26 Feb: Tata Nano auto workers strike over suspensions

February 26, 2016


Tata Nano auto workers strike over suspensions

Arun Kumar and Deepal Jayasekera

Over 400 workers at Tata Motors’ Nano plant in Sanand, on the
outskirts of Ahmedabad, in western Indian state of Gujarat have been
on strike since Monday, demanding the reinstatement of 28 workers
suspended by the management. Striking workers are continuing to
protest outside the factory.

Significantly, there is no trade union at the site, so workers formed
their own seven-member committee to conduct the strike. A government
labour official who attempted to intervene to shut down the walkout
said the workers refused to meet her. “Now the department has started
the process of prohibiting the strike and declaring it illegal,” M.S.
Patel, assistant commissioner of the Labour Department, told the media

The dispute began two months ago, when Tata Motors suspended two
workers on alleged disciplinary grounds. One worker was accused of
“abusing” his supervisor, while the other’s “offence” was walking into
another department. Workers responded by going on an immediate strike
to oppose this management witch-hunt.

In order to end that industrial action, government labour department
officials immediately intervened to negotiate a compromise. As a
result, the company said it would conduct an inquiry into the
accusations against the two workers within a month and submit a
report. On that “promise,” workers called off the strike.

However, the management’s failure to keep its promise after two months
led workers to strike on Monday night, demanding the immediate
reversal of the suspension of the two workers. The company went onto
the offensive by suspending 26 more workers, accusing of them
“scratching and damaging” some 50 vehicles in the plant. Workers then
demanded the reinstatement of all 28 workers.

Determined to intimidate any opposition among workers, the company
insists that no suspended worker will be taken back without an
inquiry. In an attempt to criminalise workers, the management branded
the strike “illegal” and barred all workers from speaking to the
media. Police were deployed at the plant on Tuesday to terrorise
workers. In a statement, Tata Motors claimed there had been “continued
agitations for further monetary increases as well as protests against
disciplinary actions against those instigating the workmen, resulting
in serious threat to company personnel as well as losses due to

Tata Motors originally planned to build the Nano plant at Singur in
the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. However, farmers in Singur
mounted continuous protests against then Stalinist Communist Party of
India (Marxist) (CPM)-led state government’s forced land acquisitions
to clear a site for the plant. That forced Tata Motors in 2008 to
shift the proposed complex to Gujarat, where then Chief Minister
Narendra Modi’s Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) state
government assured companies of the provision of land and other
facilities, “free” from workers’ opposition.

Given this background, the eruption of the flash strike at the Nano
plant is particularly significant, because Modi, now the prime
minister, has promoted Gujarat as a “model” for India as a whole.
Under Modi’s rule, Gujarat was hailed as a “prosperous” and “high
growth” state. The Indian ruling elite backed Modi’s elevation as
prime minister, hoping that he would repeat his “success” in Gujarat
at the national level.

Modi’s record in Gujarat was based on wooing local and foreign
investors, providing them cheap land, other infrastructure and
“trouble-free” cheap labour, through autocratic and draconian methods.
He facilitated the operations of big business at the expense of the
vast majority of the state’s population, that is, the working people
and rural toilers.

Elected as prime minister nearly two years ago, Modi promised to bring
jobs and development to India, but instead the economy has been
battered by the global slump. India’s exports have fallen for 14
months in a row, industrial production is stagnant—the Nano plant
itself is running at only 10 percent capacity—and tens of millions of
workers are unemployed or underemployed.

The Nano workers’ strike is a sign of the growing social unrest
fuelled by the deteriorating living and working conditions of workers
in Gujarat and throughout India. This is a country where 70 percent of
the population has been forced to live on less than $US2 a day.

Over 200,000 state government workers in Tamil Nadu struck work for 10
days from February 10, demanding the abolition of a contributory
pension system, higher wages and the filling of vacancies in the
government sector.

The current agitation by Jats, a sub-caste based in northern state of
Haryana, demanding inclusion in the central government’s reservation
system, i.e. a guaranteed quota of public sector jobs and university
places, is another indication of the intensifying discontent. However,
their reservation demand is politically bankrupt and reactionary,
serving to divide the working class along caste lines, and reflecting
the betrayal by trade unions of a series of workers’ struggles.

There have been major strikes in the auto industry, as well as other
sectors, during recent years. Opposition to the widespread use of
contract labour, as a brutal form of exploitation and a lever to push
down conditions for all workers, has been a key issue in most of these

Workers at Maruti Suzuki auto assembly plant at Manesar, Gurgaon, in
the northern Indian state of Haryana, engaged in series of strikes and
plant occupations in 2011 against slave labour conditions and the
contract labour system. In March 2014, Toyota’s two plants at Bidadi
in Bangalore were shut down for 36 days by a strike over higher wages.

However, India’s two Stalinist parties, the CPM and the Communist
Party of India (CPI), and their affiliated trade unions have again and
again isolated and sold out these struggles. Politically, these
parties have joined or propped up a succession of national governments
that have pursued pro-market agendas. In the states where they have
formed governments themselves, as in West Bengal and Kerala, they have
imposed “pro-investor” policies.

The Nano workers’ strike has erupted under conditions where Modi’s
government is scheduled to release its 2016-17 budget proposals next
Monday. It is now under mounting pressure from the international and
Indian corporate elite for further concessions for investors and
harsher attacks on the living and working conditions of workers and
rural toilers. This will fuel the disaffection among broad sections of
the population.

The Nano plant in Sanand has become a microcosm of the stalling of the
Indian economy, which is triggering aggressive moves by major
companies such as Tata Motors to boost their “global competitiveness”
by further cutting workers’ wages and conditions. Because of fierce
cost-cutting throughout the auto industry internationally, the plant
reportedly only produced 42,560 cars between January 2014 and December
2015, a fraction of its capacity of 250,000 cars per year.

These are the conditions driving the mass suspension of Nano workers.
Tata Motors, backed by the state and central governments, is intent on
intimidating and breaking the courageous resistance of the plant’s
workers to its offensive.