Coalminers on a simmer

Agitation against National Coal Wage Agreement-VI

(Comrade Upendra Singh, leader of Coal Mine Workers’ Union, affiliated to AICCTU, on the recent wage agreement in the coal sector, that left the workers dissatisfied, and the workers’ revolt against the bureaucratic unions.)

The term of the National Coal Wage Agreement (NCWA)-V was over by 30 June 1996, and a revised agreement, NCWA-VI, should have come into effect from 1 July 1996. But NCWA-V itself had been signed four years late. And this time, even after a delay of four and a half years, the NCWA-VI is not yet ready for implementation, although a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has been signed on 10 October by all concerned parties of the JBCCI, except CITU. The MoU left the workers quite disappointed. In the meantime, the CIL management issued a fitment chart according to which wages were to be paid. When the workers, particularly employees at the office, found out that, according to this chart, they would be getting even lesser wages in comparison to NCWA-V, they started opposing the chart. In the beginning of November, CITU called for a three-day strike (20-22 November) against the MoU. Around the same time, the Mohan Committee recommendations on wages to executive personnel came up, and workers found out that in the fitment chart, officials’ wages had been almost doubled and facilities enhanced. This made the workers furious, they caught some corrupt union leaders and beat them up.

In fact, the workers’ discontent over the raw deal meted out to them has a background. In the coal sector, since the National Coal Wage Board agreement, HCWA-IV, of the ‘80s, the wages had started coming down. Earlier, in comparison to other public sector industries, especially ONGC and steel, the coal workers had been getting higher wages. But the wage negotiations of 1987 resulted in lower wages than in ONGC and steel. Workers felt aggrieved, but there was no agitation. Again, after a few years of delay, Wage Board-V came into existence in 1995, but the period of these recommendations would have ended on 1.7.1995, anyway. This time, too, the minimum wages of a Category-VI worker was fixed as Rs.1700 against the claim of Rs.2100, which was the minimum wage of a steel worker. The coal workers were again betrayed in wage negotiation by their JBCCI leaders, who represented five central Trade Unions -- INTUC, HMS, BMS, AITUC and CITU. The coal workers protested, but in the absence of united protest at CIL level, it did not leave any impact. From 1990, manpower was reduced in all subsidiaries of the CIL. Productivity increase was the main slogan of the management.

The Vajpayee government announced a decision on April 6, 2000, to privatise the coal sector. Coal India Ltd. (CIL) is among the biggest corporate employers in the world. It holds the third place in coal production in the world. The board of directors decided to close 64 mines of the ECL and retrench 77,000 workers before going in for privatisation. The World Bank was approached for funds for VRS of 71,000 workmen. Prior to this declaration, the Ministry of Coal had already proposed a “Coal Sector Rehabilitation Project” for shedding 20,000 workers in BCL and BCCL as a prescription for revival of the company. This was opposed by CMWU, and a popular propaganda campaign was launched throughout ECL and BCCL. This was the period when our union was strengthened as coal workers started favourably responding to the CMWU. Our initiatives against the closure of ECL, the wage freeze and the anti-worker pension scheme were welcomed by coalminers in all companies and massive dharnas, demonstrations, gheraoes were organised in 1999-2000.

Our slogan against the trade union bureaucracy during the years 1998-2000 was -- "either achieve the wage agreement at the earliest or leave JBCCI and join the workers in agitation against the CIL management". Anyway, after a long wait, the wage agreement was signed on 13.09.2000 by INTUC, BMS, HMS, AITUC. According to this agreement the basic minimum pay for a coal worker was fixed at Rs.3,300 with effect from 1.7.96. Along with attendance bonus and SDA, it came to Rs.3609. Yet, it fell short of the workers’ expectations. The CITU did not sign the agreement though it had not taken a vigorous oppositional role when the MoU was being negotiated.

After signing the MoU with the management, the INTUC and AITUC organised victory meetings and declared the agreement as a historical one. Mr. Rejendra Singh of INTUC and Mr. Sufi Khan of AITUC were even distributing sweets. But four days after signing the agreement, the CIL management accepted the Mohan Committee recommendations on salaries and perks to the officials. The minimum salary of an executive was increased by 120% whereas the wage increase for coalminers was 95% only. Arrears payment for the year 1997 was made to officers in single instalment, whereas the coal workers’ arrears was to be cleared in 24 months in many installments. There was a massive gap between allowances of officers and workers. House rent was only Rs.75.00 per month for a worker whereas for an officer, it was 100 times more. Coalfield allowance was given to executives, whereas no such allowance was given to coal workers. Similar discrepancies were there in LTC/LLTC and medical facilities as well as underground allowance.

Present workforce in CIL units after downsizing 
 	Present workforce	Workers retrenched by 
   				various schemes
 ECL	1,35,000		46,000     
 BCCL	1,14,000		59,000     
 CCL	75 ,000 to 80,000	20 ,000 
 SECL	90,000			7,000
 WCL    85,000			12 ,000     
 NEC    4,000			1,000 

So, on behalf of the CMWU, we wrote an article critical of the agreement, which also posed some questions to the CITU: why CITU was refraining from signing the agreements, right from NCWA-IV to NCWA-VI, while still continuing in the JBCCI? What had the CITU been doing in the 46 meetings of the core group and almost 100 meetings of the JBCCI held from 1996 to 2000? Why had the CITU not shown any inclination for struggle? Why was it not resigning from the JBCCI?

After October 18, 2000, when the CIL management sent implementation instructions to all companies, it exposed the claims of INTUC, HMS, BMS & AITUC -- the signatories of the MoU. The fitment chart showed loss of actual wages ranging from Rs. 236 to 600 and the mood among the workers was that of anger and resentment in the entire CIL. The signatories, especially the INTUC leaders, were beaten at ECL, their effigies were burnt, the workers deserted these unions at CCL and BCCL too. At SECL and WCL too the workers displayed their unity and initiated resignation from the unions in general, and from INTUC, BMS, HMS, AITUC and CITU in particular. At all core group meetings which were to be held in Calcutta and Nagpur, the JBCCI members were gheraoed and offices and roads were blocked. Reports say that at Nagpur, on November 4, 2000, at the time of JBCCI meeting, 12,000 workers blocked the office and roads and this spontaneous agitation by workers forced the management and the leaders to listen to the workers and promise settlement of wages as they desired.

In ECL, BCCL, and CCL, the CITU saved its position to a great extent because it did not sign the agreement and it floated a platform against signatory unions, Koyala Mazdoor Mukti Manch. We were not officially consulted on forming this platform though we were quite active against the treachery of the signatory unions. Later, when we attended a meeting of this platform at Kendua, BCCL Dhanbad on 28.10.2000, we found that the CITU was not officially present in the platform though its trade unions, BCKU and Staff Co-ordination Committee were leading the platform. Strangely enough, the General Secretary and President, S.K.Baxi and A.K.Roy respectively, of BCKU did not address a single meeting of the Manch. We questioned as to why CITU itself was not leading the Manch officially? Why was it present in JBCCI? Criticising this drama, and their attempt to sail in two boats at the same time, we demanded that CITU should directly join their Manch for a better movement. Until and unless it did so, there was chance for confusion among workers and unity would be weakened. But CITU did not care. And, since CITU was clearly spearheading this move, without any eagerness to have our organisation and without any sincerity to build up a movement for correcting the anomalies in the agreement, we decided to remain outside and float a parallel non-JBCCI platform. Accordingly, on November 10, 2000, the CMWU called for a convention at Bhulli (Dhanbad), where, except the leaders of BCKU and the Staff Co-ordination Committee (CITU), all other fighting unions attended, and the convention was a success.

Again, on Novemebr 17, 2000, another meeting was called by us at Bhulli. In that meeting, Comrade Sunil Paul (IFTU-Bagchi group) from West Bengal, the leader of Joint Action Committee of ECL (mainly staffs), the leader of Diploma Engineering Association, Com. P. Narayan, Piece-rated Workers Association (IFTU, BCCL), Com. Patole (Bihar Mines Lal Jhanda Union (IFTU-Dhanbad), and leaders of CITIA, INMBUA, CEMEWA, HMKP and several other small organisations operating in BCCL took part. It was decided that on December 2, 2000, formation of an all-India organisation parallel to JBCCI would be declared in a formal meeting. Only the IFTU, Dhanbad favoured to remain with CITU.

The meeting on December 17, 2000, extended support to the 3-day strike called by CITU on 20-23 December, though the participating unions were critical of CITU’s overall role. CMWU decided to organise protests marches by workers on December 22, 2000, against the let down by the central trade unions and the privatisation move of the central government. This programme was held at Bhulli, and in BCCL Area XII, a combined armed-procession of organised and unorganised coal workers was taken out. More than 1500 workers participated. In Area no XII of BCCL, Beguriya Barakar was blocked and a mass meeting was conducted. An effigy of the Coal Minister was burnt.

Earlier, comrades from SECI and WCL jointly made a move to float a CIL-level organisation, rejecting JBCCL. Com. Josh from Bilaspur, Com P.K. Murty from WCL and Com. B. Chadra from CMPDI -- Nagpur Zone jointly called a convention on December 10, 2000, at Bilaspur. We actively mobilised for this convention. On our efforts 22 delegates from ECL, BCCL and CCL attended the Bilaspur convention. A seven-member presidium comprising Comrades R.P.Biswas (CIL), R.N.Mondal (ECL), Krishna Singh (CMWU-BCCL), Madan Singh (CMWU-CCL), P.O.Josh (SECL), B. Chadra (CMPDI) and P.K.Murthi (WCL) conducted the convention. In SECL, about 33,000 workers have resigned from the treacherous unions, mainly the INTUC and BMS, and this figure is expected to go up to 70,000. In WCL too workers have threatened not to renew their union membership if the agreement would not be up to their expectations.

After vigorous discussions, the convention passed a resolution to form an “All India Coal Workers Action Co-ordination Committee”. Final shape will be given to this body on 21 January 2001 at Ookhara, Andal, ECL. The convention decided to intensify the struggle against the CIL management for a better wage deal and against privatisation and against the betrayal of bureaucratic trade unions.