Over 50,000 state transport workers in Tamil Nadu went on a flash strike starting on January 4 after the government refused to meet their demands for payment of their arrears and parity in wage increase with workers of other government departments and state enterprises. The strike began in Chennai and spread to other towns and districts in Tamilnadu. 4th and 5th January witnessed a near total strike with over 90% of buses not operating on their routes. Even after attempts by the government to force contract workers to act as substitutes, the strike remained successful.
Negotiations had been taking place for over a year with the government failing to commit to equity in wages with other State government employees. In the recent case, the sudden strike came at the end of a day-long talks between trade unions of the public transport corporations and the state government over various demands of the workers. The workers also pointed out that Rs.7000 crores of deductions from workers’ wages had not been credited to their respective bank accounts. Pensioners’ gratuity and social security (like PF, gratuity, welfare society, etc.) have been outstanding since several years.
Bus conductors agitating in Chennai
Tamilnadu transport workers on strike
On the evening of January 5, Chief Justice of the Madras High Court intervened, directing the workers to return to work and threatening contempt action if they failed to. More than a year ago, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had passed a similar stay, claiming it would monitor negotiations. However the workers are not convinced by the strictures by the Court to the government to address the grievances of the workers and pay them their statutory dues. Their experience of 22 rounds of negotiations tells them that the government is least concerned until there is a public uproar due to drastic interruption of people’s daily lives.
Support has been pouring in from all other sections of workers, including IT workers.
It is not just the Tamilnadu transport workers, but workers across several sectors that provide essential public services that are opposing attacks on their basic rights.
In October 2017 bus services were completely paralyzed in Maharashtra due to a five-day strike by the Maharashtra State Transport workers. They were demanding revision of salaries based on the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission. They had been negotiating with the administration for a very long time, but as usual administration was dillydallying citing the poor financial condition of State Transport. It must be noted that the salaries of the Maharashtra State Transport workers are far below those of other state government employees. A majority of the workers (about 70 percent) draw only Rs.9000-10000 per month. Finally they struck work from 16th October 2017.
Rajasthan doctors have been fighting for better conditions in government hospitals
The doctors working in government medical institutions in Rajasthan have been carrying on a prolonged struggle for their demands (see report in Mazdoor Ekta Lehar Issue dated Jan 1-15 2018). These relate to the extremely poor working conditions they face, the lack of equipment and adequate medical personnel, terrible living conditions, and poor remuneration. All the demands of the doctors are just, and their fulfillment will contribute to improving the health services provided to people in government run medical institutions. Towards this end, doctors organized under the banner of the All Rajasthan In-Service Doctors Association (ARISDA) have been waging innovative forms of protest, while keeping the services functioning.
Government nurses in Tamil Nadu went on a strike from November 27, 2017 demanding regularization of their employment and rationalizing their pay scales with regular nurses rather than being retained on consolidated pay. While the government was willing to consider minor increases to their present wage of Rs. 7,700 a month, it did not commit to any substantive change in the nature of tenure. For three days and two nights, over 3000 nurses sat on a dharna in front of the Directorate of Rural Health and Medicine in Chennai.
What are some of the common features of these struggles?
- Firstly they are all struggles for just demands.
- Secondly transport workers, doctors and nurses went on strike as a last resort since the respective government authority was dragging their feet for months and years.
- Thirdly the government used various tactics to break their unity, sometimes tried to intimidate them and sometimes unilaterally declared that agreement has been reached in order to confuse the working people.
- Fourthly, in many of these cases the High Courts intervened in response to some Public Interest Litigation declaring that the strike was illegal and if the strikers would not resume work they would lose their jobs! This is what happened in case of Nurses struggle and in the case of Maharashtra transport workers and Tamil Nadu transport workers strike. In all these cases, the High Court’s ostensibly intervened in the ‘interest of citizens’. Whereas in the case of the Rajasthan doctors’ struggle the state government invoked the fascist Rajasthan Essential Services Maintenance Act (RESMA), 1970, declared the proposed strike illegal, and proceeded to arrest leaders of the All Rajasthan In-Service Doctors Association (ARISDA)!
Above are some of the recent examples. This is being increasingly experienced by almost all public sector employees like Health workers, Municipal workers, Government workers, Teachers, Loco running staff , Airline pilots, PDS related employees, Anganwadi workers, Transport sector workers, etc. Various states invoke different versions of the fascist Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA), and High Courts swiftly intervene in other cases, stating that ‘Since the workers are delivering some Essential service, they cannot go on strike since their strike will adversely affect public interest at large’! But the same courts never question why various government agencies neglect the welfare of employees delivering these essential services, wherein in almost all cases the welfare of employees will actually contribute to improving the delivery of services.
It is very essential that various organizations and unions of workers, irrespective of their political affiliations, come together and work towards withdrawal of all such Essential Services Acts. They all must come together and actively denounce the intervention by courts in their struggles. They must unite in the struggle for their right to livelihood and human conditions of work.