DOWN BUT NOT OUT!

Heroic Strike of Comstar Workers

54 days, 425 workers, Struck work for fundamental Trade Union Rights

Though there has been mostly a conspiracy of silence by the print and visual media, this strike of Comstar Automotive Technology workers will go down in the history books as an example of the tenacity of workers in their struggle for better wages and decent living and working conditions. Along with other important Working Class struggles that are going on in the country such as the dogged show of strength of Maruthi Suzuki workers at Manesar, Volvo workers in Bangalore, this strike too indicates the times in store for the future.

Gone are the days of lull, dull and docile submission to the diktats of the bosses. Not weighed down by the past defeats and of the period of 80’s and 90’s of the last century, the fresh layers of the working class youth moving into the high tech-skilled jobs and being aware of the enormous wealth and surplus that they create for the India’s Corporates (IC’s) and for the Multi National Corporations (MNC’s) have started to flex their industrial muscle, this is very much evident in all the on going strikes and struggles at the present time.

Old Leadership & New Working Class

One can not refrain but comment on the mis-match between the expectation of the new layers of the working class,and the same old drab TU leadership bogged in the legalities of courts and labour department statutes.In general it is very evident that there is a crisis in the leadership of the Trade Unions of all hues and colours.

Since the onset of the aggressive phase of neo-liberal policies two decades ago, the bosses and their organizations have seen an incremental upper hand over the trade unions strength to bargain for better living and working conditions. Except for the yearly ritualistic “General Strikes” which are basically (mis) used as scare crows to scheme-up electoral presence in various assemblies and the parliament, there has been no independent mass class action challenging the exploitative, growth capitalist policies of the various governments both at the center and the states. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a vacuum of leadership for the working class in this country.

Comstar Strike; story of leadership crisis

After tenaciously striking work for 54 days on the basic and fundamental Trade Union demands, for a better wage and Trade Union rights the workers of Comstar Automotive Technologies Private Limited have been forced to call of their strike with out any tangible gains being made. The leadership of the Comstar Automotive Technology Employees’ Union (CATEU) affiliated to CPI(M) sponsored CITU has called off the strike without any of the main demands such as the Union recognition and Wage hike being met.This decision to call off the strike came after the labour department “advised” both sides to (a) seek the court’s decision on the issue of wage deduction (b) withdrawal of disciplinary action against the workers and (c) start wage negotiations with a six-member worker’s committee but without the union banner.

By seeking to abide by the advice of the labour department, the leadership of the union affiliated to the Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) have scaled down from their earlier stance of fighting till the end. This was partly due to the fact they made negotiations their central strategy instead of solidarity support from all its affiliated unions plus support from the workers of Sri Perambathur Industrial area and by isolating the issue to a single factory, the leadership of CATEU had little hope of winning their main demands.

The “wait and see” approach now adapted by the union leadership is not going to solve the problem. Given the history of management’s betrayal of the workers’ demands time and again and also its vindictive attitude, they will not rest until it clamps down on the militant workers who have made all the sacrifices in sustaining the strike for over 54 days.

Even more cynical was the role of the so called labour department (or pro- business dept?) that has thrown cold water to the main demands of the workers demanding union recognition. By calling for a court settlement to the wage dispute, the labour department has washed of its hands in the whole matter. By refusing to strictly implement even the existing labour laws (despite its shortcomings) and by cynically adapting, as if a gesture of goodwill, the role of an impartial mediator the labour department has cleverly thrown the reins back into the hands of the management.

But nevertheless, this strike by the comstar workers was definitely a step forward and the workers must be commended for sticking their necks out for 54 days despite all hurdles placed before them by the management. It was also a jolt on the ruling classes of Tamil Nadu who have been promoting rapid industrialization often at the cost of extreme exploitation faced by workers in these new industrial areas. It is also a sign of things to come in the coming period with strikes and industrial actions that are starting to emerge in many parts of India.

At the same time, it is understandable on the decision of the rank and file of the union to get back to work on advice of its leadership after having braved 54 days of hardship and suffering. But every strike, whether victory or a defeat, is a lesson in building the consciousness of the working class. The matter does not end here and given the fault lines that already exist with no clear winner or loser, the workers of Comstar will once again be propelled to take action. Only by democratization of their unions and independence at decision making will ensure that their demands and voices get translated into action.

While the workers have lost more than a month’s pay and many workers have been victimized for exercising their democratic right to strike, the management of Comstar Automotive Private Limited has conveniently ignored their demands by illegally recruiting interns and thus maintaining their profits margins in the interim.

While the New Socialist Alternative (CWI – India) supports the CATEU strike and stands by all the main demands:

1.  That Comstar management recognizes CATEU as the legitimate representative of the workers.

2.  That the company management engages in immediate negotiations with the employees’ union and settle for a rightful wage.

3.  Dismiss the false case and disciplinary action taken against the members of CATEU.

4.  That the government legislates and implements strictly implements labor laws including the right to form Trade Unions and the workers’ right to strike

Trade Union Democracy is crucial to to challenge Capitalists

But it would be foolhardy to imagine that the story ends there. This is no isolated incident and continues to occur across all industrial belts across India. This is a deliberate policy adapted by the captains of the industry supported by the political class (including the so called left parties like the CPI -M) that has consciously undermined workers rights and wages in order to maximize the profits of companies like Comstar, which is only small link that form the global supply chain to corporate brands like Ford, Volvo, Tatas etc. The strike at Comstar or Maruti Suzuki for that matter is only a reflection of the global crisis faced by capitalism the world over. Any attempt at trying to reform the system is an attempt at futility as the rotten nature of the Indian capitalist class, especially in its latest avatar – neo liberal capitalism, is hell bent on making profit at any cost.

A new epoch- a new leadership is needed

Only by unionizing the working class through a mass mobilization campaign by the Central TU’s which in itself has to be democratized to bring in new leadership based on the democratic will of the workers at factory,city,states and at a national level and fighting against capitalism will ensure the victory of the working class.

Jagadish G Chandra & Anand Kumar

Bangalore