Shiv Kumar.

Actually the eleven workers have to undergo an ‘inquiry’ before they are taken back. The other main outcome of this ‘victory’ is that workers lose ‘only’ two days wage per each day of strike, instead of eight days, which would be legally possible under ‘no work – no pay’-rule. This kind of official punishment for going on strike inscribed in the agreement is a rather new development. Maruti management might penalise workers with payment of an additional day’s wage per strike day if workers show any signs of indiscipline over the next two months. The plant will remain closed on Friday, the 17th of June, “as a “rest” day for both workers and management and, instead, will function on Sunday. “A puja [religious ceremony] has been called at 12 pm tomorrow as a symbolic way of starting things afresh,” the administration official said.” “There was no mention of the second union in the agreement signed yesterday, simply because the workers at the Manesar plant do not require the management’s permission to form a new union.” Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).” (Business Standard, 17th of June 2011)

The national secretary Sachdev concluded: “There has been massive loss of production and the workers are aware of this. Hence they are willing to work overtime and make up as much as possible for the loss in production.”

After they had digested the shock of the strike, Suzuki management tried to play down its impact. “In a market where we sell 1.2 million vehicles a year, 16,000 vehicles was a matter of inventory adjustment,” CEO Osamu Suzuki said. (23rd of June, Deccan Herald). Actually June sales figures did not look too good, the highest decline of monthly sales in two and a half years. While pretending that they are not bothered, their deeds speak differently. On 6th of July 2011 Maruti Suzuki management announced to shift the production of the Swift DZire from Manesar plant back to Gurgaon plant, were it was initially manufactured. At the same time the extension of production capacities in Manesar are supposed to continue…