Kolkata: A call to railwaymen to prepare themselves to “halt the wheels of the Railways” by launching an “indefinite general strike” has been given by the 95-year-old All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), the largest recognised trade union in the national transporter.
The indefinite general strike call comes 45 years and six months after the last strike held under the aegis of AIRF for three weeks from May 8-28, 1974. Late George Fernandes, who was the president of AIRF then, led the strike from the front and had coined the slogan “Better jail than rail” in a bid to galvanise railwaymen to participate in the direct action which, according to The Indian Express, was one of the major railway strikes in Asia.
AIRF said it had no option but to go for the proposed direct action as New Delhi was not paying any heed to its repeated pleas to give up anti-labour policies and moves to corporatise and privatise Railway production units and services.
In fact, AIRF has recorded an instance to prove the Narendra Modi government’s strident posture. On October 9, 2019, at a meeting with the Railway Minister, the AIRF representative raised the organisation’s concern over the ministry’s move to hand over trains to private parties. The minister assured them that nothing of that sort would be undertaken without a discussion with staff representatives.
However, the next day, on October 10, the ministry issued an order constituting an empowered group of secretaries for development of 50 stations and permit private passenger train operators to run 150 trains over the Indian Railways’ network.
The “unanimous” decision to go on an indefinite general strike was apparently made at AIRF’s 95th annual convention held in Chennai from December 4-6, 2019. The last three paragraphs of the recently available nine-page minutes are devoted to the indefinite general strike decision, which was made while adopting Resolution no. 3 -- Save Nation, Save Railway.
The convention unanimously approved two related proposals. The general secretary and president were authorised to engage in dialogue with like-minded trade unions and other associations to build up a broad unity in the fight against government policies.
An amplification of the ‘broad unity’ concept is available in the call to the travelling public to take part in all the agitation programmes that AIRF will undertake from time to time. Second, the convention authorised the general secretary to organise a special convention to decide on the date and month for the launch of the proposed indefinite strike.
AIRF’s general secretary, Shiv Gopal Mishra, told NewsClick that the immediate priority is to organise a demonstration before Parliament in the course of March. Also, in a bid to broadbase the demonstration, AIRF is trying to enlist the support of a large number employees who are aggrieved over the new pension system. “We will proceed step by step and assess the impact. We have the green signal for the ultimate action”, Mishra said.
AIRF’s president Rakhal Dasgupta told NewsClick from Guwahati that the agitation build-up had already begun. A protest week was organised at a large number of locations at the divisional and zonal headquarters in January. Next on the action-list is a demonstration before Parliament in March, Dasgupta said.
Harbhajan Singh Sidhu, general secretary of Hind Mazdoor Sabha, (HMS), with which of AIRF’s railway production units are affiliated, said all the agitations held under the banner of AIRF were totally and wholeheartedly supported by HMS.
“This government is only concerned with the welfare of private sector corporates, it has no concern for employees and workers. The Labour Code scheme is intended to benefit only the corporates, which have been demanding flexibility”, Sidhu said.
M Raghavaiah, general secretary of another recognised union – the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) -- said the “Centre appeared to be hell bent on pushing the Indian Railways on the Air India path. We cannot remain mute spectators.”
Elaborating on the efficiency of rail production units, Raghavaiah said: “The production units at Rae Bareli, Kapurthala and Chennai (Perambur) were delivering international standard products at a cost 25% lower than similar products, if sourced from abroad. Australia had imported coaches made at Integral Coach Factory, Perambur and we have learnt that they are extremely satisfied with the quality”, asking “should not the Centre promote exports and facilitate the production units to perform even better?”
As a counter to the Railway Board’s ‘Parivartan’ convention, NFIR held a ‘Rail Bachao’ convention last month. Its working committee will meet in Chennai on February 7-8, to decide on the next agitation programme, Raghavaiah said.
When asked whether Bharatiya Rail Mazdoor Sangh (BRMS), another rail union, would support the agitations by AIFR and NFIR against corporatisation and privatisation moves, its secretary-general Ashok Kumar Shukla said though not recognised, BRMS, had been voicing its opposition to the government’s moves and would continue to do so.
About supporting the proposed indefinite general strike-related resolution of AIRF, Shukla said: “Our support should be sought first, then we will see”.
When asked whether AIRF could count on BRMS for support in the event of a strike, Dasgupta said: “They (AIRF) normally toe the government line”.
Available indications suggest that AIRF and NFIR, under the umbrellas of HMS and Indian National Trade Union Congress, respectively, will act together for the demonstration before Parliament and onward. For BRMS, much will depend on the ability AIRF and NFIR to convince it to be part of the direct action plan.
Some of the other demands listed in the AIRF’s minutes are: activation of all layers of negotiation fora, early settlement of the persisting anomalies of the Sixth and Seventh Central Pay Commissions, scrapping of the new pension scheme, scrapping of the Labour Code scheme, sanctioning of additional posts before introducing additional trains, provision for passes and medical facilities for parents of employees, employment to quasi administrative staff and higher per capita allocation in the staff benefit fund.
For the record, it may be mentioned that in 1974, too, AIRF had given the call for an indefinite strike. But, as the government of the day then had resorted to brutal suppression, which included thousands being sent to jail and sacked, Fernandes called off the strike on May 28 when it had practically completed 21 days. (As is known, Fernandes became Railway Minister in VP Singh’s government in 1989).
It may also be mentioned that AIRF had held a ballot in the course of 1978 for an indefinite general strike on the Centre’s refusal to concede the demand for bonus payment. The strike move was not followed up as New Delhi agreed to introduce productivity-linked bonus, starting with 15 days.
Records show that before May 1974, railway employees had participated in general strikes on two other occasions. First, in July 1960, against the unfavourable recommendation of the Second Central Pay Commission. This happened to be first strike in the Railways in the post-Independence era. Although the direct action then had lasted for five days, yet it proved to be a major setback for the Union government which declared the strike illegal.
The second strike was on September 19, 1968, when railway employees joined other Central government employees in a day’s strike after New Delhi’s refusal to refer demands for arbitration, as provided in the Joint Consultative Machinery for Central government employees set up in 1967.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.