India: Struggle of Auto Workers in Gurgaon

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On the evening of Sunday, 18th October 2009 workers of RICO Auto, Gurgaon who were on strike since 3rd October 2009, tried to stop strike breakers. Company security guards and strike breakers, mostly criminal elements brought to intimidate workers, responded by violently attacking striking workers. The police, that had been deployed at the factory gates since the beginning of October 2009 to control the strike opened fire on workers. One worker was killed in the firing and 40 other injured. 

This violent repression created a wave of anger among workers in Gurgaon-Manesar Industrial belt, nearly 30000 of whom have been engaged in struggles against their bosses in several factories since some months. It also angered workers elsewhere.

This anger was expressed in shutdown of twin cities of Gurgaon and Manesar on 20th October 2009 that was first regular working day after killing of a worker at RICCO Auto. Although unions had called the strike, masses of workers from the companies where workers have been fighting against the management went around calling on other workers to stop work. From early Tuesday morning, workers of RICO Auto and Sunbeam Casting have started their protests and have blocked the National Highway 8. They were joined by waves of workers from other companies like Sona Koyo Steering Systems, TI Metals, Lumax Industries, Bajaj and Hero Honda Motors Ltd. As per official declarations by the local administration, nearly 100000 workers of 70 auto parts making companies in Gurgaon-Manesar joined the one day strike.

Although workers of most companies went back to work on 21st October 2009 and the struggle did not spread, these events are a significant advance in workers struggle in India. This is the result of spread of class struggle in different parts of India including in Gurgaon-Manesar that had seen workers confront the state in July 2005 during strike by workers of Honda Motorcycles. Since then through numerous struggles workers have strengthened their resolve to fight the bosses and do so more and more simultaneously.

 

Bitter Fruits of the Economic Boom

 

During all the ‘boom years' leading to  2007 when Indian economy saw significant expansion, conditions of the working class only worsened. Most important expression of this worsening had been the loss of job security. Despite expansion of the economy during ‘boom years', the bosses carried out massive destruction of permanent jobs and their replacement by contract labour that came with much lower wages and no social wage. Companies like Hero Honda, Maruti and Hyundai, whose production zoomed manifold during these years (in case of Hero Honda the production zoomed from 2 Lakhs to above 36 Lakhs), has seen permanent jobs shrink and disappear. Their place has been taken by temporary workers. This has been the story of every company in India. Automobile and auto parts companies in India, given the cut throat nature of the competition in this industry, have been at the fore front of these attacks on workers. Despite these attacks, during much of this period, especially till first couple of years of this century, workers found it difficult to develop their struggle. Relentless attacks by the bosses and inability to fight back, during this period this has been the bitter reality for the working class through out the world.

With the coming of economic collapse in 2007, the situation has only worsened. All sectors saw massive jobs cuts and cuts in wages and benefits. In addition there has been massive growth in prices of all necessities of life. Prices of essential goods like vegetables, pulses and other groceries have more than doubled. This trend has not been a seasonal spike but has persisted over more than two years now. With prices rising and wages frozen, living conditions of workers have only become more precarious and desperate.

Today, while the bosses talk of end of recession and fast growth of Indian economy, situation for the workers is not changing. Casualisation of jobs and wage freezes has continued.

 

Development of Class Struggle

 

What has changed over the years is the determination of workers to fight back. More and more, the working class has come to realize that unless it unite and fight, the bosses will continue to tighten the noose. This realization has got translated into a will to fight that has now been visible since some years and has only grown stronger. As a result we have seen development of class struggle all over the world. There have been countless examples of this over the last couple of years in every country. Some major recent struggles of the international working class have been occupation of Ssangyong car plant, the fifth largest car maker in Korea, in July 2009 for more than two months; occupation of Visteon  car plant in April 2009 and of Vestas Windsystems in July 2009 by workers in Britain, strike of the postal workers in Britain in October 2009. Similar struggles have taken place in Germany, Turkey, Egypt, China and Bangladesh.

Working Class in India Develops its struggle

In the face of crises and attacks of the bosses, working class has been trying to fight back. There have been important strikes in public sector - Bank workers strike, all India strike by oil workers in Jan 2009, Air India pilots strike, strike by 2.5 Lakhs state workers in Best Bengal, strike by Government employees in Jan 2009 in Bihar. Some of these have been bitter conflicts where the state tried to hit hard at workers and crush them. This was the case with oil workers strike in Jan 2009 when state used ESMA and other laws to crush the employees and took repressive actions. This was also the case with strike of Government employees in Bihar where government wanted to teach a lesson to employees. In oil workers case, the government backed off from further repression as there was a threat of the strike spreading to other public sector undertakings.

Like their comrades in Public sectors, workers of many other sectors have fought back. One of the massive and radical struggles was that of diamond workers in Gujarat in 2008. Majority of the several lakh diamond workers are employed in small companies where unions have no controls. The strike there started and spread as a mass revolt that engulfed several cities - Surat, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Amerli etc. The state resorted to police repression in all these cities.  

In addition all the major automobile hubs in India - Tamilnadu, Maharashtra, and Gurgaon-Manesar have witnessed repeated and tenacious efforts by the workers to fight for their jobs and living conditions.

Workers at the second largest car maker in India, Hyundai Motor at Chennai have gone on strike repeatedly in April, May and July 2009 for better wages. For long bosses have tried to suppress the struggles of workers and have often threatened to close their factories in India. In nearby Coimbatore, workers of auto part maker Pricol India have been fighting the bosses since more than two years against planed and repeated sackings of permanent workers and their replacement by contract or temporary workers. Workers struggle recently took violent turn when management sacked 52 more permanent workers and decided to replace them by casual labour in September 2009. In ensuring violent confrontation, a senior manager of Pricol was killed on 22 September 2009. Workers of MRF Tyres and Nokia factories in Tamilnadu have also engaged in struggles against their bosses around the same time.

In Maharashtra, workers of Mahindra and Mahindra at Nasik went on strike for better wages in May 2009.  Workers of Cummins India's plant at Pune and auto part maker Bosch's plant at Pune were on strike from 15th and 25th September 2009 for better wages and against casualisation.

 

Simultaneity of Struggles and Development of Class Solidarity

 

What we see today is that more and more workers are willing to take up the struggle against the attacks of the bosses. While the struggles are more numerous in many parts of the country, there is a tendency toward simultaneity of struggle in the same geographic areas as well. This opens the possibility of linking up and extension of struggles. It can be seen in the mass strike of diamond workers in Gujarat who went on wildcat strikes simultaneously in several cities. This can be seen in strikes of auto workers in Tamilnadu and Pune and Nasik where several strikes in the same geographic area are happening at the same time. In other instances bourgeoisie could sense this threat and scale back its repression. This simultaneity is result of identical attacks that all sectors of workers are facing today.

Prior to the latest events, workers of a number of factories in Gurgaon-Manesar have been waging struggle against their bosses. In Honda Motorcycles, workers have been agitating since several months for better wages and against contract labour. As per management, this agitation brought the production down by 50% and blocked the starting of a new line. To intimidate the workers, on 10th October 2009 management of Honda Motorcycles issued threats to shutdown its plants in India or to shift them to other parts of India. 2500 Workers of RICO Auto have been fighting against sacking of 16 workers and for better wages since end of September 2009. They went on strike from 3rd October 2009. 1000 Workers of Sunbeam Casting have also been on strike for better wages from 3rd October 2009.  Although not on strike, above 25000 workers of TI Metals, Microtech, FCC Rico, Satyam Auto and several other companies have been agitating since September 2009 for better wages.

As per a Business Line report dated 2nd October 2009 "With a total of 25,000-30,000 workers of auto ancillary units in Gurgaon-Manesar belt agitating for around six days now, major auto companies depending on these units for component supply are in for tough times."  Voicing the concern of the bosses, Economics Times reported on its website on 11th October 2009: "The recurring labour issues in the Gurgaon and Manesar belt is indeed a concern for all industry. The ongoing workers' problems at some of ... the suppliers ..... had affected supplies to auto majors like Hero Honda and Maruti Suzuki."  

The fact that workers of several factories were on strike and several thousands others workers of other factories were actively agitating, this opened the possibility of extension and unification of the struggles, the only way in which workers can fight and push back the attacks of the bosses. This is the possibility that the bourgeoisie fear and that the unions want to avert. In the struggles at Gurgaon, in the face of working class outrage at killing of a worker at RICO, the role of the unions has been to preempt and block this tendency toward extension and unification. By calling one day action, unions tried to sterilize workers urge to come together and for class solidarity. Despite this, the strike on 20th October was a demonstration of class solidarity by nearly 100000 workers. It also expressed their enthusiasm and will to fight and confront the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, in the present struggles in Gurgaon, during struggles at Hyundai, Pricol, M & M and other struggle for better wages and against job losses, unions clearly tried to derail them and convert them into struggles for the defence of union rights.

No doubt there is strong dynamic for the development of class struggle, its extension and for development of class solidarity. But for the realization of this dynamic, it is important for the workers to understand machinations of the unions and to take the struggles in their own hands. Situation is developing in a direction in which it is crucial for revolutionaries to intervene in this dynamic so that they can help the struggling workers see both the potential and strengths of the struggles and the union traps.

AM, 27 October 2009

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