The Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC) workers feel betrayed by the state government because the administration is evading timely wage hikes. The Corporation is bypassing a 43-year-old policy that strengthens the transport trade unions and this is making the wage revision talks more difficult. The administration is also ignoring court orders that had directed the government to make policy changes before holding talks with the unions.
Over the past two years, transport workers have held several protests urging the government to hold talks as per protocol, but with little gain. Workers once again are insisting on proper negotiations and wage hikes before the state assembly elections, which would be held in the month of May.
Workers Reject Name-Sake Talks
On January 7, workers of the TNSTC held a state-wide protest demanding the government to commence proper talks for a wage revision. The protestors rejected the talks held on January 5 on the grounds that the government did not follow Madras High Court orders dated November 7, 2019. The court order directed the government to streamline existing transport unions prior to talks.
As part of the January 7 protest coverage, Theekkathir reported that no decision was taken in the meeting held on January 5, and that it came to an abrupt end without fixing a date for the next round of talks. This has left the workers feeling confused and betrayed.
K. Arumuga Nainar, general secretary of TNSTC Workers Union, which is part of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), was present in the meeting. He told NewsClick that the “Madras High Court had ordered the competent authority to speak to the labour department and streamline unions prior to talks, but the government held a meeting without taking a policy decision as directed by the court. Thereby, the meeting was not fruitful.”
At present, there are over 240 transport trade unions registered with the state government. The number of members in some of these unions are in single digits. As per state law, trade unions can be registered with the government, but there is no provision for recognition of trade unions like in other states such as Kerala, West Bengal and Maharashtra. Transport workers have been demanding a policy change for recognition of unions in Tamil Nadu as well, to ensure proper representation of workers in talks with the government. A decision in this direction was given by Justice S.M. Subramaniam in the court order.
K Natarajan, general secretary of the Labour Progressive Federation affiliated to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), told NewsClick that “when asked what decision the Corporation had taken regarding the court order to streamline unions, Transport Secretary C. Samayamoorthy had no concrete answer.” Union representatives present in the meeting further asked that “on what grounds were these 67 unions invited for talks out of the 240 registered transport unions?” He added, “Their lack of answer made us wonder if there was some form of foul play.”
There is suspicion that beside inviting the large state-wide unions, only those close to the ruling party were prioritised.
The above mentioned union representatives informed that as per practice, the Transport Minister and Finance Minister were not present in the wage revision talks. Hence, the unions registered their disappointment with the state government’s apathy towards the workers.
No Wage Hike Since 2019
Transport workers have been awaiting a revision of wages since September 2019 when the previous settlement expired. After the 2016 to 2019 settlement expired, the Corporation took little effort to call meetings with unions and sign a new wage agreement.
A policy decision that was brought about in 1977 directs the Corporation to hold talks with transport unions and sign freshly revised wage settlements every three years. Notably, this policy change was a result of an intense movement led by trade unions in the early years of the Corporation. Nainar said, “By bypassing this policy, the government is undermining the hard won benefits of the workers and diluting the importance of trade unions”.
Against the indifferent administration, massive protests erupted in February 2020 and continued into the month of March pressurising the Corporation to immediately hold talks and revise wages. A meeting was finally scheduled for the end of March, but with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, authorities indefinitely postponed the talks. Besides using the pandemic as an excuse to scuttle talks, the authorities are also using it to not provide wage hikes, even though the hike is to be implemented from 2019--from before the onset of the pandemic.
With the easing of pandemic protocols, the transport trade unions once again pressed for talks. The talks for the 14th wage revision were finally held on January 5, which was rejected by the unions because they said it failed to follow protocols. It is expected that the Corporation will hold internal meetings and come to a decision.
AIADMK Government Not Favouring Wage Hike
The CITU, Labour Progressive Federation (LPF) and All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), among other trade unions, suggest that the AIADMK-led government is deliberately diluting the policy, bypassing the unions and delaying talks. They say that the lack of effort from the side of the administration to hold these talks, hear out concerns of workers and revise the wages undermines the importance of state-wide trade unions.
Assembly elections are around the corner and unions acknowledge that talks would not be possible once elections are declared. Therefore, the protesting transport workers are urging the state government to streamline the unions and hold talks at the earliest.
Trade unions from across party lines, with the exception of unions affiliated to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are keen on continuing protests till court orders are followed by the government.