Saturday, November 22, 2014

AN ACCOUNT OF FACTORY WORKERS ACTIVITIES TODAY: MARUTI SUZUKI CARS, MANESAR, INDIA

The following is an account and reflection on a recent episode in working class history that has created something of a stir, not least within the working class itself. It has spawned diverse interpretations in the form of reports by left-wing political parties and other civil society organisations,and coverage by the electronic and print media, including detailed accounts and analyses in a workers’ broadsheet called Faridabad Majdoor Samachar (FMS). This account draws primarily on FMS and conversations with persons associated with it.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay’s dream project of making small cars in India did not take off, and after his death, the company he set up was statised in 1983. A collaboration agreement was signed with the Suzuki Motor Corporation and the first car rolled out of the company’s factory in Gurgaon, Haryana, the same year. A second factory of the company was established in the Industrial Model Town, Manesar, in 2007.

In 2011, in the factory in Manesar, there were 950 permanent workers, 500 trainees, 200 apprentices, 1200 workers hired through contractors for work in direct production process and around 1500 workers hired through contractors for various auxiliary functions. The pace of work was such that a car was being assembled in 45 seconds. Some permanent workers attempted to organise another union against the existing union. Strong arm tactics of the management to make permanent workers (most of whom were not even aware of the attempt at another union formation) accept the existing union gave rise to a surcharged atmosphere. All around discontent coalesced into a sudden stoppage of work. On 4 June 2011 when A and B shift workers were together in the factory, they took over the entry and exit points. Most workers in factories today in the subcontinent are temporary workers — the percentage of permanent workers varies from 0 to 5 to 25% of the work force. On 4 June permanent workers, trainees, apprentices, and workers hired through contractors came together, and in this way a workers’ organisation appropriate in the current conditions took shape, transcending the legal framework wherein only permanent workers can be members of the factory trade union. What started on 4 June and continued for 13 days should be termed a ‘deoccupation’ of the factory. Around 3000 workers stayed in an atmosphere of freedom inside the factory premises during those days.

The company and the government were taken aback. During the deoccupation many more bonds developed between the various categories of workers. The company was forced to take a step backwards and revoke the termination of 11 workers, for production to restart.

There was a dramatic change in the atmosphere in the factory. The bonds between workers continued to grow and management officials were increasingly on the defensive. The company was forced to plan and prepare to re-establish its control. It went to far away industrial training institutes and secretly recruited hundreds of young boys. On 28 August, a weekly day off, 400 police men came at night to the factory. Company staff had arrived earlier. With metal sheets, the factory was secured in military fashion. On the 29th morning when workers arrived for their 7 am shift, there were notices announcing dismissals and suspensions, and entry premised on signing of good conduct bonds for permanent workers.

All the workers, both permanent and temporary, stayed out of the factory. Inside the factory were the new hires and workers brought from the company’s Gurgaon factory, with a few permanent workers from Manesar plant itself. Arrangements for their stay inside the factory had been made. Managerial and supervisory staff members also had to work in the production process with the workers in 12 hour shifts. This was a well rehearsed chess game of managements to soften workers and impose major conditions.
Repeated attempts were made to instigate workers to violence. The workers refused to be instigated, even when some of them were called by the state government for negotiations and were arrested there.

3000 plus workers self-organised themselves in two 12 hour shifts outside the factory. At any time, there were more than 1500 workers spread out near the workers’ entry gate. This continued for the whole of September 2011. Many kinds of discussions took place. Bonding between different categories of workers acquired new dimensions. Many kinds of political tendencies flocked to the factory gates: parliamentary left, non-parliamentary left, radicals, activists of democratic and civil rights organisations, students from universities, and central trade unions. Significantly, in the place of peasants, factory workers made a dramatic appearance on the socio-political stage in the subcontinent. The workers who were in their twenties, were not demoralised or softened even after being made to sit outside the factory for a month. The managements’ well rehearsed chess game came to a dead end. However, the workers had not reached out to workers in other factories to increase their strength. A stalemate-like situation emerged. In this scenario, a tripartite agreement between the existing union, company, and the labour department of the state government was signed on 30 September. It was accepted by the workers. When workers went to the factory on 3 October 2011 as per the agreement, permanent workers, trainees and apprentices were taken on duty, but 1500 workers hired through contractors were kept out. This was another master stroke by the company.

The company had also suspended 44 permanent workers. A scuffle with one suspended permanent worker on the morning of 7 October created an entirely new situation. When workers of A and B shifts were together inside the factory, once again they took over the exit and entry points. The factory was deoccupied for the second time. This time it was not just the deoccupation of this factory; simultaneously, 11 other factories in the area were deoccupied by workers.

Once again, the company and government were taken aback. Despite the presence of 400 policemen and hundreds of other guards, the Maruti Suzuki factory was deoccupied by workers. The simultaneous deoccupation of 11 other factories opened up new possibilities, with thousands of factories in the neighbourhood. All round pressure was applied and deoccupation of seven factories was called off, but it continued in four factories of the Suzuki group. The hand of the government was also restrained by an election for a parliamentary seat. After the casting of votes on 13 October, 4000 additional policemen were sent to the Manesar factory on 13 night itself.
Leaders of various outfits had been loudly proclaiming that if the government uses the police to force workers out of the factory, they would close down the whole industrial area; the entire state. On 14 October, Maruti Suzuki Manesar workers’ repeated attempts to contact these leaders were in vain. The high court orders to get the factory vacated, and the administration’s efforts to cajole the workers to obey court orders, had not led anywhere. After withstanding the pressure of 4000 additional policemen the whole day, on 14 October, around 8 pm, the workers decided to leave the factory and join their 1500 temporary worker comrades outside the factory to deal with the new situation.

What is striking is that the company and the government were not able to understand the activities of the workers. Its ripples were widespread and the dangers were very visible to the government. A third agreement was forced by the government. The 1500 workers hired through contractors were taken back. The company secretly gave a significant amount of money to 30 permanent workers it considered trouble makers and the state government provided them jobs for their resignations. These workers had acquired credibility among their co-workers through their active role in six months of struggles. By getting rid of these workers from the factory, the company and the government in fact threw away what could have been a potential leverage for them among the workers. Production recommenced in the 4 factories on 22 October.

‘What do the workers want?’ was incomprehensible to the government and the company. The company proceeded to give concession after concession. Now instead of 45 seconds, the scheduled time for making a car was increased to one minute. Wages for trainees, apprentices, and workers hired through contractors were increased. Permanent workers were promised a significant wage increment. Parents were included in the health insurance scheme. The number of annual holidays was increased. Massive wage cuts on absence for 1 or 2 days were stopped. The management sent its officials to help registration of a second union of permanent workers. Promptly, the company recognised the new union and commenced negotiations for a long term agreement. The new leaders had neither credibility nor opposition among workers, and were considered as an ad-hoc body for the negotiations. In the mean time, the second assembly plant had commenced production in the factory, increasing the number of workers to more than 4000.

It has been observed that important questions dealing with life, time, relations, representation, articulation and factory life were brought to the fore by the deoccupations of June and October 2011. In the words of a worker:

‘Inside the Maruti Suzuki factory, 7-14 October was the best time. No tension of work. No agonizing about the hours of entry and exit. No stress over catching a ride in a bus. No fretting about what to cook. No sweating over whether dinner has to be eaten at 7 or at 9 pm today. No anguishing over what day or date it is. We talked a lot with each other about things that were personal. All of us drew closer to each other than we have ever been before, during these seven days.’

In the same vein, when the issue of 30 workers being bought made the rounds in end October, a worker said:

‘Earlier we used to pass on the issues to the president, general secretary, department coordinator — that they will tell. But now every worker himself answers. On every issue, every one gives his opinion. The atmosphere has changed.’

From February-March 2012 itself, despite the numerous and very significant concessions made by the company, the workers were beginning to feel and express that in fact nothing had changed. Any talk of the importance of concessions was regarded as pro-management talk. Despite having struggled so much, wage workers remained wage workers. What had changed? This was the backdrop for the events on 18 July 2012.

An everyday occurrence, a confrontation between a supervisor and a worker took place in the morning. The worker was suspended and negotiations between the management and the union commenced. The labour department of the state government reached the factory to facilitate a resolution. It was time for the B shift. Workers of A shift refused to leave the factory. A and B workers were together. All that was simmering gathered momentum and by evening, had turned into a hurricane. The leaders negotiating with the management were helpless. In their own words, ‘if we try to stop workers, we will be the first to be beaten up.’

Concession after concession had been given from October-November 2011 onwards — concessions which were very significant by any yardstick in the wages system. Wage workers revolted against being wage workers. The two symbols of the wages system: managers and factory buildings were the targets of the workers’ attack. Large numbers of guards and 60-70 policemen remained silent spectators. No guard or policeman was injured. This was not some action by a group of 20 or 50 workers but rather thousands of new and old, permanent and temporary workers participated in the revolt. It so happens that this occurred on 18 July — it could as well have happened on 15 May or 25 August. As a matter of fact, the managers and the buildings were symbols, the reality being the social relations they expressed...but in practice, embodied and tangible forms become targets first, and it is through this that the social relations make an appearance. After attacking for half an hour to forty five minutes, the workers disappeared from the factory...the bosses were in a state of trepidation, not just in the national capital region, but elsewhere as well.

600 hundreds commandos have been permanently placed by the state in IMT Manesar, 147 workers were arrested, and arrest warrants issued for 65 others. 546 permanent workers were discharged and 2500 workers hired through contractors were simply removed. Till mid October 2014 none of the workers locked in jail had been given bail. Arrest warrants of 65 other workers are still pending. According to the chairman of Maruti Suzuki: “This is class war.” According to a Maruti Suzuki Manesar worker: ‘If the 18 of July had been a thing of the whole of IMT Manesar, it would really have been something.’

To recap: what would be considered very significant concessions in the wages-system had been given to all the workers before 18 July 2012. There was assurance and negotiations were on that would put the permanent workers of the factory amongst the best paid workers in the region. The factory had commenced production in 2007 and all the workers were in their twenties. The workers were not led or controlled by this or that group/organisation/tendency. The workers’ action was not a sudden outburst of rage. It was not a reaction to some instigation of the company. Permanent workers, trainees, apprentices, workers hired through contractor companies, new workers who had been hired to run the second assembly plant — all these workers, around 4000 workers, in a meticulous operation on the evening of 18 July 2012 attacked two symbols of the wages system : managers and factory buildings. It was not this or that bad manager who became the target but rather any and every manager; hundreds of managers, MANAGERS AS SUCH WERE A TARGET. It is this that makes happenings in the Maruti Suzuki Manesar factory one of global importance. Suppression triggering explosion is well known but concessions being rejected en masse is a new phenomenon. It is a radical point of departure. Maruti Suzuki Manesar is a good example but what is more important is that amongst factory workers in the national capital region in India, similar things at different stages and levels are gaining currency.

In the following days, the two thousand factories in IMT Manesar offered a significant ground for workers to meet other workers and to bond with them. In place of that...central trade unions acted fast and shifted the venue 25 km away to Gurgaon by constituting a committee of 16 trade union leaders who would decide what steps are to be taken. Of the discharged permanent workers numbering 546, those remaining outside the jail were pushed into becoming an audience for this committee. Other workers’ representatives/supporters, critical of central trade unions, but who also see workers as victims and as lacking consciousness, erased the active role of the workers on 18th July. They made out the company to be the active force that had conspired and hired bouncers to attack workers to instigate them. Poor workers only reacted to the bouncers’ attack and so were caught in the management’s trap. 60-70 thousand leaflets with these falsehoods were distributed amongst workers in IMT Manesar, Gurgaon, Delhi and Faridabad. Knowingly or unknowingly these do-gooders encouraged the workers to set out on paths that were tiresome and exhausting. Petitions, demonstrations, protests by the family members of the jailed and sacked workers; hunger strikes, bicycle protest tours...steps which gave some support to the workers’ cause, but which, if relied upon solely, only made workers tired and exhausted. Because of the ineffectiveness of the committee of 16, those more to the left gained ground. And the venue was shifted 200 km away to a peasant dominated area.

By July 2013 the complete bankruptcy of all those who considered workers as poor, exploited victims, had reached a stage where these ‘struggles’ came to an ignominious end — on 18 July 2013 in a candlelight protest in daylight in a park provided by the government, a portrait of the manager who died in 2012 was carried...

It is very significant that while reflecting on the activities of workers at the Maruti Suzuki Manesar factory, a worker with long experience commented that to call these activities an ‘occupation’ is to see what the workers were doing through a reduced lens. ‘Occupation’ is a misnomer, it is misleading. Occupation is how existing social hierarchies are held in place. Companies and governments today are on an overdrive to gain possession of everything. What we want is to create a commons. Given this context, to call what the workers of IMT Manesar did an ‘occupation’ is to refute the essence of their actions; it is akin to trampling over the possibilities they created.

Workers of Maruti Suzuki abundantly expressed that between 7 and 14 October, when they unshackled the factory from the control of the management and government, they felt a joyousness of life that is usually unimaginable. The significance of what the workers did therefore lies in it being a point of departure from where a series of deoccupations followed. Refracted through this lens, the significance of the ‘occupy’ movement that started in the US becomes clear – as actually being a movement calling for deoccupation, a taking away of the control that companies and governments have.

The outline and analysis put forward above draws together the critical elements constituting the 18 July events and also extrapolates from them the possibilities of and potentiality for more widespread radical working class actions that go beyond trade union centred demands for concessions and reforms within the existing system, challenging the very foundations of capitalist society, namely, the system of wage labour. Further, this is not seen to be the mechanical outcome of a particular historical conjuncture, but an event that foregrounds the imperative of conscious activities and self-organisation on the part of the working class. Moreover, what it describes is not in the least a product of wishful thinking, as can be gleaned from recognizing a potentiality which inheres more generally in particular features of the contemporary phase of capitalist development globally.

About 200 years ago, the use of coal and steam power in place of human and animal energy had been such a big leap in productive forces that it severed the producers from their tools and established wage labour. Subsequently oil and electricity run machines brought about other significant increases in productive forces, but the leap affected by electronics is incomparable. Globally, electronics has changed social life to such an extent, that things that were current some years ago, now appear to be ancient.

Electronics entered production in 1970 in America, Europe, and Japan. It entered China ten years later. Ten years after China, electronics entered production in India. In 1992 there were discussions among managements in Japan about temporary and permanent workers. Permanent workers were expensive, but had some loyalty to the company. Temporary workers were cheaper, but had no loyalty at all towards the company. These were among the matters being discussed. It was the growing weakness of companies and governments that was manifest in their inability to keep permanent workers. The world over, within these 10 years, the number of temporary workers increased tremendously. Moreover, the entry of electronics in production rapidly increased the speed of new inventions. The growing possibility of the coming of new machines narrowed down the space for the hiring of permanent workers further. Factories which for more than a hundred years had been becoming larger and larger were now easily broken up into hundreds of spatially dispersed units. Auto hubs, in India, as in Gurgaon, Pune, Chennai, and elsewhere globally, are manifestations of this trend. Significantly, as has been pointed out, the growing numbers of temporary workers does not indicate the strength of companies and governments, but rather their weakness. The total absence of loyalty towards the company, the experiences of 20 to 25 years olds of working in 10 to 20 work places, destroys many an illusion, and makes temporary workers dangerous for companies and governments. In other words, this scenario, together with the bonds forged between the temporary and permanent workers in Maruti Suzuki over previous years, strengthened by the shared experiences of their ‘deoccupation’ of the factory, provided the tinder for the events of July 18th, and forms a potential basis for radical working class activity in the future, here, and elsewhere as well. Innumerable examples of such activities taking place in and around Delhi are increasingly visible.