The negotiating power of workers, Mahesh Kumar Sharma explains under a tent pitched in an open field in the Pathredi Industrial Area on the Haryana-Rajasthan border, varies inversely with distance from the site of production. "It is the most in the factory but no one listens to you when you reach Jantar Mantar."
So, when workers at Shriram Pistons and Rings Ltd wanted the management to reinstate Sharma and 21 others suspended since January this year, over 1,000 of them downed tools and occupied the plant for 12 days.
Last Saturday, 200 policemen, armed with tear gas, water canons, batons and live ammunition, descended on the plant and evicted the workers. Seventy-nine were hospitalised and 26 are now in jail. The rest sit 500 metres from the company wall, awaiting a fresh round of negotiations with the management.
Shriram's management declined to comment on the issue in a telephone interview and did not reply to a list of emailed questions.
Of late, workers of several companies like Napino Auto and Electronics, Autofit India, Asti Electronics and Baxter India have organised sudden work stoppages that have sometimes turned into prolonged occupations. This March, workers at Napino coordinated a 10-day worker occupation across three separate plants. Officials at Napino and at the labour department in Gurgaon confirmed there was an occupation but declined to go into details.
"The management shut down the canteen at Napino," says a worker, asking not to be named for fear of disciplinary action by the management. "But the women workers smuggled food into the plant for everyone."
"Management has changed its tactics," explains a worker who participated in the occupation at Baxter India, a subsidiary of Baxter Healthcare, an American medical equipment manufacturer. "If you sit on dharna, the company declares a lockout, brings in contract workers and continues production."
By occupying the plant, workers can halt production and force management to the negotiating table. Statistics bear out his surmise: In 2002, there were 295 strikes and 284 lockouts, according to data gathered by the Labour Bureau. The year 2011 saw 183 strikes versus 185 lockouts. In 2013, there were 134 strikes and only 15 lockouts. A majority of these strikes in 2013, workers and trade unionist say, began as wildcat occupations.
Given the paucity of union membership data (a verified survey in 2008 estimated membership at 24.8 million as of 2002), it is difficult to quantify how these new struggles are engaging with the union movement. "Unionisation is increasingly forming the backdrop for conflict between capital and labour," says Rakhi Sehgal of the New Trade Union Initiative. "It is important to understand why capital is resisting union formation and why a generation with no exposure to political struggles and union history is adamant on forming unions."
At Shriram, much like at Maruti in 2011, workers put forward a 17-point charter of demands, which made no mention of forming a union but sought a pay hike, a newspaper allowance, a medical allowance, an education allowance, marriage loans, better canteen food with larger servings of milk and jaggery, and a one-time grant of Rs 51,000 to marry off a daughter. Yet, when interviewed by this correspondent, workers insisted their central demand was that the company allow them to form a union.
"By law, companies cannot stop the creation of a union. So, managements respond by suspending the workers who put their names on the union application," says Rajbir Chahail, a union activist with the All-India Trade Union Congress. "The suspensions create a fresh round of demands and dharnas."
The charter of demands, therefore, offers workers and managements a fig leaf to begin a set of seemingly surreal negotiations, where a demand for reinstatement of workers is a proxy to a discussion on union formation. And, a threat of forming a union is leveraged to improve wages and working conditions.
"The basic point is that it is impossible to survive on a factory salary. These companies eat away at your youth," says Mahesh Kumar, a 31-year-old trainee at Shriram Piston who claims he gets Rs 6,000 a month in hand. "You join as a trainee, they say you will become permanent in six months, then one year, then two... and then, one day, you are too old and must remain a contract worker for life."
The opacity of the shadow negotiations between management and workers can lead to tragic consequences as seen in the death of a Maruti manager at the Manesar plant in 2012.
In 2011, Maruti Suzuki agreed to the creation of an independent union at its Manesar plant but dismissed Sonu Gujjar, the movement's charismatic leader. Gujjar took his severance package, a union was formed, and production resumed.
In November that year, a worker broadsheet published an anonymous critique: "In these last few months, a handful of workers had risen to the position where they could control the workers... By dismissing precisely those men, the management has thrown away a valuable tool."
Six months later, a general manager was killed in a violent confrontation between the workers and management at the Manesar plant.
"It is time for top management to look at labour relations as a strategic business process and get it on to their radar screen for regular review," says Rajeev Dubey, president of the Employers Federation of India, and group human resource president at Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. "We need to think about young people and their aspirations. Here, a mature union has a key role to play in matching aspirations to reality."
Yet the unrest in India's industrial estates suggests young workers are in search of a new reality they can call their own.