Two pubic sector bank unions have announced first major strike on October 22 in response to the mega merger of public sector banks announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharama in August this year.
Out of 9 public sector bank unions, two workmen unions — All India Bank Employees’ Association (AIBEA) and Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI) are backing the strike. The two unions represent almost 50 per cent of about 800 thousand public sector bank employees in the country.
While banking operations are expected to be hit due to the strike, many banks, including branches of State Bank of India (SBI) are likely to remain open.
Two of the major unions in SBI, National Organisation of Bank Workers (NOBW) and National Organisation of Bank Officers (NOBO) are not participating in the strike. “When SBI was merged with its associate banks, the unions did not participate in protests, and thus, it is not befitting for them to participate now,” said a senior member of AIBEA.
Among the officers’ union, only AIBOA (All India Bank Officers’ Association) has extended their fraternal support to the strike.
Kolkata chooses soft protest over mass agitation
In Kolkata, which saw the genesis of trade union movement in the banking sector, there is only murmurs of agitation against the most sweeping change in public sector banking system after nationalization in 1969.
A senior banker with a public sector bank in Kolkata says that he expected strong agitation, at least in West Bengal, the day the merger was announced. However, as it turned out, the employees had accepted the fate that merger was not a reversible decision, he says. A sense of comfort was also drawn from the fact that there would be no retrenchment.
“Even the West Bengal government had raised little protest over two Kolkata-based banks being merged with banks outside the state,” he says.
It was only about after five days the merger was announced, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee wrote to the Centre voicing concern over the merger.
“To the best of our ability we are doing what we can,” according to Rajen Nagar, President of AIBEA.
At present, out of nine unions, five are of workmen, and four belong to officers. Different unions have different mandates, and merger is one of the many issues which the unions are opposing. For example, the strike on October 22 is not only against merger, but also against reduction of interest rates in deposits, outsourcing and low recruitment in public sector banks.
While there has been not much of targeted protests against the merger, banks unions in Kolkata have been doing soft protests like signature campaigns and dharnas.
Merger clouded by bipartite agreement
Much of the protests against the merger are clouded by the ongoing bipartite agreement in the banking sector for wage revision. Also, while there is no divergence in views between officers and workmen unions over merger, there is neither any stated agreement over protests against merger.
Notably, the four officers’ associations representing nearly all the officers’ fraternity of banking industry had called a two days’ all India strike from midnight of September 25 to midnight of September 27, 2019. They followed it by an indefinite strike from second week of November 2019. The strike was against merger and sought expeditious wage revision.
One of the contentious issues in the ongoing eleventh bipartite agreement for wage revision for officers in particular was the proposal of covering only officers in grade one to three under the agreement. The Indian Bank Association (IBA) reasoned that five banks had not given mandate for wage revision for all the grades (one to seven). However, after the call for strike, the issue has been largely resolved, according to Soumya Datta, General Secretary, AIBOC.
Further, there were also assurance from the government that a high level committee will be formed in banks to look in to issues related to human resources. Following the talks, the bank officers had withdrawn the strike.