Conversations on Capital, Unions, and the Maruti-Suzuki Strike

February 14, 2012

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This article is excerpted from the February 2012 issue of the Faridabad Majdoor Samachar. Written in a conversational style, it looks back at the role of unions and the changing face of factories in the Faridabad region and elsewhere in the last thirty years, and culminates with a stock-taking of the strike at Maruti-Suzuki, Manesar, in 2011 – Ed.

Looking Back: The Emergence of Faceless Capital
Institutionalization and the Dismantling of Large Factories
Unions and Engineered Strikes
Temporary Workers
The Experiences of Maruti-Suzuki, Manesar


Looking Back: The Emergence of Faceless Capital

In the initial stage of production for the market using wage-labour, factories were owned by individuals. The unfolding of the process led to factories being owned by groups of individuals, by a dozen or so stock holders. The requirements for establishing and running a factory soon started demanding the pooling of resources by thousands. Share holding of thousands became the “owner” of the factories. Needs of increasing size and resources made share holding inadequate and loans emerged as the major source of funds for establishment and functioning of factories. Pension funds, insurance funds, bank deposits, financial institutions became de-facto owners of production enterprises with 80-85% of the investment coming from them and about 15% from shares. (A significant portion of shares is also held by these institutions). “Capitalist – personified capital” has given way to boards of directors, chairmen, managing directors, CEO’s as “representatives of faceless capital”. Being a state enterprise or corporate, company enterprise is not a significant difference. These changes in material production enterprises have by and large been replicated in other spheres of social life, be they be trade, education, entertainment, medical treatment. Craft-artisanal mode gave way to industrial mode and then its dynamics has followed. Factory mode is moulding all spheres of life throughout the world. (In long distance trade, the institutional form of organization, company preceded its emergence in material production.)


Institutionalization and the Dismantling of Large Factories

The process of institutionalization has not halted with the dismantling of large factories. Instead of a car factory, we have auto hubs today. What is called a car factory is mainly an assembly plant. A vehicle manufacture today needs production facilities spread over an area with fifty kilometer radius. It requires a hundred thousand plus workforce. And the rapid changes that the institutionalization of research is bringing about makes it increasingly unviable. Today it is only in China that there are a few factories with a hundred thousand plus workers. The entry of electronics in production process started the dismantling of twenty thousand plus workers factories, the “workers fortresses” in the 1980s. With all the confrontations that it engendered, it is more or less over.


Unions and Engineered Strikes

Roots in artisanal guilds provided initial factory workers with trade/craft organizational structures to confront the new situation they found themselves in. These defensive organs of wage-workers were initially illegal. Over time they obtained legal status. They had a leverage vis-a-vis individual owners regarding wages and conditions of work. Emergence of joint stock and then share holding decreased the leverage of trade-craft unions. Their defensive and conservative roles in the changing scenario brought them on the sides of their governments in the mass slaughter during 1914 – 1919. Craft based trade unions were denounced by some radicals in 1919 and instead of trade based unions, factory based unions were attempted as alternative form of workers organisations.

We have had some experiences of factory based unions during 1980 – to date. We began looking at industrial unions as workers organisations with misleaders at their helm. In our experience we found factory unions functioning almost like another department of the factory. Managing workers was the job of the unions and good functioning of the factory was seen as good for the workers of that factory.

With the introduction of electronics in the production process in factories, from the beginning of 1990s large scale restructuring took place in Faridabad. What was earlier seen largely during long term agreements between managements and unions became blatant in 1990-2000 period. In factories ninety percent plus workers had been permanent. Large scale retrenchment of permanent workers took place in many factories and in most of the cases unions were openly standing with the managements.

Engineered strikes and lockouts were the means in these major attacks on factory workers. From these experiences when we look back at the 1982 Bombay textile strike in which 250,000 workers were involved, it seems to us that it was an engineered strike. The composite textile mills with their spinning, weaving, processing, dyeing and printing departments have vanished from Bombay-Mumbai. What would have taken decades if it were slow attrition was done in one blow. The composite textile mills of Indore, Gwalior, Faridabad, Delhi, Hissar, Kanpur, have also vanished. And cloth production in these twenty five years has grown exponentially.

In this vein it seems to us that the coal-miners strike in England in 1984-85 was another engineered strike that saw the number of coal miners come down from 100,000 to 10,000. Another example could be the longshoremen strike in the US which resulted in drastic reduction in permanent workers and matched the needs of containerization.


Temporary Workers

Today when we look back, 1980 – 2000 appears ancient to us. Factories in Gaziabad, NOIDA, Delhi, Gurgaon, Faridabad are largely run by temporary workers. In direct production process five to thirty per cent workers are permanent. In the national capital region in India (and things are not different in other parts) seventy-five to ninety-five percent factory workers are temporary workers. There are factories where not even one worker in 300 is permanent – only the staff has permanent status. And amongst these 80 percent temporary workers, three-fourths are “invisible” workers. Almost 75 percent workers in factories in the NCR do not exist in company and government records, be it garments or auto or pharmaceuticals or chemicals, things are the same. Factory unions, where they exist, have only permanent workers as their members. 90 percent factory workers in the NCR do not fit in the union structure. The increasing number of temporary workers is a global phenomenon.

Given the changes in the ownership patterns of factories, given the breakup of a product in hundreds of factories, given the composition of factory workforce today, given the existence of industrial areas with thousands of factories, and given the linkages among factories across the globe, co-ordination among workers needs to expand across factories and industrial areas and span the world. New types of activities and new kinds of organisational practices are needed.


The Experiences of Maruti-Suzuki, Manesar

A pointer is the recent occupations of Maruti-Suzuki car factory in Industrial Model Town, Manesar. Inaugurated in February 2007, all the workers in the factory are in their twenties. There are 950 permanent workers, 500 trainees, 200 apprentices, 1200 workers hired through contractors for work in direct production process and around 1500 workers hired through contractors for various auxiliary functions. The pace of work was such that a car was being assembled in 45 seconds.

Some permanent workers attempted to organise against the existing union in the company. Strong-arm tactics of the management gave rise to a wildcat occupation of the factory on June 4, 2011. The company and the government were taken aback. The occupation continued for 13 days. During the occupation many bonds developed between the permanent workers, trainees, apprentices and workers hired through contractors. The company was forced to take a step backwards and revoke termination of 11 workers for production to restart.

After the occupation there was a dramatic change in the atmosphere in the factory. The company was forced to plan and prepare to re-establish its control on the shop floor. On August 28, a Sunday and a weekly day off, 400 policemen came at night to the factory. Company staff had arrived earlier. With steel sheets, the factory was secured in military fashion. On 29th morning when workers arrived for their 7:00 AM shift, there were notices announcing dismissals, suspensions, and entry premised on signing of good conduct bonds. All the workers stayed out of the factory. This is the chess game well rehearsed by managements to soften workers and re-establish control. The company had gone to distant industrial training institutes and hired hundreds of young boys. Workers from the company’s main factory in Gurgaon were also taken to Manesar. Arrangements for their stay inside the factory were made. Already 400 policemen were staying in the factory and large number of guards were hired from Group 4 security company. Staff was made to work in 12 hour shifts with the new workers. Musclemen from surrounding areas were paid to bully workers. Attempts were made to instigate workers to violence. Central trade unions tried to take leadership of the workers. Workers’ representatives were called for negotiations and arrested.

The workers refused to be instigated. All kinds of supporters came to the factory gates where the 3000 workers did 12 hour, back to back sit-togethers. Many kinds of discussions took place. Bonding between different categories acquired new dimensions. The workers’ refusal to be instigated led the well-rehearsed chess game to a dead end. The company was forced to side-step and sign a new agreement. The permanent workers, trainees and apprentices entered the factory on October 3, but the 1200 workers hired through contractors were not taken back.

The company’s attempt to divide the workers received a serious thrashing when, on the afternoon of October 7, workers of A and B shift, who were inside, occupied the factory. This time it was not just the occupation of Maruti-Suzuki factory, simultaneously 11 other factories in Industrial Model Town, Manesar, were occupied by workers. “Take back the 1200 workers hired through contractors and revoke the suspension of 44 permanent workers” echoed and re-echoed all around. Again the company and government were taken aback. Despite the presence of 400 policemen and hundreds of other guards, Maruti-Suzuki factory was occupied by workers. The simultaneous occupation of 11 other factories opened up new possibilities with thousands of factories all around. Pressure was applied and occupation of seven factories was called off, but it continued in Suzuki Powertrain, Suzuki Casting, Suzuki Motorcycle factories, besides Maruti-Suzuki. It was only on October 14, after the deployment of additional 4000 policemen, that workers vacated Maruti-Suzuki factory and Suzuki Powertrain was vacated by the 2000 workers when they were surrounded by a police force of 4000 inside the factory. For details, see July 2011 to January 2012 issues of Faridabad Majdoor Samachar (and also the forthcoming February issue).

The company and the government have not been able to understand the activities of Maruti-Suzuki workers (and other factory workers). Ripples were widespread and the dangers were very visible to the government. A third agreement was forced by the government, with it also becoming a signatory. The 1200 workers hired through contractors were taken back. Not having understood anything of what happened, the company gave significant amount of money to 30 workers it considered troublemakers, for their resignation. (And later propagated the deal as bought-sold.) Production recommenced in the 4 factories on October 22. Afraid of any and everything, the company has been giving concessions to workers. Now instead of 45 seconds, the scheduled time for making a car is one minute.

Important questions dealing with life, time, relations, representation, articulation, factory life under scrutiny that the occupation of October 7-14 brought to the fore, in the words of a Maruti-Suzuki factory worker, are: “The time in Maruti-Suzuki factory during October 7-14 was extremely good. There was no tension of work. There was no tension of coming to the factory and going back.There was no tension of catching the bus.There was no tension of cooking.There was no tension that food has to be eaten only at 7 o’clock or only at 9 o’clock.There was no tension as to what day or date was that day. Lots of personal conversations took place. We had never come so close to one another as we came in these seven days.” From October 7-14 there were 1600 workers inside the Maruti-Suzuki factory, and 1200 outside the factory. When the bought-sold issue of 30 workers made the rounds, a Maruti-Suzuki worker said, “Earlier we used to pass on the issues to the president, general secretary, department co-ordinator – they will tell. But now every worker himself answers. On every issue, everyone gives his opinion. The atmosphere has changed.”

Increase in accumulated labour, exponential increase in accumulated labour has sidelined personified forms and brought the social relation in its faceless form to the fore with presidents, prime ministers, chairmen, managing directors, CEO’s as its representatives. In this scenario, person has become increasingly insignificant. Whether a person is or she/he is not has become almost the same. But at the same time, in contentions between accumulated labour (dead labour) and living labour, each person has become increasingly important. Active participation of 90 percent plus of those directly concerned has become indispensable. Representation and delegation have become redundant / counter-productive. Lagta hai ki ekmev aur ekmaya ka yug dastak de raha hai. (It seems that the era of unique and together is knocking at the door.) Radical transformations are demanding the active participation of seven billion people, both as each a unique being and all together.

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