Tuesday, May 12, 2020

REMEMBERING HISTORICAL RAILWAY MEN STRIKE- 1974

The writer, Dr. V.Krishna Ananth, is son of late K.Vaidyanathan, a leader of the 1974 strike at Erode. The writer was 10 years old when the strike happened and his political education began then. He is presently Associate Professor, Department of History, Sikkim University, Gangtok 737102 and this is dedicated to the memory of his father who passed away on November 3, 2015. Vaidyanathan would have been most happiest if he was around this day



This article published in FIRE magazine in August 2016.

This is a lengthy article and will be post in two or three parts.

Remembering the Railway General Strike, May 1974 in another time

The Railway General Strike in May 1974 was perhaps the most intense assertion of working class action in independent India. A general strike of such magnitude, whether it was in terms of the geographical spread or the number of workers that participated in the strike or the impact it made on the national political scene was indeed unprecedented in both pre and post independent India.

It is now 42 years since the strike shook the nation. And yet, it is possible to re-construct the event only on the basis of records left with a few participants in the strike, media reports that are far and few and the oral tradition. In other words, the official records that have helped reconstruct labour history in India during the struggle for independence are yet to be thrown open in this case. This paper, in that sense, is only an attempt to narrate the strike, historic in many sense of the term, in a manner of story telling and unveil in the process the potential that exists for a larger study as and when the official records are made available.

With over 17 lakh permanent workers and at least 3 lakhs who were employed as casual- workers, the railways system was the largest employer in India. And unlike in the case of workers in the Public Sector Undertakings, where a system of periodical wage revision based on bipartite negotiations existed, the wages of those employed in the railways were determined by Pay Commissions appointed by the Government from time to time. There was no space in this arrangement for bipartite negotiations.

This was because the railways were nationalized before independence and hence considered a Government arm, unlike the PSUs that came into existence after independence and were managed as companies or corporations, and wages and other terms of employment there were determined by way of periodic agreements between the individual managements and the workers.

As a consequence, despite falling in the same category of workers who were engaged in manufacturing goods and services, the railway workers were treated in the same way as employees in the Government departments. Similarly, the railway administration had institutionalized the trade union set-up in the railways. Apart from the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), a conglomerate of unions across the zonal railways that were born in the course of several struggles against the Railway Companies (as they existed before independence) and also the British rule, the Railway Board also accorded recognition to the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), an affiliate of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). The INTUC, it may be mentioned here, was founded in 1948 and from its inception, this central trade union as well as its affiliates, functioned more as apologists of the Congress party and its Government rather than being a trade union in any sense of the term.

The existence of the NFIR was facilitated by the fact that successive Congress Governments ensured that it was accorded recognition by the Railway Board; and by virtue of this, its leaders were invited and entertained as representatives of the railway workers. The AIRF, for all practical purposes remained the representative union of the railway workers.

This too had begun to change in the couple of decades after independence and years of being a recognized federation meant that the AIRF too had become a means for patronage by the railway administration. Its leadership was increasingly losing its fighting edge. The central leaders of both the AIRF and the NFIR were provided with facilities such as free rail travel, invites for talks and their offices were located in free space provided by the administration within the railway premises. All these were also extended to the leaders of the affiliates of these two federations at all levels; zonal, divisional and the branches. In other words, the AIRF had been co-opted into the system and there was hardly any difference between this federation, with a long and glorious history of militant trade unionism, and the NFIR. The AIRF, however, pretended to be militant unlike the NFIR.

It was in this context that sections in the railways such as the engine drivers, the firemen (a category that existed in the days of the steam loco-motive and vanished along with them after the advent of diesel and electric locomotives), the guards, the station masters and those in the signal and telecommunication department began setting up unions of their own. These were sections that were drawn from among the middle classes and in many ways compared themselves with the workers in the PSUs. They also belonged to categories that were directly involved in running the trains.

One of the issues that began to bother them was the long and irregular working hours. The engine drivers, the firemen and the guards, for instance, worked a lot more the eight hours that was stipulated for factory workers. And the demand for regulation of working hours was put forward by the Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA), which came into existence in the mid-1960s. The leadership of both the AIRF and the NFIR was insensitive to this.

There was a series of strikes, across the zonal railways since 1965, and through these the LRSA matured into an all India organization and also emerged as the militant face of the railway trade union movement. This also encouraged other categories, in the operations department of the railways, to set up similar unions and carve out a space, independent of the federations. The Railway Board, however, refused to recognize these unions and the AIRF as well as the NFIR, would not let the board recognize or even talk with these category unions, as they were called. The AILRSA, meanwhile, was gathering strength and by 1972, after several strikes across the railways, the Association could get the railway administration to reduce the working hours from 14 to 12 hours at a stretch.

Then there was a nationwide strike led by the AILRSA beginning May 26, 1973 and despite large-scale arrests and detention of the leaders under the Defence of India Rules (DIR) and other such provisions, as many as 42,000 drivers across the country participated in the strike. The total number of drivers at that time was 70,000. This forced the Railway Minister, L.N.Mishra, to invite the AILRSA leaders for talks. He was forced, by the unity displayed by the drivers and firemen, to disregard the opposition to this from the two recognized federations.

The issues remained unresolved and the engine drivers and firemen went on strike, once again, from August 2, 1973. The immediate provocation this time was an order effecting a break in service for all those who were detained during the May 1973 strike. The strike this time was total. And after repressive measures failed (some 400 leaders of the LRSA were arrested and sent to jail), L.N.Mishra invited the leaders for talks again on August 10, 1973. The talks, interestingly, were held even while the strike was on and it was called off only after the Government agreed to withdraw all the cases against the strikers and agreed not to take disciplinary action against the strikers; and most importantly after the Railway Minister, L.N.Mishra agreed to the introduction of a ten-hour working day.

The AILRSA leaders refused to concede any role to the AIRF and the NFIR in the course of this negotiation and this they did despite the Railway Board insisting on that.

Thus, the situation in August 1973 was one where the two recognized Federations in the Indian Railways were pushed out of the centre-stage and the category unions, through militant actions, had captured the imagination of a cross section of the Railway workers.

The picture will be complete if seen in the larger context of the crisis in the economy during the couple of years between 1972 and 1974. Insofar as the railway workers were concerned, the resentment would grow further after the Government thrust the recommendations of the Third pay Commission. The recommendations were for a meagerly increase in wages at a time when prices were rising fast. The minimum wages were raised from Rs. 170 per month to Rs. 196 per month.

The prices of essential commodities had risen by 23 % in 1973. The overall crisis in the economy, marked by shortage of grains and domestic fuel, charges of corruption against members of the ruling establishment and the rising tide of militancy in the trade union movement laid the basis for a strike. And then, the Government decided to impound an installment of Dearness Allowance. These were bad enough reasons and a meagre rise in wages, awarded by the Third Pay Commission, turned out to be the immediate provocation for a strike in the railways.

The railway worker, by and large, was comparing himself with those in the PSUs; the minimum wage in the steel industry at that time was Rs. 297 per month, while in the Public Sector BHEL, it was Rs. 294 a month and in the Hindustan Machine Tools, it was Rs. 350 per month. The PSU workers could engage in periodic wage negotiations while the Railway worker was condemned to wait and take whatever the Pay Commission recommended!



Wii be continued tomorrow ......

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