India’s Auto Giant Seeks to Crush Independent Union
An Indian auto plant wracked by violence reopened, but barred almost all 2,500 full-time and casual workers. The union and community allies are protesting, calling on Suzuki to reinstate fired workers and release jailed union activists.
An Indian auto plant wracked by violence in July reopened last week, with almost all 2,500 full-time and casual workers at the plant barred from entering.
The union and its community allies responded Monday by picketing the chairman of Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corporation when he visited the plant.
Maruti Suzuki India, a subsidiary of the Japanese company, is the largest auto producer in the subcontinent. On July 18 an altercation between a supervisor and a worker at its Manesar plant, southwest of New Delhi, was allowed to escalate.
Union leaders say that a supervisor insulted a Dalit worker (formerly called “untouchables”). When the worker protested, he was suspended. When workers and union reps went to the HR office, managers refused to listen and brought in a firm that specializes in supplying thugs in labor disputes.
Union members say these thugs provoked, threatened, and ultimately unleashed mayhem in the plant. Parts of the factory were set on fire and one manager was burned to death; no determination of responsibility has been made. The melee left more than 100 managerial staff severely injured.
The state police then closed the plant and filed a report naming 55 workers, including the entire union leadership, and “500/600 others.” Using the report as blanket authority, the state police arrested any worker they could find who was remotely connected to the Suzuki plant. That night 91 were arrested, though none were present in the plant when the incident occurred.
Management and the state authorities charge workers with participating in violence and destroying property, which union supporters say is highly exaggerated.
The Suzuki subsidiary then officially locked out all the workers. CEO R.C. Bhargava said 500 permanent workers were fired.
Ironically, as the plant reopened August 21, Bhargava said the company will now stop relying on the contract workers who had made up at least half the workforce—a chief demand of the union.
For years, Maruti Suzuki has thwarted Indian labor law, which protects full-time workers by preventing their replacement with contract laborers paid a fraction of the wage for identical work.
The boss, however, has no intention of rehiring the fired contract laborers who were engaged in the organizing. Contract workers in the plant have repeatedly supported the full-time workers in their struggle to establish an independent union.
Bhargava said contract workers would be tested for possible hiring in as permanent employees. As the company slowly ramps up from 300 workers to full capacity, though, it is possible that a majority of all the workers will be permanently replaced.
Government Aid to Management
Authorities in Haryana state are supporting Maruti Suzuki’s efforts to restart the production line by providing 500 state police, ostensibly for security. In addition, the company has organized a militia of 100 guards to prevent workers from engaging in action. The Gurgaon district police are also helping, issuing summonses to all workers served with termination notices and threatening them not to challenge their illegal firings.
The latest ploy is for police and management representatives to show up at fired workers’ homes, demanding they sign resignation letters, in case the required government approval for mass terminations does not surface.
The government continues to refuse to recognize the National Trade Union Initiative, a labor federation, to represent independent unions throughout India.
Meanwhile, the police have arrested and imprisoned more than 140 Maruti workers and are seeking to arrest anyone who opposes the terminations or seeks to rebuild the union. Imprisoned workers have been tortured by prison guards, according to Rakhi Sehgal, vice president of an NTUI affiliate and a coordinator of a group supporting the Maruti Suzuki workers.
Sehgal reports that another 22 workers are being targeted for arrest: “those workers who have been the backbone of the internal union movement,” including “coordinators” who were the liaisons between shop floor workers and union leaders.
“The major aim of these continuing police raids,” Sehgal said, “is to destroy the independent union and then set up a management-controlled union” similar to one in Maruti Suzuki’s second auto plant.
The lockout has galvanized public attention. A supporters’ group has organized protests that have brought thousands to demonstrations in Manesar demanding the immediate release of the workers.
In the aftermath of the lockout, Ameresh Mishra, a political analyst of social movements in India, said the events signal that a “new form of class solidarity is emerging.”
Before the assault, workers had already formed alliances with villagers. In response to the 500 corporate thugs that management called on to kick workers out, the workers gathered 5,000 workers and community members to demonstrate.
“What management calls ‘outside elements,’” Mishra said, “are relatives and neighbors from the same villages where workers also live.”
The Manesar workers maintain strong ties of solidarity in the community, as workers live in the surrounding neighborhoods. These ties were strong enough to sustain a 13-day sit-down strike in June 2011. The outcome was an uneasy standoff between workers and management.
But for the first time in company history Maruti was forced to take back workers it had fired.
This victory energized the workers and renewed their efforts to form an independent union.
Their efforts were thwarted, however, when the Labor Department rejected their application for union registration—in blatant collusion with management. In August 2011, management locked workers out, demanding they sign a “good conduct bond.”
Workers went back to work last fall when management agreed to reinstate 64 full-time workers and, after a second short occupation, casual workers it had fired for supporting the union.
Management also agreed to establish a “grievance and labor welfare committee” but forced 30 workers, including the entire union leadership, to take a retirement settlement and leave the company.
Dawn of Independent Union Movement
The Maruti Suzuki Workers Union is one of many unions forming in India’s new industrial belts near New Delhi and in Gujarat, a region that has become a center of worker self-organization and autonomous, democratic unions. The struggles have extended to other multinational auto manufacturers, including Honda, Tata, and Hyundai.
Indian workers on the whole are underemployed and work too few hours to earn enough for food, shelter, health care, and education. To make matters worse, since the early 1990s India has adopted neoliberal policies that encouraged foreign investment for new, non-union factories. These plants have significantly eroded working conditions and the power of traditional unions, which had been formed and controlled by left political parties often without worker participation in decision-making.
The unions could not count on parliamentary agreements to defend working conditions, and the weakness of the unions contributed to the declining power of the left parties, as demonstrated by their substantial defeats in the 2011 and 2012 elections.
Unions now represent only 7 percent of all workers in formal enterprises, and less if casual workers are taken into account. Unions are irrelevant for most workers in new industries, though worker self-organizing has expanded dramatically in the last five years.
According to Satyaki Roy, professor at the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, due to lax enforcement, about half of all unionized workers in major agreements are considered “casual workers” and are not covered by the contract, earning a fraction of the officially negotiated rate.
In this situation, independent unions have sprung up. The New Trade Union Initiative is a national federation of independent unions formed in 2006 which is leading the struggle to end the use of “irregular” contract workers in core production processes, a practice that contravenes a 1970 law.
The NTUI member unions face severe employer opposition and the heavy arm of government. Frequently, state governments unleash their own police and security apparatus to quell strikes and other efforts to organize democratic unions.
NTUI and other labor allies are continuing to organize protests calling on Suzuki to reinstate the fired workers and release jailed union activists.