Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Saga of Loco men’s Struggle 

S.K. Dhar, Secretary General AILRSA




The eleven day struggle of Loco Running Staff from 2nd August to 13th August, 1973 which for the first time brought the entire train services to a grinding halt will remain written in letters of gold in the history of railway trade union movement along with the 1974 historic strike. Indeed the loco men’s struggle of 1973 was among the most important historical factors which converged to pave the way for the great strike of 1974. The action by Loco men in August 1973, however was by no means a fortuitous event, it was the culmination of a process which had been developing over almost a whole decade past. 

Before the ruling Congress party floated its own federation shortly after the transfer of power, the rail men in India had only one all India trade union formation, the AIRF. 

While the Congress led federation could draw a substantial section of rail workers by using the politi­cal influence of the Congress, tiII 1960s, notwith­standing continuous struggle for alternative policies, within, AIRF alone was seriously taken as real trade union. But in the sixties a process of erosion of its authority started; category based organizations emerged; railway trade union movement got seri­ously divided. 

It is only in independent India, in the year 1960, that the first all India strike of railway men took place. It was in fact a joint strike of all Central Govt. employees led by a joint council of action comprising AIRF and federations of other Central employees. Only the congress sponsored organization kept away. It was to be an indefinite strike but continued only for five days from 12th July to 17th July 1960. During the course of the strike serious weaknesses in the preparatory process was exposed. This and the way the strike was called oft unilaterally could not be quite reassuring to railway workers. Some erosion of confidence in organization inevita­bly ensued. Grievances were accumulating; the rail­way workers were rather vaguely in search of a way out. It is in this background that a tendency devel­oped among different categories of staff to come together on category basis and make independent effort to settle their "Own grievances" that is the grievances of respective categories of workers. Some steps taken by the Govt. contributed to the develop­ment of this process. Such efforts frequently culminated into outburst of struggles, sometimes at local level, some times on wider scale. First such outburst could be seen in the firemen's struggle of 1968. 

Once again in September 1968 there was an­other joint strike of Central employees. This time it was one day token strike. But some action of AIRF (along with NFIR) even before this strike as we shall see, only helped in accentuating the tendency away from AIRF and of category wise division. The strike failed to restore confidence among railway men. Independent actions by categories went on develop­ing. 

Although the struggle of the firemen and subse­quent struggles of loco running staff were undoubt­edly sectional struggles, yet a determined section of loco men’s leaders have always made serious effort for restoration of. Railway men’s unity without which the struggle of railway men in 1974 might have been no better than the 1960 and 1968 strikes. 

The story of loco men’s struggle for their own demands and their efforts for restoration of railway men’s unity is an inspiring story which is being presented here. 

The fireman cadre in the loco running staff cate­gory of railway men in the Steam Traction were over burdened with heavy manual labor and they are also required to perform excessive hours of work, almost without any limit under severe pressure of the railway administration. They were continuously demanding the reduction of duty hours to eight from signing on to signing off. It may be seen from the Washington Convention No.1 of ILO (1919) that the British India was given exemption from implementing it. Though the general legislation came into effect in India for 8 hrs work a day the Railway workers were not covered by the said legislation. A separate Hours of Employ­ment Regulations (HOER) were framed and pub­lished in the Gazette in 1931. Even at that stage, the Engine Crews were kept out of the Purview of the said Regulation. A dispute was raised in 1946 and Mr. Justice Rajadhakyhsha was appointed adjudicator for the same. in his award, the adjudicator had remarked that the policy of laisez faire had been pursues in respect of hours of work, and in some cases, the hours of work increased even up to 72 hours a week. At the time !he award was given, it was seen that quite a large numbers of Loco running sheds were covered under Factories Act which lim­ited the weekly hours to 48. Consequently, a Section of Engine Crews attached to the Loco Shed was eligible for overtime after 48 hours a week. The adjudicator's award to treat the Engine crews as 'continuous' snatched away this benefits also from a sizeable section of Engine Crews. In 1948, the Fac­tories Act was amended and the Loco Running Shed was taken out of the purview of Factories Act. As a result of which the eligibility of earning overtime was fixed at 231 hours a month i.e. 23 hours more work in a month and 6 hours more in a week, without payment. 

When such were the conditions, it was most unfortunate that none of the organizations raised any voice. The fireman category of workers could realize that they are the most exploited. It is a fact that due to the heavy manual nature of their labor, they were the most militant. It was due to this fact that none dared to work the train when they withdraw their labor. There was serious resentment amongst them. But due to lack of proper guidance and leadership they were not able to unite themselves for fighting back such hard working conditions. 

So, at the first attempt, they could easily be drawn to the struggle for reduction of duty hours to eight from signing on to signing off which became popular slogan of the day. Unlimited hours of work were mostly agitating in the minds of the firemen in the Steam Engine in almost all parts of the railways. So there was outburst of agitations in different parts of the Indian railways, though not in consolidated form. But at one time the fireman of Southern railway at least in Madurai and Trichy went on strike in 1967 against these inhuman working conditions. They could not sustain due to heavy attack of the Railway Administration and their inability to spread the agitations to other parts of railways. 

But within a short period again they regained their strength by extending fireman council organization in the South Central Railway. The piece meal agitations and the strike struggles of Fireman Council at one stage, in the month of July 1968, took a glorious turn. The Fireman of other Railways also joined this strike and some railways organized solidarity action. Even a section of drivers also joined this strike in southern and south central railways. Com K Anandan Nambiar, the then eminent trade union leader in southern railway who was an MP rendered his valu­able support. 

Role of the Recognized Federation 

During this glorious strike of Fireman Council for limiting the duty hours the leadership of both the recognized federations signed an agreement of 14 hours duty from "signing on to signing off" when the fireman was on strike for eight hours duty from signing on to singing off. This further aggravated the situation and the loco men in general further lost their confidence in the leadership of the Federations which intensified the move of forming association. 

Move for formation of AILRSA 

it is note worthy, that till this agreement was signed by these leaders, this militant category of railway men mostly were the members of the AIRF affiliated unions and they were the most important sources of militant movement in the AIRF's unions. So up to the last there was a serious effort on the part of a sizeable section of the loco men not to go out of the main stream of the railway men’s movement by forming separate categorical organization. But it could not be averted when many other categories of railway men formed their category based organizations. Making use of the 14 hour agreement and other similar ones, those who were interested to keep away this militant category of workers from main stream of the movement formed the separatist elements suc­ceeded in forming this association in 1968 hurriedly through Jamnagar (Gujarat) Conference which has been considered as ist conference. Their first aim was to wean away the loco men from the national mainstream. There was also separate move in some railways in uniting some categories of loco men by forming drivers council, assistant driver's council, etc. And on the other it gradually paved the way for uniting all these organizations in one platform of All India Loco Running Staff Association. 

Prevailing Sense of Proper Trade Union Movement 

As stated, a separate categorical organization was floated through Jamnagar Conference in the month of August, 1968 just after 14 hrs agreements was signed by the recognized federations. When the fireman were in strike action for the reduction of duty hours. The conference took a decision that loco men should not participate in the token strike of 19th September 1968, sponsored by AIRF and the Central Govt employees. But in practice this decision could not influence quite a major section of loco men and the loco men in different railways joined actively in the said "Token Strike" and many of them faced victimization. 

The democratic trade union and working class approach for joining the struggle for common de­mands was further demonstrated in the second conference of AILRSA at New Delhi in 1969 when the anger of the delegates compelled the then leadership of the AILRSA to move a resolution expressing regret for such decisions taken in the First Conference. It is also note worthy that the whole set of the old leader­ship had been replaced by the progressive and democratic leaderships most of them in later stages worked hard for proper orientation of the trade union movement in the railways. 

Total loco men unity achieved 

The special convention held on 25th August 1970 at Vijayawada, SC Railways in Andhra Pradesh was the landmark in the history of Loco men’s unity and struggle. It did a unique job of unifying all the organizations pertaining to Driver's Council, Firemen Council, Assistant Driver's Council by merging them into a single organization of All India Loco Running Staff Association. This process of organizing this special convention of unification created so much enthusi­asm that even the loco running staff council function­ing under the banner of recognized federations also merged them into the All India Loco Running Staff Association. 

Thousands of Loco Running Staff from all the Railways barring Central Railway participated in the special convention decided for determined struggle on the essential demands of the loco men which included reduction of duty hours. Phase wise programme of movement was also chalked out. It was in the memorandum submitted to the 3rd pay Commission that different aspects pertaining to the Pay Scales, duty hours, running allowance and the servi­ng conditions of the category were for the first time thoroughly analyzed. While submitting the memorandum it was categorically mentioned that the Pay Scales and other allowances paid to this categories of workers even in the company Railways not been taken as the base while fixing their pay scale and other allowances in the Nationalized Railways. 

Continued phase wise programmes of action after the unity convention of Vijayawada the Associa­tion involved itself in real trade union function by formulating the demands of the category as well as organizing local mobilizations and demonstrations involving mass of the workers and explaining them the gravity of their demands as to how they are being cheated. It organized first united central demonstra­tion at Delhi in the year 1971 and submitted a detailed memorandum to the then railway minister, Shri Hanumonthaya. The enthusiasm amongst the work­ers was such that about 10000 loco men participated in it. There was long discussion with the Minister in his residence by a delegation of association. This meet­ing was arranged by Com.Jyotirmoy Basu, the then Member of Parliament who also extended tremen­dous helps in raising the demands of this category on the floor of Parliament. 

But in the discussion with the Minister it appeared to the leaders of the delegations that nothing will be settled because of the officers stand & In the meantime there was serious agitation in the NF railway under the leadership of the AILRSA and some other organization against the police repressions in 1970 in which the then Railway Minister's assurance was com­pletely defied and flouted by the Railway Board. Bureaucrats openly saying that the Ministers are nothing but casual labor, they may come and go but the officers will remain for ever. It indicated that whatever may be the minister's assurance, the final conclusion will be of the officers. So the association decided to prepare patiently for serious struggle. 





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