Victory of NLC and NALCO Workers:

Blow to UPA Government on Disinvestment

“The Prime Minister's proposal is unacceptable. Accepting it would mean accepting disinvestment in principle. This is nothing but a form of privatisation because eventually, workers would be forced to sell their shares to private companies.” With this declaration, the Joint Council of Trade Unions rejected the PM's proposal to give workers a substantial amount of shares in the 10% divested in NLC, and the workers of Neyveli Lignite Corporation began their strike at 10 pm on July 4. Around 35,000 workers and employees of NLC participated in the strike under the banner of a range of Unions, including the Union affiliated with AICCTU.

Permanent employees, contract workers in the Operation Section, construction labourers working for NLC – all joined the strike. In support of the workers' strike, the entire Neyveli town observed a complete bandh on July 5 – transport, shops, educational and other institutions were all closed. NLC is a lifeline for Neyveli, and is a profit-making PSU, and so the movement against its disinvestment won the support of people from all walks of life. Immediately after the Government declared its intention to disinvest workers began a determined campaign against disinvestment – distributing leaflets, holding black badge campaigns, ‘work to rule', and eventually a massive one-day hunger strike in which over 5000 workers took part, just a day before the strike.

The NLC strike not only halted the mining of lignite but also created a power crisis all over South India . All three of its Thermal Power Units stopped work – and the power supply was cut in Tamilnadu (the worst affected, since it relies on NLC for 45% of its power supply), apart from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka (11% each), Pondicherry (3%), and Neyveli town (8%).

Meanwhile, the workers at NALCO (National Aluminium Corporation) too had launched a struggle against the disinvestment proposal. NALCO workers at Angul and Damanjodi went on one-day strikes on June 23 and 24 respectively. On 26 June, workers at the NALCO corporate office at Bhuvaneshwar went on strike. The working class in Orissa decided to come onto the streets in support of the NALCO workers' struggle. According to a decision taken at a Convention on June 25 at Bhuvaneshwar, various trade union organisations including AICCTU declared a General Strike all over Orissa – and due to popular support, it soon turned into a bandh . NMDC (National Mine Development Corporation) workers also decided to start a strike on July 7. Central Trade Unions gave a call for an all-India Protest Day on July 5 – and protest programmes were held at Delhi and other places.

This united nationwide working class protest forced the UPA Government to rollback its disinvestment proposal. Only after the Government's declaration to this effect did the NLC workers withdraw their strike on the night of July 6.

The Disinvestment Logic

The successful workers' struggles have dealt a determined blow to the Central Government's disinvestment plans, not only in the NLC and NALCO, but also in NMDC, PFC (Power Finance Corp Share), MUL (Maruti Udyog Limited), and HZL (Hindustan Zinc Limited).

The Government had sought to legitimise disinvestment in these PSUs as a move to generate resources for the social sector and benefit unorganised sector workers. But these claims are mere eyewash. In order to benefit unorganised sector workers, why does the Government target the public sector? Why does it not instead increase taxation of elite luxuries, corporate empires, or wealthy kulaks; appropriate the millions which these elites have refused to repay banks; or resort to a host of other such measures? The entire project of disinvestment is actually part and parcel of the Government's project of withdrawing from its social responsibilities, and its neo-liberal bid to privatise and sell-out public assets and services into private corporate hands for paltry sums.

Lessons of the Movement

It was not Karunanidhi's bargaining that halted disinvestment – rather it was the workers' struggles and its successful mobilisation of public opinion that forced the DMK to change its position. The impact of the movement was so sharp the even the DMK – which had fully supported the NDA regime's disinvestment moves, had been the first to moot the idea to the PM that the NLC workers be bought off with shares in the disinvestment, and which, even now, is selling out the telecom sector to the hands of corporate houses and MNCs – was forced to write to the PM threatening that if the disinvestment bid was not taken back, the DMK would have to reconsider its support to the UPA. The NLC and NALCO struggles show that it is militant and united struggles by workers on the streets, rather than setting equations and driving bargains with ruling class formations, that can really halt the juggernaut of liberalisation.

-- Rajiv Dimri