Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Emergence of AILRSA 

Birth of Firemen’s Council and the formative struggles 

The history of labour relations in many Indian industries has been a cycle of repression and accommodation. In their formative stage, unions have led strikes for improved wages, working conditions as well as recognition by the management and state to negotiate on behalf of the workers. Surviving the repression once unions have won recognition, many of them have settled into a steady conservative relationship with the employer. Such a relationship usually cuts the unions off from the workers and their problems, providing fertile ground for dissident unions. 

The co-option of conservative unions and the suppression of militant unions have repeatedly justified the process of rebuilding the workers organisations. In the case of railways in the 1960s and 1970s, a number of workers closely involved in union affairs endeavourered to break from the vicious circle of recognition and co-option by setting up their own organisation, directly under the control of rank and file workers. Finding it impossible to reform the existing recognised unions under the federations, the worker- activists concluded that only through a new start could they develop unions truly responsive to workers needs. The Loco Running Staff Association was the product of this endeavour. 

In the days before independence the loco running staff had been the elite of the railways. The railways were of crucial economic, political and military importance, especially so for an occupying foreign power like Britain. Running staff, because of their strategic importance in the system, were assigned privileged status and benefits, so as to ensure their loyalty. Though these perks were only limited to the Europeans and Anglo-Indian loco running men in the racially segregated British Railways before independence. 

In spite of some privileges loco running staff had its very own specific problems. The most common complain of the Indian running staff was not just long hours of work but racial discrimination existing in the mode of compensation for overtime, running allowances and other benefits over work. Loco men’s basic objection was regarding the nature and intensity of their work. The work of these grades was of a continuous nature, they were supposed to work up to 60 hours a week. But effectively the hour of work went up to 80 hours on goods train, leaving the crew at times working for 24 to 36 hours without rest. They agitated for shorter hour of work, based on triple shift system to ensure better health, lesser breakdown and accidents as well as more employment. Other grievances were related to overtime allowances, facilities for adequate rest for running men and recognition of night work as different from day work. 

These grievances of Loco men remained unaddressed even after independence. Recognised unions though incorporated the basic demands of loco men, particularly regarding 8-hour duty in a day in their memorandum, but never stressed on it during subsequent general strike of 1946, 1960 and 1968. Further, there were disparities in the pay scale; loco men got a rough deal in the first pay commission compared to other categories. Station master and ticket collector whose basic pay before the independence was Rs. 35 and Rs. 30 per month got raised up to 205-280 and 150-240 Rs. per month, an increase of almost 500%. On the other hand Drivers and Firemen, who were at a higher pay scale than other categories, got a salary increase of a mere100%. 

This shear injustice shown to the loco running staff all these years both by the government and the recognised unions, facilitated The emergence, firstly of a union formed by firemen in the Southern railway- the Firemen’s Council- and then of a united All-India Loco Running Staff Association [AILRSA] which not just provided the backbone to this development but also tried to alter the correlation of forces inside the railwaymen’s movement. 

In 1965, the firemen of Madurai, Tiruchchirappalli (Trichy) and Olavakkot (now Palakkad) divisions had formed Southern Railway Firemen Council. Present Trivandrum division was part of Madurai and Olavakkot divisions then. Com.D.Paul David Sam was the founder President. Michael Antony from Tirunelveli, Athappan and Kalimuthu from Erode, Rengasamy, P.Unnikrishnan and Abdul Kudus from Podanur, E.B.S.Menon, V.K.Velukutty, T.K.Lakshmanan and M.Aruldas from Shoranur, K.Narayanan and Govindan from Calicut (Kozhikode) ,P.C.Angel from Quilon and M.Rathina Sabapathy from Trichy were some of the important leaders of the fireman council.. The main demands of the SRFC were : (1) 8 hours duty (2) Pay protection and job guarantee for medically unfitted running staff (3) Equal pay for equal work (4) Additional fireman for heavy goods engines and for Erode-Madras express trains 

But the events which succeeded in establishing the Firemen’s Council as a force to reckon with on the Southern Railways was two strikes, one in 1967 and the other in 1968. The first strike began on 25th July 1967 when one hundred and forty of the two hundred and fifty firemen who worked at the Madurai locomotive shed reported sick. The “report sick” movement was not triggered due to any new incident, but was in response to a call for action by the Firemen’s council. The Firemen’s Council had launched a campaign over a long list of firemen’s grievances which focused firstly on working hours, but also on working conditions, pay and allowances and promotional opportunities. 

Barely a conference old, firemen’s council at such an early stage of its existence was not equipped to launch a frontal attack on the railway management. An open call for strike would have resulted in pre-emptive action by the administration in the form of strike-breaking and arrest of the leaders. Therefore the activists of the Council adopted the “cunning method” of individually approaching firemen on duty, telling them that “your services are required by your union” and asking them to report sick. When the firemen were gathered at a meeting place the plan of action was revealed. 

The plan clearly worked well. By 26th of July the campaign had spread throughout the Trichy and Madurai divisions of the Southern Railway, with 513 out of 660 firemen abstaining from their duty in Trichy alone. Goods traffic in Madurai division came to a standstill as more and more firemen (over 500 out of a total of 700) reported “sick”, leaving 4000 wagons lying tranquil in the several stations in the division As the strike evolved with more and more firemen falling “sick” the rail services in these two divisions got seriously crippled. By the time the campaign was called off on 3 August it had spread to Olavakot and Trivandrum divisions of Southern Railway, thus bringing most of the goods traffic on halt (according to railway’s own estimate only 30% and 40% of goods services were maintained in Trichy and Madurai division respectively) and seriously affecting the running of passenger trains and mail services. 

Though this campaign was principally based on the firemen’s demands and sought to organise this particular section of the railway. During the course of the strike a number of drivers and shunters joined the strike, in Thanjavur, Villupuram, Erode and Madurai drivers and shunters reported “sick” and remained absent from duty in support of the firemen’s agitation. Support came from other sections as well, token fast was observed in Trichy, where 70 staff members attached to loco shed reported 25 minutes late and kept a 1½ hours fast in front of the loco firemen’s shed as a token to sympathy. In another case around 200 loco shed workers in Thanjavur gathered in front of shed for two hours to extent their sympathy. 

The Southern Railway management condemned the unannounced mass sick leave and threatened disciplinary action against the firemen, belonging to an ‘unrecognised’ union for this strike. The General Manager while addressing press even accused the firemen for holding up the movement of food grains and fertilizer through their ‘unauthorised’ absence. Both the recognised unions, Southern Railway Employees Sangh (SRES) and Southern Railway Mazdoor Union (SRMU) promptly dissociated themselves from this “report sick” agitation. Obeying the dictates of administration NFIR affiliated SRES issued an appeal to all firemen on the Southern Railway to resume duty immediately 

Failing in those attempts to persuade the “sick” firemen to go back to work the management resorted to strike breaking and outright repression. Hawkers of coconuts and peanuts who clustered around railway stations were brought in to be used as second firemen and coal khalasis and casual labourers were employed as first firemen. On 29th July, the General Manager of the Southern Railway announced that the agitation had been called an illegal strike and any absenteeism after 8pm on 28th July would be treated accordingly. Further threatening came in the form of a notice issued by the Railway Divisional Superintendent warning firemen that any longer abstention from work and continuing with the “illegal strike” will automatically bring about the consequence of a break in their service for purposes of pay and allowance, leave, retirement benefits and other privileges 

While this strike was gaining momentum, it happened that parliament was in session at that time. Thus the matter of the disruption to train services in the Southern Railway was raised by a number of M.P.’s, including CPM member K.Anandan Nambiar, who had links with Firemen’s Council leaders. Efforts were taken by a group of M.P.’s to persuade the railway minister, C.M.Poonacha to take a sympathetic stand on the firemen’s demand. After a thorough discussion between Nambiar, Poonacha and the General Manager, the railway minister had agreed to look into the firemen’s grievances and had given an assurance that there would be no victimization of the workers who had been absent from work. On the basis of the assurance given to the delegation of M.P.’s, Nambiar telegramed the developments to the firemen council and advised them to call off the agitation. However the Central Council of the firemen’s council had resolved to continue the strike notwithstanding the appeal made to them by Nambiar and other M.P.’s, the council insisted for an assurance directly from the railway minister or the General Manager of the Southern Railway, that there would be no victimization or break of service in the case of any of the firemen. 

The strike had been called off two days later on 3rd August after achieving an enhancement in mileage allowance of more than Re.1/- to the Firemen and Rs.2/- to the drivers. As insisted the council also received a direct assurance from the General Manager of Southern Railways that their demands will be “sympathetically” considered if represented by recognised unions, and there will be no victimisation. The firemen’s council took special note of the fact that the Railway Minister had also given an assurance from the floor of the parliament. 

Although the terms of calling off the strike was negotiated by the Railway Minister in the presence of railway officials, but for them it was more of a compulsion due to political pressure. The management not just regarded the agreement as foolish and shortsighted, but also undesirable and potentially dangerous development. By discussing the firemen’s grievances exclusively with the recognised unions the management tried to declare that the ‘unrecognised’ Firemen’s Council had no role in the railways’ system of industrial relation. However, all parties understood that the discussions were only being held because of the strength of the firemen’s agitation 

Once the immediate crisis was over, the workers were back to work and the politicians had departed the scene, the Southern Railways management began a campaign against the activists of the Firemen’s Council. But the Railways did not keep up their promise. Com. M.R.Sabapathy and Kuppusamy of Trichy division were removed from service on the allegation that they had published a notice against the railways (On the pretext of revealing government secrets to the public by making it public that unqualified people were allowed to operate locomotives). This provoked the firemen During the subsequent twelve months about ten other firemen’s leaders and numerous common firemen were either victimized or penalized on various pretexts. The management’s strategy was simply to harass Firemen’s Council leaders to prevent the union functioning on a day to day basis and to penalize rank and file firemen who might participate in its campaign. 

The management must have been aware that such actions were likely to provoke another agitation. Though this had the risk of allowing the Firemen’s Council to flex its muscles once again, however a strike also meant the best opportunity to inflict a crushing blow on the council by dismissing the leaders and to demoralize the ordinary firemen through other penal measures. In the context of continuing victimisation and discussion on firemen’s grievances heading to nowhere, the Council was left with no other option then to prepare for another strike, as it provided the strongest organizational rallying point available to it. 

Almost for a year, hoping to see the assurances getting materialized, and to put across the cases of victimisation across, the council made several futile attempts to appeal directly to both the Railway Minister and the Deputy Railway Minister. Seeing these efforts going in vain the Firemen’s Council launched another agitation on 5th July 1968. Similar to their previous agitation the Council resorted to the plan of calling on firemen to report sick en masse, although it felt sufficiently emboldened to make the call openly rather than to individual firemen. The agitation initially began in the Trichy and Madurai divisions of Southern Railway, but by 8th July it encompassed Olavakot and Madras divisions of Southern Railway and Secunderabad and Vijayawada divisions of South Central Railway. 

Firemen’s response to the call was overwhelming, reporting to press railway spokesman said that over 2,500 firemen out of about 3,000 in the Southern Railway and about 1300 out of a total of 1,700 firemen in the Southern Central Railway were absent from their work. The mass absenteeism badly affected both goods and passenger train services on the Southern and Southern Central Railways, cancelling about 100 passenger trains and 130 goods train on a single day. Dislocation of goods service brought the movement of essential commodities like coal, food grains, iron and steel and other materials for different industries to a standstill all over the south. 

The management first enlisted the support of the recognised unions who attempted to persuade the firemen to return to work. As the agitation continues the administration threatened firemen of “severe disciplinary action” if they do not join duty by the night of 10 July. But the warning went unheeded, as the zero hour passed, none of the striking firemen reported to duty. On the contrary in the mean time Guntakal and Mysore divisions which were not affected by the strike so far had come under its affect. In contrast to the reaction of recognised unions, support poured in from different quarters of railaymen’s movement. Secretary of the Northern Railway Loco Association has threatened that running staff of his railway will join strike if the administration did not concede the demand of firemen. In Madras Dakshina Railway Employees’ Union (DREU) served a notice to hold a one day token general strike in support of the firemen’s agitation. With the failure of all these efforts, divisional managers began to recruit strike breakers, and following the passing of the 10 July deadline the Railway Board announced that it would mobilize Territorial Army units to run the trains 

Fearing a deepening confrontation the political leaders once again intervened to come across with a resolution. Chief Minister of the four states concerned, Tamil Nadu, Mysore, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, were in Delhi for some meeting at that time. They met together and authorised the Kerala Chief Minister, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, to meet the Prime Minister and urge her to intervene to bring about a settlement. Responding to this appeal Indira Gandhi assured E.M.S. Namboodiripad to personally “look into the demands”. The Minister of State for Railways, Parimal Ghosh, while repeatedly arguing against the validity and justifiability of this strike had stated that most of the issues raised by the Firemen’s Council esp. the issue of 12 hour working day had been already raised by recognised unions and is under active investigation of Railway board. However, at a meeting with the two recognised unions, Railway Minister reached to an agreement limiting the firemen’s maximum hours of work to fourteen. 

The railway board used the agreement as part of a two- pronged strategy to force an end to the agitation- concession and repression. While slightly accepting the demand of recognised unions on the working hour issue, the board not only helped the Federations to assert its authority, but they could also appear as justified in taking any stern action against those who still refused to resume to work. By 16 July, nine hundred blackleg labourers had been brought in and units of Territorial Army were moved in to affected divisions. Notwithstanding the railway administration’s exaggerated claims, it appeared that the strike breaking measures were beginning to have some effect. 

Firemen’s council’s rejection of the Board’s accord with federation made the possibility of any mediation very bleak. While Mr. Parimal Ghosh was planning to meet the representatives of the two federations to find out a way to end the agitation, CPM MP, K.Anandan Nambiar, who acted as intermediary for the firemen’s council, laid down the minimum points on which a settlement is possible in a letter to Prime Minister. He indicated that anything in writing from the government that it is agreeable in principle to a 12-hour duty will be able to persuade the strikers to return back to work. Strike was finally called off on 18 July by the council only after the Union Minister of State for Railways, Mr. Parimal Ghosh in reply to Nambiar’s letter assured in written that a review of the duty hours of running staff will be made at an early date and that he will examine the demand for calculating the overtime of the running staff on a weekly basis. 

The firemen’s council did not succeed in winning all its demands in the two strikes, although it wins a fourteen hour maximum working day and a small increase in mileage allowance. However its most significant achievement was that it had survived a confrontation with the railway administration and the state and had established a new force in the railway worker’s movement. Although the council had been under great pressure from the railway administration it had used the time to consolidate its support in the Southern Railway and to extend its influence in to the South Central Railways. It was clear that the firemen’s council had grown in strength during the year between two strikes, not just in terms of its presence but also in terms of its striking power. 1968 strike was not just bigger in terms of scale but it also forced the political establishment including Prime Minister, and four Chief Ministers to take note of situation and resolve it. 

The pattern of events in the strike of 1967 and 1968 was revealingly similar. Both began with the Council agitating over firemen’s grievances, followed by management’s refusal to negotiate with an unrecognised union, bringing the recognised unions into play to attempt to end the strike, and failing this launching a repressive action. Repression always had Government’s consent and was made possible through police support and by declaring the agitation as illegal strike. Finally the recognised unions were made the medium, through which concessions were made, to reiterate the façade of their supposed status as the workers’ only representatives. 

The firemen’s agitations of 1967 and 1968 were instrumental not only in proving the strength of the firemen’s council but in overcoming divisions between the firemen and the drivers. During these two strikes a number of drivers and shunters spontaneously joined the firemen’s agitation. Given that both the drivers and firemen shared the rigours of the occupation in extremely harsh situations for long, they had many common grievances, it seemed logical for them to form a common organisation. But the formation of such an organisation was blocked due to traditional divisions inherited from the days of the British era which created antagonism between the two groups for some time even after independence. 

The agitation of 1967 and 1968 shattered these hierarchies and created an opportunity to bring these two groups together. This development was triggered both due to the past experience of the sincerity of recognised unions towards their plight and much recent experience, gained out of these two recent strikes. Various groups of the loco running staff after independence had approached the recognised unions to address their particular grievances. But what they got in response was only few ritualistic conferences whose sole purpose according to loco running staff activist, M. Arumai was “merely passing of resolutions and extraction of money from the loco running staff”. 

The recognised unions had been uninterested in taking firm action on loco running staff’s demands and when firemen took initiative they became hostile to them. The General Secretary of the Southern Railway Employees’ Sangh publicly attacked the Council, declaring that it was “not proper for some firemen to cause trouble and raise disputes”. During the two strikes they not only dissociated themselves from these campaigns but also worked closely with the management to force the workers to return to work. When it appeared to the firemen’s Council, during the 1968 strike, that the government was willing to concede ground on 12 hour working day, the unions stepped in and made an agreement for 14 hours. Recognised unions portrayed this as a big achievement, however for Firemen’s Council and its supporters this agreement was a “total betrayal and a cheap sell out”. This situation brought both the drivers and firemen together as it convinced them that they can rely on nothing but their own resources. 

The realization of the extent of management power against a small splinter union also became instrumental in overcoming old animosities between the firemen and the drivers. In spite of firemen’s crucial role in the railway system, since the nature of firemen’s work was basically of an unskilled nature, the management was able to mobilize effective strike breaking operations during strikes. This was experienced esp. during 1968 agitation where management showed its willingness of responding to a stronger agitation with stronger repression. Drivers also realized that management can used experienced firemen to run trains in the case of a drivers’ strike. This realization made it obvious that their united action would be far more effective than separate campaigns. 

This prevailing sentiment in favour of unity was given concrete expression in a six day strike from 10 to 15 May 1970. On the central demand of reinstating the staff members dismissed for participating in the 1968 strike, the loco running staff consisting drivers, firemen, shunters and engine cleaners of the Basin Bridge depot of the Madras division went for a lightning strike. What started as mass abstention by some 375 loco running staff at Basin Bridge Shed spread loco sheds in all the six divisions of the Southern Railway, embracing nearly 5,000 men. The strike followed what was by now a fairly predictable course. The workers were confronted with the common front of hostility from management and the recognised unions. Striking railway staff was warned to either come back n work or face the consequences of going on an ‘illegal strike’. Management also declared that they will only entertain those grievances which were addressed by the recognised unions. The approach of the recognised unions was summed up by the Southern Railway Employees’ Sangh in a statement which read: “while we are in full sympathy with their grievances we deplore their attitude in getting their demands put forward in a hasty manner.” 

The strike was eventually called off after a talk between the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and the railway minister. The chief minister assured the striking workers that he will use his good offices to facilitate a direct negotiation with the railway minister and nobody will be victimized for their part in strike if they return to work. The representatives of the Loco Running Staff Association and the Firemen’s Council had negotiation with the Railway Minister and the officials of Southern Railway and the Railway Board in New Delhi for three days between 17 and 19 May 1970. In spite of deadlock over large issues like working hours, the railway minister conceded on demands like diesel training should be conducted in regional language and that “box boys” should be employed to do jobs such as carrying the “line box”. 

The most important achievement of the May1970 strike was its role in facilitating the unity of the drivers and firemen possible. It showed the strength of united action and brought the functional unity between the two organisations. After the agreement on the issue of “line box” the symbolic past friction between the drivers and firemen also got resolved. The formal unity of the two organisations was cemented with the formation of the All India Loco Running Staff Association at a conference at Vijayawada in August 1970. 

In 1969, All India Loco Running Staff Council meeting elected Com. Kapadia of Ambala as President and Com. P.K.Baruah of Lumding (NF Rly) as General Secretary. There were many organizations in different names for loco running staff in different zones. In a conference in Vijayawada on 25th and 26th August 1970, all these unions joined together and formed All India Loco Running Staff Association. Com. B.V.S. Rao of South Central Railway was elected as President and P.K.Baruah as General Secretary. Com MR Sabhapathy, Com T Hanumaiah, Com SK Dhar etc were the leaders of the organisation. 

The conference was important not only because it formalized the unity between the Firemen’s Council and the Loco Running Staff Association but also because it was a meeting of loco running staff from all across India. The conference marked the beginning of a concerted effort to build an all-India union out of the likeminded but distinct associations. 

From the beginning it was understood that the Association would be a federal organisation. This organisation was led by a Working Committee and a central executive committee, both elected by a General Council meeting in an Annual convention. Each nine zones of railways had a zonal structure which replicated the similar structure with branches based on divisions and localities. Other than convenience in situating the organisation in railways structure and handling the diversity of a country like India, a federal constitution accommodated the reality of the organisation that had grown up independently in different parts of India, with each having distinctive character. 

Prepared by Com Robert. 


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