Pricol, Graziano:

Symptoms of Failure of TU Movement, Or of State’s Failure to Defend the Right to Form Unions?


The EPW September 26, 2009 Editorial (‘State of our Unions’) argues strongly that the growing attack on the right to form unions is dangerous for the health of India’s liberty and democracy:
“Though the Constitution explicitly provides the right to form unions, this is one right which has been under attack from the governments and courts of the country for long. National interest and the needs of public order have regularly been used to curb union rights. The Essential Services Maintenance Act is used more often than not to break industrial action (as in the case of the oil sector officers’ strike) as are the cruder instruments of police and state violence. The courts too have been wary of protecting this fundamental right. The most recent of their judgments denying workers the right to strike was in 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled that government employees did not have the right to strike. In the past, strong unions meant that, at least in the organised sectors, the workers enjoyed the de facto right to strike but now economic, political and legal forces seem to be converging to reduce this right to a dead letter in our Constitution. This is dangerous not only for the protection of workers’ rights but for the health of liberal democracy itself.
The weakening of the right to freedom of association and to form unions is a weakening of the very foundation of the entire structure of fundamental rights. It is unwise to think that the weakening of one right will not have an adverse impact on the entire edifice of rights on which our political and civil life is based.”
However, the article’s suggestion that labour has somehow been defeated and workers are now so weak as to be “incapable” and even unwilling to defend their right to form unions, is rather misplaced, especially in the light of recent examples.
In Gurgaon, the remarkable strike recently witnessed against the killing of a worker y management goons while he was agitating for recognition of a union, is not a sign of a dead or dying TU movement.
Workers in the Arakonam (Tamil Nadu) factory of MRF Limited, a tyre major, conducted a 125 day-long strike which resulted in the Madras High Court verdict on 8 September 2009 directing recognition of the union by the management of the company. The Pricol experience, however, shows how in spite of this exemplary verdict (see accompanying story for details), managements like Pricol continue to indulge in almost every practice which the HC verdict held to be a violation of the law.   
The Pricol instance itself (mentioned by the editorial in the context of the death of a company executive) was not a case of a “weak” trade union and unwilling workers.  Rather its last two years of struggle were exemplary of efforts by a union, enjoying the support of the majority of workers, to defend its right to exist – only to receive little but lip service rather than any effective disciplining of the management.  
In the past two years, the management resorted to victimization transfer of six workers who were instrumental in forming the union, to Uttaranchal. The workers went on strike for more than two months for securing the legally granted right; management responded with a lockout. Workers approached the state government and because of this historic struggle and legal pressure, ultimately, the government intervened under section 10(B) of the ID Act, declared the management’s lockout illegal and directed the management to open the factory and take back the workers.
The management finally lifted the partial lockout but not all workers were taken back. More than 1700 workers (including workers of satellite vendor units) have been transferred, suspended and dismissed in this process. The government served Show Cause Notice and Prosecution Notices to the MD and top officials of the company for non-implementation and violation of labour laws, but all in vain.

The Pricol experience shows that the right to form a trade union was not compromised because of the workers’ unwillingness or inability to fight – rather, in spite of repeated moral and legal victories won by workers, it was a political lack of will to effectively discipline the management that emboldened the management to freely continue to flout the law and refuse to recognise the union. In this, the management also took shelter behind the overall climate of repression justified in the name of combating ‘Maoism’, trying to justify their refusal to recognise the union by branding the latter as ‘Maoist-Leninist.’ The incidents at Pricol, Graziano, Gurgaon, rather than being a comment on the state of the TU movement, are a sign of intensifying assault on TU rights and industrial democracy in times of globalisation. The Pricol story underlines the need for legislation on recognition of trade unions, without which the right to form trade union remains empty rhetoric.