Maruti Workers’ Struggle

[AISA activists visited the workers on dharna at the Maruti’s Manesar plant several times. AISA President Sandeep Singh writes about one such visit. Inputs from Saptorshi and Agnitro.]
As they described how the assembly line of workers prepares a whole car in 40 seconds flat, scenes from Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ took shape before my eyes.
All young workers – Sanjay (12th Std. pass) from Yamunanagar; Krishna (graduate) from Sonipat; Sunil from near Chandigarh, Suresh from Alwar…They soon became friendly with us, as we (Saurabh, Nitin, Sandipan and I) sat on the street and talked to them – they were boys of our age, some even younger than us.    
The Maruti plant is very big. Around 3500 workers work in four main shops – the Press Shop, Weld Shop, Paint Shop and Assembly. Workers  The Assembly has a conveyor line. In ‘Modern Times’, there’s an unforgettable scene where Chaplin with other workers, tightening bolts on a machine, begins to behave like the machine. That machine is the conveyor line. These workers tell us that when they work on that line that produced 70-75 cars an hour, they become like robots. They are not left with a nano second even to scratch an itch. Sanjay says that when any ‘big shot’ visits the factory, the pace slows down to 35 cars per hour – but the punishing pace is back again as long as no one’s watching. This pace is against the labour laws and regulations, but it’s the norm here nevertheless. 

AICCTU Solidarity With Maruti Workers’ Struggle
On 31 August, a nine-member team including AICCTU and CPI(ML) leaders visited Manesar to extend support to the Maruti workers’ ongoing struggle. The team included Santosh Roy, Delhi State Secretary, AICCTU, Prem Singh Gehlawat, CPI(ML)’s Haryana In-charge and Vice President, All India Kisan Mahasabha, VKS Gautam, Delhi State President of AICCTU, Mathura Paswan, Vice President of the AICCTU Delhi State Committee, AICCTU activists Comrades Rajesh, Veerpal, Om Prakash Sharma and others.
The AICCTU then held a protest demonstration on 1September at Parliament Street where the effigy of Haryana CM Bhupinder Hooda and Maruti Management was burnt. After the protest, a memorandum was sent though the Haryana Resident Commissioner to the Haryana CM, demanding that action be initiated against the Maruti management for its unjust labour practices and its illegal lockout.

The conveyor belt, with turned workers into a tool that performed repetitive actions, was pioneered by the automobile industry – the Ford factory in America in 1908. When it was first introduced, workers rejected it. As long as there were alternatives, they preferred to work elsewhere. Ford had to employ 963 workers to fill a 100 jobs because the drop-out rate was so high. Eventually he resorted to the ‘carrot’ of paying them a much higher wage. Gradually the pay drew workers to the Ford factory (Ford called his high wage ‘the finest cost-cutting device’ because the conveyor belt ensured much higher productivity. The assembly line conveyor belt became the norm in all factories. Workers did strike against the inhuman and punishing schedule – but capital triumphed. However, these young men here in Manesar – the ‘tools’ of capital – are refusing to be the docile and captive force that Ford had gloated over creating. They’re demanding a modicum of dignity. The ‘Good conduct bond’ they’ve been asked to sign forbids them from voicing any protest, from forming a union, it forbids them even from talking to each other inside the factory. But they’ve refused to sign it, they’ve refused to be automatons - and here they are, with a struggle that has, as its only asset, their mutually asserted humanity and solidarity.       
Another worker who works in the paint shop says that the car remains in his section for just 15 seconds, in which he has to complete his work. “We leap on the car like monkeys and grab at the work,” he says. As others describes their lives in the factory, our minds kept imagining what it was like inside the factory...
During 8-10 hours of work, naturally a human being would have some needs. Even those natural functions are rigorously timed in the Maruti plant. 7 minutes for a tea break and to take a leak! So, many workers get in the habit of doing both simultaneously. The slightest delay results in Rs 80 cut from wages. Arrive at work a minute late and you lose half a day’s pay, though you work the whole day anyway. You can’t throw away your plastic tea cup – it’s reused to cut overheads!
Apprentices (contract workers) are paid just Rs 4200; permanent workers Rs 18000, though they do the same work. But rare is the month where one actually gets Rs 18000 in hand. Of this Rs 18000, Rs 9000 is the basic salary and Rs 9000 incentives. But the company cuts Rs 9000 just for taking 3 days of casual leave!
These workers speak as though the cars they make are their children. In their words is a fascination, a fondness for the product of their labour. That fondness militates against the estrangement imposed by the assembly line. May that spark of fondness become a volcano; may the producers of wealth, happiness, prosperity become its owners. That thought gives me strength.
The owners have their unions – FICCI, Assocham, Automobiles Association and so on... They demand tax waivers and all sorts of relief from an all too servile government. Even as the Maruti workers strike, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) and Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India (ACMA) have been loudly demanding ‘flexi’ labour laws and the right to lay off even permanent employees during slowdowns! But when workers inside the factory want to form a union, they are denied that right and branded as disruptive and criminal. Here, then workers want to work – but it’s the management that’s on ‘strike’! The management violates the law and imposes an illegal lockout; the worker demands no more than his legal right. But the Government sides openly, nakedly, with the management, baton-wielding police and private goons at their service!
The management is under pressure – it has barricaded itself behind a high tin enclosure full of police and ‘private security’ (euphemism for musclemen), out of fear of the workers who, in fact, have on their side the hard-won laws achieved by previous generations of workers. But those laws are under attack. The workers too feel the pressure – of hunger, of their future, of their families’ survival.

AICCTU Leads Walk-Out in Protest Against Maruti GM
On 19 September, the first day of the Fifth India-EU Seminar on Employment and Social Policy witnessed a spontaneous protest in solidarity with Maruti workers. The Seminar this year was being held on the theme “Occupational Safety and Health,” in the presence of Mrutyunjay Sarangi Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, and a Tripartite European Union Delegation with representatives from workers’ organizations, employers’ organisations and government officers from various countries. Indian trade unions and representatives of companies were also present.

When the Sanjay Khare, the General Manager of Maruti Suzuki India (MSI) got up to speak and extol the Maruti model of occupational safety, AICCTU National Secretary Santosh Roy got up to protest. He reminded those present that Maruti workers have been on dharna for several weeks in protest against a blatantly illegal lockout by the MSI management. He declared that if the MSI representative was allowed to speak, AICCTU would walk out in protest. After this, leaders of other central TUs also followed suit – and the MSI representative was forced to step down.

This is their second sustained struggle in the past few months. In June, they went on strike when workers were dismissed and suspended for forming an independent union – the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU). The management refused to recognise any union except the pro-management Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union. The strike ended after 13 long days, when the company agreed to take back 11 terminated workers. In principle the management also agreed that an independent plant-level union could be allowed as long as it had no ‘outsiders.’    
During that strike, workers had remained inside the factory for the entire 13 days – with management switching off even the electricity and water supply. This time, the management has taken the precaution of keeping them out of the factory premises.
Any workers’ struggle is a hugely unequal battle. As Engels observed, “The Capitalist, if he cannot agree with the Labourer, can afford to wait, and live upon his capital….the workman has no fair start. He is fearfully handicapped by hunger.... In the race with Capital, labour is not only handicapped, it has a cannon-ball riveted to it foot.” The capitalist class keeps a huge ‘reserve army of labour’ – an army of unemployed workers desperate for work, who can be called in to replace protesting workers. All this can be seen in the Maruti workers’ struggle.        
The battles won by the Indian working class in decades past are having to be waged yet again. These are not battles for wages, bonus or incentives. These are simply for the right to organise and unionise. The task of Sisyphus comes to mind – who rolled a rock up almost to the top of the hill, only to have it roll down again, so that he could begin rolling it up again... and yet again. But there’s a difference.  These workers are no lone Sisyphus – their strength lies in their solidarity with each other, their ties to their families in rural Haryana, western UP, Rajasthan. The dividing line between contract/permanent workers hasn’t hardened here. They tell us – those of us in uniforms are permanent, and the rest are on contract. Contract workers do the same work but are paid less, because that’s how the company squeezes out profits.    
And it’s a battle that’s being fought in these huge factories like Maruti where workers look relatively ‘better off’ – and also in those tiny industrial units in Delhi which employ just 20 workers. In those units, the battle is for minimum wages. The jobs are unstable – and so the workers learn to unite, not on the factory floor or worksite which keeps changing, but in the jhuggis where they live. The leaders keep getting thrown out – but they look for work again and take the seed of organisation to the new workplace....   
Workers in the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt have supported them. These young hopes and shining eyes demand solidarity and support. We’re drawn back to them again.      
On 3 September, a team of some 70 students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia visit the struggle site again. As the busload of students reaches the site of the strike, the 2000 workers at the dharna site leapt up to greet them, waving scores of red flags and shouting slogans.
Private security guards and security cameras and video-cameras watch the workers’ movements. Two police vans, (vans provided by Maruti) were always at the site and the police officers were seen taking refreshments from the security guards employed by the authorities.
The leader of the MSEU, unassuming Comrade Sonu Gurjar, gave a brief speech to tell the students about their struggle. Kavita Krishnan and Prabhat Kumar, central committee members of the CPI(ML), and I also addressed the workers. Students sang revolutionary songs and the Vidrohiji recited poetry.

The UPA Government, the Haryana Government of the Congress, and the entire ruling class have a consensus in favour of doing away with the labour laws that protect workers’ rights. In this backdrop of a countrywide offensive against labour laws, the Maruti Workers’ struggle assumes significance far beyond that of a single factory. Their struggle is a defiant sign of workers’ refusal to surrender the hard-won rights or to relinquish the bare minimum norms of industrial democracy.