People's Democracy

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


No. 08

February 24, 2013


Govt Continued Duplicity in Pre-Strike Discussions


A K Padmanabhan


IT took as many as 14 countrywide one day general strikes and the preparations for a more powerful 48 hours strike by the central trade unions and national federations to force the government of India to call the central trade unions for discussions on the crucial demands of workers in the country. On February 13, just a week ahead of the strike, the labour minister, Mallikarjun Kharge, invited the central trade unions for discussion.


Top leaders of all the central trade unions were present in the meeting, with A K Padmanabhan and Tapan Sen representing the CITU. From the government side, the minister of state for labour and all the top officials including the department’s secretary, top officials of all employing ministries and the secretary of the department of disinvestment was also present.


From the workers side, INTUC president Dr Sanjiva Reddy explained the demands in brief and told the government that the trade unions expected the government to tell its stand on all these demands which were before it for more than three years. On behalf of all the trade unions, he also told the government that if the  government did deliver something concrete on these demands, trade unions won’t have any alternative but to go ahead with the strike.


The labour minister could only tell the unions about some initiatives taken by his department on amendment to the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, EPF Pension Scheme and some amendments to other labour laws, all of which are pending since long with the PMO and various ministries. He could only say that he had an appointment with the prime minister and would explain the unions’ demands to him. He then urged the unions not to go on strike as it would create difficulties to the country. 


On February 16, the central trade unions held a press conference in Delhi, where all the top leaders were present. The media was briefed about the demands, the preparations and countrywide support for the strike, along with the reasons for failure of discussions with the labour minister.


On the night of February 17, media people brought to the notice of the union leaders that through a press statement the prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, had issued an appeal to the trade unions urging them to withdraw the strike. He said the strike would lead to avoidable losses to the country’s economy. He also said some of the issues raised by the trade unions had already been acted upon and others were under the consideration of the government. He also announced through the media that a group of ministers, comprising A K Antony, P Chidambaram, Sharad Pawar and Mallikargun Kharge, would hold discussions with the unions.


On the 18th morning, Labour Department officials informed the central trade unions about a discussion to be held at 8 p m, in the presence of the defence minister, A K Antony, and other ministers.


Central trade union leaders, who were in different parts of the country and busy with preparations for the strike, rushed to Delhi to attend the meeting.


Antony, Pawar and Kharge were present in the meeting with the group of ministers; P Chidambaram, who was also a member of the group, was not present. Tapan Sen and A K Padmanabhan attended from the CITU, along with the leaders of other central trade unions.


Demands of the unions were again explained in the presence of these senior ministers, also referring to the discussions with the labour minister earlier. The trade union leaders told the ministers that the first set of five demands were sent to the  government on September 14, 2009 and the next five were sent on September 7, 2011. In the meantime, there were two general strikes, two marches to the parliament and countrywide court arrest programmes but the government had failed to hold any discussions till February 12 this year.


However, only 24 hours before the strike, the prime minister intervened through a press statement that talks were being held with senior ministers.


In one voice, all the leaders urged the government to come forward with concrete suggestions to settle the demands. “We want a settlement, not any assurance,” was the unanimous demand.


Tapan Sen brought to the notice of the ministers the threat issued by the State Bank of India and Reserve Bank to their employees of severe action if they joined the strike. The SBI has told its employees that serious action would be there even when it was a collective action for which notice had been given. Tapan Sen wanted the ministers to take note of these threats, which are against the legal rights of workers. At this, Sharad Pawar responded that “the Manmohan Singh government does not want to take any action like that” and that he would take up the issues if concrete details of threats were given to him.


Unfortunately the government had nothing to offer on the basic demands. Sharad Pawar explained the steps being taken to bring a Food Security Bill in parliament, which would help to control the prices. He also said the government could not accept the demands for universalisation of the public distribution system.


He also said the cabinet was to take up for discussion a national employment policy and also a national minimum wage policy. But he could not give any details about the contents of the employment policy or the concept of minimum wage in the policy statement.


The trade union representatives urged for concrete time bound action on the issues like “same wage for same work for contract labour” and minimum wage formulation, on which consensus was arrived at in successive Indian Labour Conferences. But the ministers present in the meeting could not give any such assurances.


The labour minister only repeated what he had said on February 13.


Defence minister, A K Antony, said that, as explained by other ministers, discussions on certain demands were at various stages. He admitted that the discussions had been delayed and that he could understand the difficulties of the unions at the last minute.


Central trade unions, again in one voice, told the government that it was not possible even to think of postponing the strike in such a situation when the govt was in mood to give any concrete commitment on any substantive issue. Even on the proposed employment policy and the minimum wage policy, no details were shared with the trade unions. Obviously the unions could not accept anything blindly. The leaders therefore made it clear to the government representatives that there was no alternative but to go ahead with the 48 hour strike.