Not always within the folds of established trade unions, they could help define the direction of labour rights.
Suresh Gaud, 34, was an unlikely trade union leader. A machinist from the Industrial Training Institute (ITI), Gurgaon, Gaud joined the Honda Motors factory when he was in his 20s. At the time, trade unionism was the last thing on the mind of the Haryana native. But circumstances saw him become the face of a wave of agitations that the Honda Motors union led by him unleashed at the Gurgaon plant.
Gaud was just a worker when he tried to start a union at Honda Motors in 2005. The company opposed this. Protests and police lathi-charges followed. Several workers were fired upon, and one worker died in the violence. Later, Gaud led a delegation to meet the Prime Minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Today, the Honda Motors union is affiliated with the All-India Trade Union Congress, of which Gaud is district president.
Gaud has since helped form unions at many companies in the Gurgaon industrial belt and is reaching out to plants like those belonging to Nestle and Bhaskar Kirloskar in the Rudrapur industrial area in Uttarakhand. In Haryana, FCC Rico, Ema Engineering, MK, Rico and Lumex are some of the companies where he helped unionise the workers. At an agitation at Rico a year ago, Gaud and fellow protesters faced armed bouncers appointed by the company. In one of the confrontations, a worker was killed.
The workers’ movement in Haryana was almost stamped out after the union at Maruti was dissolved in 1997. But the success of and media glare on worker agitations at Honda Motors provided it a major fillip. Gaud says workers live with the grim reality that the state government’s industrial disputes machinery assists managements and that no one listens to the workers. “We have a union representative on the minimum wage board, but no one listens to him,” Gaud complains.
“The state of Haryana, which has many contract workers, is yet to constitute a contract labour board,” he points out. But it is neglect such as this that drives Gaud, notwithstanding the challenges that cross his path. For him, just forming a union and awakening workers to their right to collective bargaining is a great achievement.
And at factories across the state, he is achieving just that.
A Sounderajan, the state president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions in Tamil Nadu, has been leading workers’ struggles in the state for the past decade and giving many multinational companies sleepless nights. He entered the union movement at the age of 20, but never in the last four decades did he have to spend 15 days in judicial custody as did in October for leading the workers of Foxconn India in their fight for the right to form a union.
Sounderajan has found that even after years of trade unionism in India, meeting even the basic needs of workers remains a challenge. Forming a union is almost impossible in many places, he says. “We are demanding a law to make recognition of majority unions a must,” he says.
The man who began with leading transport workers in Chennai is today busy setting up unions, even when they are not recognised by the management. He has set up unions at Hyundai, BYD, Sanmina, Nokia and Hindustan Motors. In most of these places, the management has refused to recognise the union.
V Prakash is better known as a lawyer fighting a case with Foxconn in the Supreme Court. But he is also a trade union leader whose struggles started with TVS when he helped workers form their union. This was foiled after the company allowed Intuc, a central trade union, to enter the company and take over the union. “We fought and failed. In a single stroke, TVS set the pattern for all companies to follow, that was, to sponsor a union rather than let one emerge from among the workers,” says the 55-year-old Chennai-based Prakash.
But at MRF he has been opposing this attempt. Prakash says though he has a union, the United Labour Federation, which operates in over a dozon companies, as a lawyer, he appears for all unions. “I see a larger working-class issue,” he says. Asked why he started the union, he says that workers want unions that are not political and are independent.
Ananya Bhattacharjee, president of the Garment & Allied Workers’ Union in Gurgaon, led the struggle of workers at the Viva Global garment factory, taking on garment giants like Marks & Spencers, but supported by international groups and the New Trade Union Initiative, an independent trade union centre.
Bhattacharjee, 48, came back to India six years ago after two decades as a union activist in the US, where she worked for migrant workers. She began in 2006 as part of a global campaign called Asian Floor Wage, which wants global buyers to share the burden of paying garment factory workers a decent wage, rather than dumping the responsibility on manufacturers.
During her visits to garment factories in Gurgaon, she was shocked to find such a huge manufacturing base without any organisation of workers, a labour right promised by law and international labour conventions.
She started the Garment & Allied Workers’ Union and is today its president. Now, she has her eyes set on other states as well as other sectors. But being an independent union has its limitations just as it has its strengths, she feels. “The current workers’ battles need a global and industrial perspective, besides a lot of young organisers. Older union leaders may not be able to handle the current challenge,” she says.
“Organising workers where unions are not considered legitimate requires a lot of creativity because we want to make sure they don’t lose their jobs. Besides, it needs a lot of energy to be mobile at all hours,” she says. This is true of factories with contract labour, an area where not many central trade unions venture into.
Bhattacharjee, the mother of a teenage son, was born in Bokaro in Bihar and is also founder of the Mazdoor Ekta Manch, an NGO platform for workers in Gurgaon, and Nari Shakti, another platform for organising women workers.