People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 3

January 25, 2009



Negotiations In Coal Industry  Lead To Settlement

Jibon Roy

NEVER in the recent period could trade union unity for struggle be raised to the level it reached in course of preparations for a united strike in the coal industry. The call for a 72 hours strike was given from January 5 to 7, 2009, but in the end the objective was achieved without a strike taking place. There was unprecedented unity at the ground level and the united call from five national trade unions forced the Coal India management to agree on major issues by January 3 evening. They agreed on a 24 percent rise on the basis of the gross calculated emoluments ---- i.e. taking the basic salary, VDA, special DA and attendance allowance together. Full neutralisation of the rise in the cost of living and a five years’ tenure were also agreed upon. So the basic structure of a wage agreement was signed in the joint bipartite committee meeting held in Bhubaneswar on January 3. Once these principles were agreed upon, the trade unions which had called for the strike, issued a joint statement about deferring the action.

The national federations associated with the CITU, INTUC, BMS, AITUC and HMS were the parties to call the strike. The entire course from the stage of conceptualisation about the need for a strike to an articulation of strategy for holding the strike jointly, to the plan for taking the idea to the ground level may be considered as a creative exercise in unity for struggle.

This has been the sincere endeavour of the five national trade unions. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and its affiliate, the All India Coal Workers Federation, have reasons to be proud of the role they played in forging this unity. Veteran CITU leader M K Pandhe had been a key figure in the whole process. Most impressive has been the way the unity so built up totally demolished the game piloted by a few ‘leaders’ to break the trade union unity with a sinister motive for personal gains, with open patronage from authorities in the coal ministry. The most abominable has been the role played by the state minister in ministry.

An analysis of the terms of settlement would show the gains the coal workers have made.

First, the tenure of agreement would be five years. On this issue, the coal workers have always stood firm and had forced the government to agree on a five-year settlement in 1966 while the period of agreement was ten years in most of the other industries in the backdrop of an economic crisis. But the ministry of coal has been trying to circumvent the 1996 agreement with all kinds of divisive tactics. This settlement has simultaneously defeated the backward consciousness within the trade union movement which does not see that a longer period of agreement eats more into the workers’ real wages through inflation and other means.

Secondly, the settlement includes a minimum guaranteed increase for all the 4.5 lack coal workers individually and also in their pay scales. In the past, it so happened occasionally that the increase at the level of individual workers was maintained but the scale of pay was not been adequately guaranteed. Now the protection of the scale would protect the guaranteed benefit for all the workers who are in service as well as those who would join the workforce in future.

The issues finalised on January 3 and the principle of scale preparation to be followed are as below.

a) The total of the guaranteed emolument will be determined after adding 24 percent over the gross emolument as on June 30, 2006, i.e. the basic pay, VDA and special DA taken together.

b) For this purpose, the basic pay would be derived after separating the attendance allowance at the rate of 10 percent and special allowance at the rate of 1.795 percent. Once the minimum basic is derived, scales will be drawn maintaining the differentials and the rate of increment.

c) The factor which causes the difference is related to the fixation of the basic to be guaranteed, with the management showing reluctance to fix the basic at the next nearest stage of increment. Now the matter has been left for further negotiation.

d) One more breakthrough had been achieved in determining the rate of increment. The management had to agree to a rate of increment at 3 percent on cumulative basis.

e) As a measure to compensate the senior workers, there was agreement on granting one increment to those workers who would retire between the date the understanding is signed and the date on which the agreement will expire. However, the trade unions are demanding that it should be from the date the next agreement comes into force.

f) As calculated, the guaranteed minimum increase would be at the lowest level of Rs 1,808 while the highest level will be something around Rs 5000. This is on the figure of 15 percent of the basic plus Rs 300 or Rs 1, 180, whichever is higher.

g) It is agreed to rationalise the earlier rates of underground allowance which were between 9 and 12 percent. Now, in the latest agreement, it will be 12 percent fixed. This will effect an increase in the minimum guaranteed benefit in both ways --- through a rise in the basic and through the rationalisation of percentage.

The joint bipartite committee met again from January 13 to 15 in Kolkata. The issues settled in that meeting included the raising of the higher limit of gratuity payment to Rs 10 lakh --- retrospectively from January 1, 2007. Both the sides also agreed on some important fringe issues. For example, all the existing allowances will be raised by 50 percent and a sum of Rs 200 will be made available to the nursing staff as the washing allowance. The trade unions rejected the management’s desire that all such increases be effected only from July 2009. It was further agreed that the tuition and hostel charges paid for the workers’ offspring who will be studying the engineering, medical or equivalent level courses of higher education will be fully reimbursed. However, the management has not yet conceded the demand for 5 percent house rent allowance for workers in the coalfield areas.

The trade unions also raised the issue of desirability of having contract workers in coal mines which is considered risky and also of fixing a minimum wage for such workers until this atrocious system is fully eliminated. They demanded that the minimum wages for regular workers be extended to the contract workers. The unions also said the hiring out of the coal blocks to private parties has proved flawed and demanded a reversion of the blocks which are not yet in operation. They estimated that the number of such blocks would be around 170.

It is expected that the settlement would be signed in the next meeting of the committee, to take place in New Delhi on January 23 and 24.

January 21, 2009