Two lakh fifty thousand jute workers around Kolkatta were on strike from early Dec 2009 for better wages, permanent status of huge number of contract workers, retirement benefits and other issues related to their living and working conditions. Above all these, they went on strike to get their back wages, force bosses to deposit health insurance, provident found and other deductions that have been made from their salaries with state authorities. On 12th Feb 2010, after two months of strike, the entire cabal of unions ordered workers to go back to work without being able to get any concessions from the bosses. More, this setback set the stage for further assaults on the working class.
Jute Workers Strike Every Year
This latest strike was not the first recent struggle by jute workers. Jute workers have gone on strike nearly every year. There have been major strikes in 2002, 2004, a 63 days strike in 2007 and 18 days strike in 2008. Most of the times workers' effort to resist attacks or get some concessions have been thwarted by the bosses and the unions.
Roots of these desperate efforts of jute workers to fight back again and again lie in their harsh working conditions and efforts of the Stalinist and other unions and parties to keep workers down by violence and repression. Some of this also lies in the perennially troubled nature of many of the jute mills.
Jute workers are extremely low paid. Even permanent workers get only around Rs. 7000.00 [USD 150.00] per month. In every mill, more than a third of the workers are temporary or contractual who get less than half of the permanent workers at around Rs. 100.00 [2.2$] per day. Further these contract workers get paid only for days worked. Most of these temporary workers have spent all their lives working in the same mills without getting permanent as this does not suit the bosses. Often workers, both permanent and temporary, are not paid their full wages and benefits every month. When back wages and benefits accumulate these are sometime not paid for years. Even legal deductions from workers' wages that bosses make for health insurance [ESI] and provident fund are sometime not deposited with relevant authorities. Even when collective agreements have been reached these are not honored by the bosses. Employers simply resort to lockouts and non-payment of wages to force more onerous productivity targets on workers. Bosses have been able to act with impunity because of collusion with Left Front government and Stalinist and others unions. Government, which is party to most of the agreements, refuse to enforce its own labour regulations.
This has bred deep anger for the unions among jute workers that repeatedly find expression during these struggles. One of the more radical expressions of this anger was struggle of jute workers at Victoria Jute Mills and Kanoria Mills in Kolkatta in early nineteen nineties. At the time striking workers attacked and smashed trade union offices linked with the leftist and rightist unions and assaulted trade union leaders. Workers at Kanoria boycotted all existing trade unions and occupied the mill for several days.
But West Bengal has long been a leftist jungle that has not only been ruled for 30 years by Stalinist hyenas but has numerous oppositional leftist parties, groups, NGOs and ‘intellectuals'. Efforts of workers at Victoria and Kanoria Mills to challenge established unions were quickly defeated by these oppositional leftists and sundry other people who demobilized workers with false slogans. This has been permanent tragedy for jute workers in West Bengal and underlines the need for the development of a proletarian current amidst struggles of workers.
The Present Strike
Some 20 union federations were forced to call the present strike from 14th Dec 2009 under mounting pressure of jute workers after the failure of five rounds of tripartite negotiations involving officials from West Bengal's Left Front state government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Workers on strike were not only demanding better wages but above all back wages and depositing of ESI and PF deducted from their wages over long periods of time. It is reported that on the average a worker is owed back wages up to Rs. 37000.00 which is equivalent to six months wages. Withholding all this is pure theft. Also, due to nondeposit of ESI and PF workers are often denied health care and retirement benefits.
As the strike continued, state and central government came under pressure from employers to intervene. According to Business Standard business groups were concerned that the strike could trigger militancy among other sections of workers who have been hit as a result of India's deteriorating economy. Further, bosses were loosing money. As per Business Standard, February 16 2010, 61-day strike had cost a total of 22 billion rupees [US$ 475 million].
The government in New Delhi, the state government led by CPI-M, other political parties and unions collaborated in undermining the strike.
Role of Political Parties
All political parties played at supporting the striking workers while at the same time advising unions controlled by them to bring the workers around to a ‘reasonable' point of view. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddadeb Battacharjee whose party controls the largest trade union of jute workers, Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union (BCMU), advised BCMU leader Gobinda Guha not to press all of workers demands. Guha himself told the press: "The chief minister heard our demands when we met him and said that it would be difficult to have the entire settlement..."
One political party that advised its unions to act as scabs against striking workers was right-wing Trinamul Congress (TMC) although it has for long been posturing as opponent of the CPI-M's pro-market policies. TMC proclaimed it does not subscribe to methods of "work disruptions". Its leader Mamata Banerjee is already trying to en cash scabbing by her party by soliciting money from big business houses.
Workers' Militancy Derailed by Trade Union
Role of the unions becomes clear when during any generalized workers' struggle; they are seen preventing contacts between workers in different factories, falsifying demands of workers, using lies and slander to get workers back to work.
The present strike, despite seething anger of the workers, was controlled by the unions from the very beginning. Further, unions were able to keep jute workers isolated from other workers in Kolkatta and to keep them passive, promising that they, the unions, will negotiate to get their demands fulfilled.
In reality agreement reached between bosses, unions and the government was a complete sellout in every aspect. Not only workers got a paltry wage increase, even their back wages are not being paid. These are proposed to be paid in instalments over several months. Even part of their current wages, their dearness allowance (DA) will not be paid with their monthly wages but only on quarterly basis.
In addition, unions agreed to enforce a no-strike clause for next three years. Mr. Guha, the leader of BCMU, told the media: "There will be no strike for the next three years." This guarantee ensures that employers will have a free hand to make further attacks on jobs, wages and living conditions of jute workers.
This betrayal by unions has left the workers, who got no wages for the strike period, seething with frustration and anger.
Workers' Anger Explodes in Violence
A few days after the strike ended, this anger exploded in workers violently attacking unions and the bosses.
On Thursday, 4th March 2010, one of the mills, Jagaddal Jute Mill in North 24-Parganas started a new offensive against workers. It tried to transfer work being done by permanent workers to contract workers. This was spontaneously resisted and stopped by workers who ignored local union leaders. To intimidate and crush the workers and introduce more contract work, next morning as the workers came for morning shift at 06.00AM, the management shut the gates on workers and declared suspension of work.
This sent a wave of shock and anger among thousands of workers employed by Jagaddal Jute Mill who have gone without wages during long period of strike that had recently ended. Without waiting for or asking the unions, workers started a demonstration in protest against this attack by the bosses. They demanded that shutdown should be withdrawn immediately and workers allowed to go in and work.
During this time, a 56 year old worker, Biswanath Sahu died of shock and heart attack. This naturally infuriated the workers further who attacked a manager. But main anger of the workers was against the unions. Workers were convinced that both the unions in the Mill, CITU and INTUC belonging to ruling CPM and Congress respectively have connived with the bosses in this latest attack on them and in shutting down the mill. Angry workers ransacked offices of both CITU and INTUC. Workers attacked the house of Mr. Barma Singh, leader of Congress controlled INTUC. Leader of CPM controlled CITU, Mr. Omprakash Rajvar, was beaten up for defending the management. Later the union leaders and personnel manager were saved from workers anger only when a large contingent of police arrived and resorted to violent repression and baton charges against the workers.
While we believe this violence did not advance the struggle of working class, there is no doubt that mass violence witnessed in Jagaddal Jute Mill expressed anger of workers against bosses and union betrayals.
How to Move Forward
Jute industry has already been in difficulties and now it, like all other sectors, cannot escape the impact of intensifying global crisis. The mill owners are bent on not only maintaining but constantly increasing their profits and they can achieve this only by further intensifying exploitation and attacks on living and working conditions of the workers. Jute workers have a very long history of struggles. They have often launched militant and heroic struggles. But as their recent and many previous strikes show, jute workers can defend themselves and advance their struggles only by linking up their struggle with other workers belonging to other sectors and industries. Also, they cannot limit their distrust of unions to remain passive or to take the form of undirected violence. They have to develop a clear consciousness of perfidious role o unions and try to take their struggles out of union control and into their own hands. This is the only way to move forward.