Chandrika Radhakrishnan is an IT engineer and an editorial member of Thozhilalar Koodam, a blog committed to documenting and analysing labour issues in Tamil Nadu. This article is the second part of her three-part observation of unionisation in workers’ movement as a political activist. The first part was published in Aainanagar in May 2016 can be read here.
It all started quite militantly. The workers sat inside their factory on a flash strike following the dismissal of some of their comrades. The factory was doing what all the other factories do to make profits. It was paying low wages, cutting corners in amenities including food and transport, victimising workers for starting a union. The workers were experiencing, first hand, the exploitation of their labour at the hands of capital and set about changing their circumstances. They organised under a union affiliated to a communist party and struck work.
The management moved to contain the strike in various ways. They were already employing contract workers, who were not unionised, to continue production. They used the police to evacuate the workers after obtaining a stay order from court to stop the workers from assembling within 200 meters of the premises. The workers moved their strike outside the factory. For more than 2 months, the production continued uninterrupted with the state machineries ensuring so. The petition to Labour Department by the union resulted in endless meetings with no outcome. The union and the workers ended their struggle and returned to the factory after deciding to move the case to the labour court against illegal retrenchment of workers.
As months passed, the management’s repression on workers increased. Their wages were not being paid on time and for months. When workers wanted the union to respond to these shop floor issues, the union lawyers said that they could not strike citing the legal case before the court. The lawyers felt that the company would use these protests to prop their case. Complaints were filed with Department of Industrial Safety and Health (then Factories of Inspectorate) but no actions were taken by the Department other than providing advisory caution to the management. The workers started feeling that the union was not working for them. There were some protests organised over the course of the years, but these became symbolic without solving any of the issues of the workers. After couple of years, the workers moved to a union affiliated to a pro-capitalist party.