A short interview with a union official of HMS in Faridabad. He arrived in Faridabad in 1973, worked as a printer at Thomson Press (1) and became the union president there. He covers the events at Nilam Chowk in October 1979 and the turmoil during Devi Lal take-over of Haryana government in the late 1980s early 1990s. Like the main local HMS union leader Sethi, he was invited by the international Trotzkyte movement to speak as an ‘independent’ workers’ leader at various international gatherings. We suggest to read his account together with the Faridabad Majdoor Samachar reports, in particular about the developments at East India Cotton, at Escorts and Thomson Press itself.
I arrived in Faridabad in April 1973 and started working as an apprentice at Thompsen Press India Ltd. Around 250 to 300 workers were employed, most of them permanent workers.
At the time I didn’t know much about trade unions, there was no union at Thomson. But in 1973 workers went on strike for higher wages at Escorts company, Faridabad’s main company, and the police attacked them badly. They arrested workers as soon as they could. It was not possible to hold a meeting in Faridabad, you had to go to Badarpur-Delhi border. At the time there was AITUC, BMS and INTUC union at Escorts, in each of the eight plants here in Faridabad there were different unions. In 1973 there was also a violent incident in front of the Goodyear factory, one worker was shot by the police. But I don’t know too much about this event.
Then came the Emergency 1975. Work-pressure in the factories increased and less bonus was paid. Outside the factories there was the issue of enforced sterilisation and demolitions of slums. AITUC was predominant in Faridabad at the time, AITUC is affiliated to the CP, which had supported the Emergency. Therefore there was silence in Faridabad during this period.
In 1977-78, after the lifting of the Emergency, CITU became more powerful, given that the CPM had opposed Emergency. The National Labour Organisation (NLO) also became stronger, but our leaders had to leave the NLO and formed the Haryana Labour Union (HLU) instead. They met with union leaders of seven, eight factories. At that time our comrade Mr. Sethi started his work as union leader at Escorts. He called various unions and asked: “Why do you work seperately, in this way the bosses won’t be effected and you won’t achieve anything”. He suggested a general union election and contacted workers in all eight plants. A year later secret elections were held at Escorts and he was elected union president in 1978.
After Emergency AITUC was replaced by BMS as the main union at East India Cotton Mill, one of the major textile companies in Faridabad at the time. The workers did not support the new union, they wanted elections, they supported the HLU. A struggle broke out around this issue, this was in 1979. The three HLU leaders got kicked out by East India management, workers opposed this. Unions in Faridabad reacted by forming a Sangarsh Samiti (Struggle Committee) and called for a huge rally, nearby Nilam Chowk.
All main union leaders came, even the AITUC ones. They announced to the government that if it would not give those workers their right to elect their union there would be a general strike on 17th of October. East India Cotton still refused negotiations, so the general strike went ahead and the whole of Faridabad’s industry came to a halt. The union committee had to go underground on the 16th of October in order to avoid being arrested, so there were hardly any union leaders around the next day.
On 17th of October masses of workers came from both directions towards Nilam Chowk, a huge mass of Escorts workers from one side, other from the other side. The police got caught in between. People started shouting slogans. One police officer started shooting and was subsequently killed by the masses. A huge contingent of special police then started firing and chasing people, the terror spread to all areas of Faridabad. A lot of people went hiding, active workers had to hide. The majority of workers went to work next day. During the following days the police continued to arrest individual workers, around 150 to 200 in total. They were charged with 202 or 207, with murder of the police officer or attempted murder. The government had imposed a 144 the day before the general strike.
At that time I was still working at Thomson Press and we were thinking about establishing a union there, we had set-up a committee already. At the time we had no famous leader, it was a small union. The management told my name to the police and ten days after the Nilam Chowk incident I was arrested. The workers at Thomson stopped work in response, for four hours. The management talked to them and promised them to get me out. They denied that they had anything to do with the arrest and accused us of telling lies. They said that they will pay for my court case, give me full facilities, “but please go back to work now”. Management and some of their men then came to the police station and spoke to me: “It was the police, not us, who got you here”.
After Nilam Chowk they also arrested a lot of local peasants who had come out in support of the workers. They had also suffered under Emergency. There was no jail, so we were first sent to Rohtak and then to Bhiwani. The workers at Thomson Press thought that if the general strike scares the management then we might get something out of it. That was there attitude towards the strike.
On 5th of December 1979 I was released from jail, on bail. The workers at Thomson welcomed me, the management joined them. The manager said: “Go, meet the boss. You can stay off work, outside the factory, and he will pay you”. I said that there is no need to meet the boss. We then tried to continue rallying in front of East India Cotton factory, but the police had barricaded the whole area off. They stopped people. It was not a lock-out, production was running, but they did not let the old workers go back inside, neither did they get compensation for redundancy.
At Thomson the union was established in 1980. When I was out in 1979 the workers had elected me as general secretary of the union. The management was not in favor, but they were not too aggressive. Things changed in 1981, when management became rather aggressive towards the union. Because we raised the question of payment for the casual workers, who were paid less than the permanents. The other point of conflict was a three and a half years agreement which had been forged with some “leaders” about one year previous. According to the agreement there was hardly any wage increase, only increase of the housing allowance. This agreement was still pending when I became union leader.
I opposed this agreement, so the management organised a different union group against me, an INTUC union. They called for a gate meeting in order to set-up this union. Local MLAs, ministers, they all came. We also went, we wanted to go to work, but we were stopped at the gate. As long as the meeting went on, we listened. Shift normally starts at 8 am, the meeting went till 9 am. After their gathering was over I called workers over and asked them to listen what I had to say. I asked them: “What need was there for a meeting? Why have you been stopped at the gate? All this is a conspiracy to weaken our union. Let’s go inside now and stop work when we are inside. Let’s demand from management that they should recognise our union and only if they do so, we go back to work”. The workers did this, they went inside and sat down. The police arrived. At that time the casual workers were not members of the union, but they were with the union. They were a minority at the time, hardly ten per cent of the workforce. The production was stopped for the whole day. The labour commissioner arrived. A meeting between the conflicting parties took place. They said that they would increase the basic wage by 30 Rs. So we went back to work. They also started paying minimum wages to the casual workers, which they had not done before.
The management then targeted three of our comrades, who had been active during the dispute. They laid a trap and then suspended them and finally kicked them out. At the time I was still inside. We assembled the workers, took the flag and supported the three suspended comrades. This went on for six months. Then the 13th of March 1981 came. Management sent some thugs in order to attack one of the suspended comrades at the factory gate. We thought that this was a provocation and that we should avoid a confrontation, but people pushed forward. We stopped working after the lunch break and people left the factory in order to assemble at the gate in support. There I was attacked by thugs, the beat me with clubs. Police arrived, I was taken to hospital, but a case was registered against me. They said that I started a fight, that I called for strike – there was no case filed against the thugs. A minister intervened in support of the management, while a high-rank police officer asked me whether I knew the thugs. I confirmed and told him who it was. They arrested them shortly after, but I was not taken back on duty.
Management set-up their INTUC union inside the factory. A few workers benefitted from the subsequent settlements and agreements between INTUC and management, but the number of workers hired through contractors and casual workers increased rapidly, from around 300 in 1981 to about 1,000 workers in 1987 – in 1987 there were around 500 permanents employed, by then a minority. In 1987 the Haryana government changed. The Devi Lal / Chautala (2) government replaced the Congress government. Given that we were opposed to the Congress, Devi Lal gave us some support, not much, but some. We called all workers together, after change of government, I was again attacked by thugs. It was actually those guys close to the INTUC leaders, they broke my nose. In reaction to this attack the Escorts workers laid down tools. Our union was the main union at Escorts and at about 70 to 80 other local companies , they shut down the whole of Faridabad in support for us at Thomson. The DC arrived and said that he will set-up elections, to decide whether it should be INTUC or HMS. We received 99 per cent of the votes. Then Chautala saw that unions can be a good support for political parties, so he set-up his own union, the Lok Majdoor Sangh (LMS). They first invited us to join them, when we refused, they started to contest us (1).
After 1990 re-structuring accelerated, now there are hardly 400 permanent workers left. This is the general trend – therefore the union movement has been seriously undermined.