Working Class

Interview with a Maruti Trade Unionist in Gurgaon on the eve of May Day

With the boom in car sales, automobile corporations are earning huge profits; but this is at the cost of ruthless exploitation of the workers in these factories. In the past few years, there have been many workers’ struggles in this sector: like the recent struggle in Hind Motors, West Bengal, the Honda workers’ struggle in Gurgaon in 2005, the struggle of Maruti workers in 2000-2001 in Gurgaon.  We recently met some trade union activists in Gurgaon, who were dismissed from Maruti for leading workers’ struggles. Gurgaon, next door to the national capital of New Delhi, is a classic case of a city afflicted by corporate ‘development’: with call centres and shopping malls mushrooming at hurricane speed and real estate booming, while basic public transport, electricity and drinking water facilities are abysmal. In conversation with Saurovijay on behalf of Liberation, a former Maruti activist (in future referred to as MA) looks back at past struggles and challenges of today.      

LIB: What sparked off the struggle of Maruti workers in 2000-2001?
MA:  The workers movement in Maruti Udyog Limited began on the issue of incentive wages. The union demanded reinstatement of the original incentive scheme which had been in place prior to 1995, according to which 65% of all savings in labour-cost above the norm set (at 41.5 cars per worker per year) was to be distributed to workers as an incentive bonus. Instead the management introduced a scheme where incentives paid would be dependent upon the sales of the company, both of cars and spare parts and the attendance record of the worker. The union refused, arguing that productivity incentive could not be connected with car sales since that was not something the workers could determine. It should be remembered that according to the project report of the company in 1982, estimated production was one lakh vehicles on a manpower base of 4000. This target was reached by 1988. In 1995 the production level had gone up to 2 lakh cars and in 1999-2000 it had crossed 4 lakh units. While one reason of this productivity increase is due to technology change, the significant reason is also the labour contribution. But in the late 90s, Maruti had begun to feel the effects of competition. This can be attributed as one of the reason for attack on the workers. Anyway when Management-Union talks broke down in September 2000, the workers’ agitation began: black badges to start with, and later, hunger strikes, tool down strikes etc.
LIB: How did the management and the government respond?
MA: The management suspended 10 workers on the charge of shouting slogans, later dismissed 4 workers, and subsequently dismissals and suspensions were almost a regular affair. In this period the President and the General Secretary of the union who were on hunger strike were picked up by the police and charged under S. 309.151, 107 IPC. They were released on 12 October, only when the Gurgaon Bar Council threatened to go on strike.
Management subsequently introduced a Good Conduct Undertaking, where in order to enter into the factory workers need to sign a good conduct agreement. On 12 October, when the workers arrived at the factory gate, they were greeted by hundreds of policemen and then onwards, it was a virtual lockout. Under this pressure 600 workers signed the good conduct undertaking out of a total unionized strength of 4800. The workers did not give up their demands, and on 13 December about 4000 workers began a dharna of 25 days at Udyog Bhawan. From 18 December three union leaders went on a fast undo death. Eventually an all party meeting in Parliament suggested a compromise, asking workers to accept the incentive scheme proposed by the MUL management, while the MUL management agreed to reinstate all workers dismissed and suspended in the course of an agitation. The workers finally accepted the deal on condition that all suspended and dismissed workers should be reinstated. Management agreed with the settlement only in speech, in deeds they violated the fundamental theme of the settlement. A total of 82 workers had been dismissed and 12 suspended during the course of the agitation, starting from the 10 suspensions on 19 September. By the settlement of 8 January, 46 workers had been reinstated. After the settlement 36 workers, including many of the office bearers remained dismissed and 17 remained suspended. The intention of the management becomes clear - to break the unity of the working class and to derecognize the struggling union. The workers who joined the factory faced severe harassment from the management. Although management was forced to withdraw the Good Conduct agreement, harassment inside the factory premise continued, including intense workload and humiliations like not allowing workers to go to the toilet except for the rest time. The purpose of all this harassment was to force workers to take VRS in order to reduce the operational cost. 
VRS was notified on September, 2001 and it came into effect immediately. In the same year, a three year scheme called “Challenge 50” was launched, which aimed at increasing profits by 50%. Cost cutting measures like VRS was part of the proposal. By introducing VRS 1251 jobs were reduced. In the subsequent years contract workers were hired to work at a much lower cost. The entire offense on the part of the management was clearly to crush the working class unity to reduce the man power cost. The movement was just an excuse for them.
LIB: What was the experience of unionising in Gurgaon?
MA: The management systematically crushed our Maruti Udyog Employees Union (MUEU) by dismissing the union members following the workers’ agitation and lockout in MUL in 2000-01 and later de-recognizing it. The MUEU was not allowed to conduct a single general body meeting after the lockout.
The current union is management controlled. It is called Maruti Kamgar Union and it was set up in December 2000 with 28 members and has 700 members now. It does not even have a secret ballot and settles issues by show off hands!
The situation is much the same elsewhere too. Recall that the Honda workers’ agitation began because the management refused to recognise the union, and suspended some leading members. The escalating movement eventually reached the day when workers were brutalised by the police. At the end suspended workers were reinstated, but some conditions were imposed on workers.

The attacks on the trade union movement and on trade unions increase along with the neo-liberal policies. Now Maruti is expanding its production by opening a plant near Haridwar. Some workers may be relocated there. Unionising them also is a challenge.