Motormen Strike in Mumbai Demonstrates: Who Runs the World!

-Rajesh Tyagi/ 5.5.2010

At about 6.40 p.m. on Monday evening, 640 out of the 800 odd Railway Motormen working on Central and Western lines of suburban railways in Mumbai, went on indefinite hunger strike, in support of their demand for wage hike. The strike brought the city to a virtual standstill with empty train stations, commuters spilling onto roads, huge traffic jams. All trains from Churchgate were cancelled for more than an hour. The Western and Central lines were paralysed. Despite this, commuters in different parts of the city expressed their support for motormen, agreeing that they should be granted better pay and facilities that they are fighting for.

The demands of the motormen include a weekly off, more allowances, proper calculation of kilometers while deciding running allowance, risk allowance to be given to all motormen and better working conditions among other demands. The motormen’’s strike threw life out of gear for the city’’s 70 lakh train commuters.

Hours before the strike, the government had asked offices in the city to shut down early, but that didn't help ease either traffic or tension. The strike eventually compelled the railways to issue a rare advisory on Tuesday morning: "People may undertake (train) journey only if it's very important," said a bulk SMS with a helpline No. 10721 to assist stranded commuters.

Commuters were held up at different stations and opted for alternative modes to reach home, causing massive traffic jam on Eastern and Western highway besides several other artillery roads.

General managers of Central and Western Railways were asked to take all necessary steps to ensure that appropriate alternate arrangements were  made so as to minimize the effect of strike. The central government was also kept fully informed in the matter, claimed a press release issued by the railway ministry.

"Trains from Churchgate station are not running as motormen have stopped work. Commuters can travel by long distance trains from Mumbai Central as a few coaches have been dedicated for local passengers. Alternative arrangements were made with the help of BEST buses. Commuters can travel in BEST buses, which are plying from outside Churchgate station." Western Railway PRO C David announced in Mumbai.

The Central line saw over 40 trains cancelled since morning and commuters were travelling in long-distance trains, railway officials said. "Trains on Central line are running late by 10-15 minutes. Central Railways are running 20 special services by using conventional trains with electric or diesel locomotives and also 4 EMU rakes with electric locomotives," Central Railway PRO A K Jain said.

"Suburban passengers were also allowed to travel in Mail/Express trains by giving them halts at Dadar, Thane, and Kalyan," Jain said.

Railway officials said the state government has provided full support by running special buses from important stations for the convenience of passengers and ‘bandobast’ at stations.

However, no arrangements could provide any respite, and within hours everything was jammed.

Throughout the day, 18 motormen reported sick, out of which 15 were declared fit and discharged from hospital.

Twenty motormen -- 10 each from the Central Railway (CR) and Western Railway (WR), were held responsible for the loss by the railways. In what can only be termed a knee jerk reaction, the officials in Railway served dismissal orders at the residences of these 20 motormen, to head off the strike.

"This dismissal letter doesn't mean much. We were ready to face such consequences and are still united," one of the leaders of the strikers Anil Kumar Yadav said, after dismissal orders were served upon him.

There were also reports of striking motormen being forcefully removed from other Railway premises in Mumbai.

"The strike was an ultimate measure that motormen were forced to take as the administration had been ignoring their pleas," said one of the striking workers.

Late on Monday night, Railways indicated it might hold discussions with Maharashtra government on invoking ESMA against the striking motormen if the situation does not improve. "We may hold discussions with the Maharashtra Government on invoking ESMA if the situation does not improve," said a Railway spokesperson.

“Railway will not hesitate in taking the stringent action against those who are not heeding to our request,” said Anil Saxena, spokesperson of Indian Railways. The striking motormen however said that their protest would continue till their demands were not met.

On Tuesday, with the motormen pressing ahead with their stir, at least 170 suburban train drivers were taken into custody from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) on charges of unlawful assembly and obstructing other rail employees from reporting for duty.

However, the arrested workers had to be released and dismissal orders revoked within hours, as the government woke up to its senses, estimating the gravity of the situation.

After the strike was called off, home minister Patil said police cases filed against the motormen and disciplinary action initiated against them would be withdrawn.

Central Railway's Divisional Railway Manager Mulchand Chauhan later confirmed to the press, that the dismissed motormen had been reinstated into service, pursuant to a settlement, between the railway and the strikers. On a weekday, the Western line operates with 1,200 trains and 30 lakh commuters.

The strike which had lasted only about 36 hours, made the Railways to suffer losses of more than Hundred Crore, according to rough official estimates.

"The government will have to write off this loss," said another representative of the strikers.

The motormen had earlier announced that they would go on strike from January 26 to highlight their demands, but they withdrew after the railway authorities said their demands would be looked into. Nothing happened and the workmen were forced to resort to strike on Monday.

The Railway Ministry, in a press release issued by it on Monday night said: "Motormen are demanding higher pay than recommended by the 6th Central Pay Commission and additional allowances, which are not in the recommendations of the Pay Commission". It further said, "Some of their demands regarding National Holiday and Night Duty Allowances have already been accepted. Railways have 14 lakh employees on their roll and traditionally the grievances of all sections of staff are resolved through consultation with their recognised Federations. The agitation of the motormen is not supported by any of the recognised federations, unions and associations of the Railways."

To utter shame of trade union bureaucracies, no union came forward to help the workers and they had to form a 'joint action force', acting over the heads of trade union leaderships.

The only thing, the All India Railwaymen Federation, affiliated to Stalinist CPI did was to appeal to the striking motormen to postpone their agitation in view of the ongoing negotiations, with the government. Federation General Secretary Shiv Gopal Mishra said, "Railways had never declined their demands. Keeping this in view, the motormen should defer their agitation for the time being".

After initial defiance of the strike, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee herself had to call upon the representatives of agitating motormen, only to make an ambiguous and hollow promise that their genuine grievances would be looked into.

Much scornfully, the press release mentioned that the grievances of the motormen were pending decision before the Regional Labour Commissioner, Mumbai, in which a conciliation meeting between the management and the employees was also held on April 29. The Regional Labour Commissioner, the release added, had advised the concerned employees not to resort to protest w.e.f. May 3, 2010 and had fixed the next reconciliation meeting on May 12, 2010. "Any precipitative action taken during the conciliatory proceedings is unlawful under the Industrial Disputes Act," the release said. The statement said, "Despite appropriate action by railways as explained above, motormen have resorted to unlawful action resulting in cancellation of many suburban trains thus putting the commuters to lot of troubles."

However these old tactics to diffuse the situation miserably failed in face of direct action of the workers over the heads of the trade union bureaucracies.

Situation become grim after the commuters surrounded the station masters' cabin. 28 special trains were pressed into service and few motormen who betrayed the cause of the strike, ran these trains.

The Central and Western Railways have as many as 800 motormen. There are two unions of suburban railways workers that have been recognised by the railway authorities. Other than the Western Railway Motormen Union (WRMU) and the Central Railway Majdoor Sangh (CRMS), no other union is recognised, according to railway officials. Both the uNions are handmade of management and have have only held back the workers form fighting against the management. However, the workers Joint Action Forum, that led the strike agitation, claimed that it is the only genuine representative of workmen. The Joint Action Forum, that led the protest, is not recognised by the railway authorities.

The strike has thrown a bigger challenge before the government, to control the law and order. To prevent any venting of public anger at railway stations, the administration had deployed 4,400 buses to move commuters and asked people to stay at home unless they really had to move about. The chief minister's office said in a communiqué that commuter traffic had dropped by 60% on Tuesday. Attendance in many city offices was between 20-40%.

At Secretariat, a special task force headed by the chief secretary, top police officials and officials of the Western and Central Railways was constituted to update the Union cabinet secretary about the socio-political developments in city.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation arising out of the motormen's strike. Police, railway and transport officials attended the meeting, official sources said.

The Chief Minister also spoke to Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee and requested her to take stringent action against the striking motormen, they stated further.

While the Central and State governments, under Congress (I) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) respectively, debated the implementation of ESMA, among themselves, A senior officer in the special task force revealed: "Home minister RR Patil (NCP) was of the view that ESMA should be invoked to teach the motormen a lesson. The primary responsibility of the state is to ensure law and order. The railways were not their jurisdiction.”

The Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, turned to the Prime Minister’s Office calling for help to put the strike to an end, wherefrom he got the advisory to crush the strike. CM Chavan told PMO though the government can arrest the motormen, but the city will descend into chaos. “I could invoke the Essential Services Maintenance Act to arrest the motormen, if trains didn't run. But for that, the city would have to close down for three or four days to avoid law and order problems. There cannot be any alternative to trains. If we have to arrest 900 motormen and suspend local trains, we will be forced to declare holidays, thus throwing the city into chaos," Chavan warned, responding to suggestions of hard hand tactics.

The strike found an echo in New Delhi, as Parliament came to a standstill when MPs from Maharashtra in Lok Sabha, attacked Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, who was busy preparing for Kolkata's municipal polls, for failing to resolve the motormen's issues despite being given adequate notice. Amid chaotic scenes, the Lok Sabha was adjourned twice by Speaker Meira Kumar. The Central Government was also challenged in the Rajya Sabha, to explain the strike.

The deputy leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, Gopinath Munde, was unrelenting: "The railway ministry owes an explanation as to why it has not taken cognisance of the motormen's demand for the last six months. The centre is responsible for paralysing Mumbai." NCP chief and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar talked to Mamata Banerjee on the importance of resolving the crisis fast.

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's Raj Thackeray, rabid fascist leaders, coming to the aid of the establishment, warned the motormen to return to work or face their wrath. A division bench of the Bombay High Court, comprising acting Chief Justice JN Patel and justice S.C. Dharmadhikari said the "situation in the city shocks the conscience of the court."

Astonishingly, when the central and state governments were declaring the cause of motormen for petty wage hike unjustified, the Supreme Court of India, in a petition filed by the Association of Judges, directed a huge three fold hike in the salary structure of the Judicial Officers, with retrospective effect from the year 2006, causing an immense burden upon the public exchequer.

By Tuesday evening, the strike was called off after the strikers were promised a fast-track committee to look into their demands by June 15. With the aid of Stalinist Leadership of CPI-CPM on the one hand and the fascist BJP-Shiv Sena-MNS on the other, the bourgeois establishment succeeded in isolating the striking motormen, while the trade union bureaucracies pushed the strikers to negotiate a settlement with the government.

After the strike, a visibly relieved chief minister said: "I am glad the motormen have decided to resume work in the larger interests of the people."

“There will be no action taken against the motormen. All cases registered against them would be taken back,” said the Home Minister of Mahrashtra, R.R. Patil. “All the motormen suspended would be allowed to resume their work,” he added.

"We have made them understand that their demands can be solved by the Railway Board only. As these matters cannot be dealt at zonal level, the ministry must step in," a Senior Railway official said. "Earlier their demands like night allowance and national holiday allowance have been approved. To fulfill other demands, the ministry's approval is mandatory so the committee has been formed who will now look into their demands," the official said.

The motormen's union leader, Jayant Nimsodkar, who met the Home Minister, R.R. Patil, told reporters in Mumbai that they would wait till June 15 for the railway authorities to consider their demands, which includes wage hike.

While workers in Mumbai remaining divided from each other, several sections of working class rendered help to the establishment to diffuse the crisis. The trade unions in BEST and MSRTC permitted and cooperated with their managements to help the stranded commuters by deploying additional services in the city and elsewhere and thus dilute the effect of the strike. However, the Western and Eastern Express Highway also jammed with commuters opting for road transport to reach their destinations.

The Railways had to grapple with the agitation, considered the worst in Mumbai since 1974 Railway strike.

Motormen strike, one of the recent link in the whole chain of working class struggles, is an appropriate answer for those who retain doubt in the strength of the working class. As the strike action by a handful of 640 motormen has shown, even small sections of working class are capable to bring a whole metropolis to standstill at their will. It is conceivable what would happen if the entire working class rises up in struggle against the rule of elite. The numerical value of working class under the conditions of capitalism, reflects no match for its real political, social and economic weight in the contemporary society. Its actual weight is determined not by the numbers, which in fact is mainstay of peasantry, rather by its proximity to the nerve centres of capitalism and its consequent ability to bring the whole social system to grinding halt, by simple lift of a hand.

We, however, cannot restrain ourselves from pointing out that given the betrayals of its struggles at the hands of centrists, Stalinists and social-democratic parties, the working class is left in complete disarray, having lost the faith in its strength and ability to ground down its exploiters. Thus, the chief task of the revolutionaries today is to re-orient the advanced sections of the working class and through them the worker and toiler masses, towards a proletarian revolution.

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