Towards a Conversation with Students: Re-thinking the Figure of the Worker

The (de)occupation of their factories by workers of Maruti Suzuki in Manesar, India, in 2011 and 2012 not only produced fresh energy and excitement, it also brought forth new questions.

Towards a Conversation with Students: Re-thinking the Figure of the Worker

Over the last 30-35 years, we have witnessed and been connected with innumerable self-activities of workers. Even within these, there has been much that has stayed beyond our grasp, much has remained illegible to us. The electric self-activity of workers of Maruti Suzuki (Manesar) between 4 June 2011 and 18 July 2012 not only produced fresh energy and excitement, it also brought forth new questions. We want to share some of these with you today. The intensifying social churning that is apace in industrial areas surrounding Delhi demands reflection in practice; it calls upon us to breathe more creativity into our ways of thinking. We believe the workers of Maruti Suzuki have raised questions that are planetary in their significance. 

A comrade who was engaged inside and outside a factory for 15 years, and then outside factories for another 15 years, said this in reference to the self-activity of the workers of Maruti Manesar:

‘Calling the self-activity of workers “the act of occupying” is a gross misunderstanding. What workers were doing was taking away the occupation of factories by companies and the government, weakening the control they have over factories.’

What the workers of Maruti Suzuki (Manesar) did between 4 and 16 June 2011 is extremely significant. What the workers of Maruti Suzuki, Maruti Engine, Suzuki Casting, Suzuki Motorcyle, Satyam Auto, Bajaj Motors, Endurance, Hailax, Lumax, Lumax DK, Dighania Factories did on 7 October is even more significant. These actions were not about civil or constitutional rights. Neither were they a strike. In Mazdoor Samachar, we called it “workers’ occupation of factories”. To call what the workers did in June and October 2011 in IMT Manesar “occupation of factories by workers” is to see what the workers were doing through a reduced lens. “Occupation” is a misnomer; it is misleading. Occupation is how existing social hierarchies – based as they are on wealth and power – are held in place. Companies and governments today are on an overdrive to gain possession of everything not only on this planet, but also of all that exists in the entire universe. What we want is to wrest out of the clutches of companies and governments that which they have come to see as having a free reign over, and to create a commons. They want to occupy everything – cows, humans, land, houses, water, air. They are eager to occupy even the human heart. It is this greed to occupy that has brought us to the brink of disaster. Given this context, to call what workers of IMT Manesar did “occupation” is to refute the essence of their actions; it is akin to trampling over the possibilities they created. In conversations we have had with workers of Maruti Suzuki, they have abundantly expressed that between 7 and 14 October, when they unshackled the factory from the control of the management and government, they felt a joyousness of life that is usually unimaginable. The significance of what the workers of IMT Manesar did lies in it being a departure point from where on a series of de-occupations followed. Refracted through this lens, the significance of the “Occupy” movement that started in the US becomes clear – as actually being a movement calling for de-occupation, a taking away of the control that companies and governments have.

We shared this insight from our worker-friend in the February 2012 issue of Mazdoor Samachar. It is commonplace to find some older methods insufficient in practice, to reject some of them, and to realise some methods are harmful. Practice makes it expedient to change and mould some methods, and to discard or turn away from some methods. An insight such as this comes from long years of practice and thinking. What is to be done, what avoided; how it can be done, and what should be steered clear of; constantly searching and inventing new methods; relentlessly testing diverse ways through practice – this is a continuous process, and the workers of Marusti Suzuki (Manesar) have given it a new velocity.

During the thirteen days – from 4 June 2011 to 16 June 2011 – when factories were de-occupied of the company and the government, it was as if people who had worked with each other for three, and perhaps four years, were seeing each other for the first time. In the words of a worker from Maruti Suzuki (Manesar):

“Inside the Maruti Suzuki factory, 7-14 October was the best time. No tension of work. No agonizing about the hours of entry and exit. No stress over catching a ride in a bus. No fretting about what to cook. No sweating over whether dinner has to be eaten at 7, or at 9 pm today. No anguishing over what day or date it is. We talked a lot with each other about things that were personal. All of us drew closer to each other than we have ever been before, during these seven days.”

Occupations are always wobbly. Steps are constantly underway for countering occupations. Time and again, the control that a company has over a factory is weakened in ways that can be called ‘de-occupation’. The temporary workers of Ametip Machine Tools in Faridabad, workers hired through contractors in Hero Honda Spare Parts factory in Gurgaon, permanent and contracted workers, together, in Napino Auto & Electronics factory in IMT Manesar, have de-occupied factories of companies and the government. There are innumerable examples everywhere in the world of students having de-occupied schools, colleges and universities of governments. All over the world, weakening and removing occupation is on its way to becoming a widely practiced and common act. It’s so commonplace in fact, that factories of knowledge-production don’t even deliberate on whether it should be called “occupation” or “de-occupation”. Perhaps it isn’t considered worthy of deliberation, or maybe it just isn’t a point that can be debated academically. From occupy to de-occupy, from occupation to de-occupation is a conceptual leap. We feel that the idea of de-occupation is one of the results of our years of deliberation on unity vs. unison (ektaa banaam taalmel). Unique and together becomes conceivable. All and everyone’s comes into view.

Point number two

The time during which occupation is diminished or removed is an active, alive time for those participating in its happening. It’s a time when many people exchange ideas with each other – without fear, without hesitation, and with leisure. Different angles are shared and mulled over. Many kinds of bonds are forged; new alliances are formed and deepened. And that which may have been considered beyond questioning, and stable stereotypes that may have otherwise been overlooked, begin to be brought up for questioning. Lively discussions about life stoke the fire of desires that seek simple alterations in the present and the near, foreseeable future. Thinking with that which can be brought into practice, people are freed from the vicious encirclement of demands. 

With the de-occupation of Maruti Suzuki (Manesar), the sahibs found themselves confronted with an unsolvable riddle: What do workers want? What in the world is it that workers want? 

Concessions hold meaning only when they can be mobilised, and they can be mobilised only in order to respond to demands. They are meaningless in the face of desires for life and joyous living. This is what 18 July brought. In brief:

Thirty workers were cajoled into submitting resignations. After that, with no further need to be egged on, the company offered what are called “concessions”. Reduction in speed – brought down from one minute to 45 seconds per car. Remuneration for trainees, apprentices and workers hired through contractors was increased. Permanent workers were assured of substantial wage increments over-term, three-year contracts. The number of buses was increased. Parents were included in health policies. Number of vacation days was increased. Heavy cuts in payments for absence of merely one or two days was ended. Workers would now no longer be arbitrarily asked to continue working after their duty hours. Workers hired through contractors would no longer be made to put in an hour and a half extra at the end of every night shift. A second union was registered, and it was given the status of a recognised union. Workers were assured residential quarters would be constructed for them, enough for all. A requisition was accepted from the union for long-term contracts, and follow-up discussions were promised.

If one were to consider the above-mentioned concessions within the framework of concessions, they would seem remarkable. However soon, and as early as February-March 2012, workers started feeling that despite everything that had happened, nothing had changed. Among the workers of Maruti Suzuki (Manesar), any kind of talk of concessions began to be called “the management’s language”. After everything they had brought about, if workers remained workers, then could anything be said to have changed at all? On 18 July, workers rebelled against being workers. Two things that symbolised that workers would be kept as, and in their place as, workers were attacked – managers and the factory building. It wasn’t a small group of 20-25 workers who were doing this. Old workers and new, permanent workers and those who were temporary, all participated in this together. It just happened to happen on 18 July – it could just as well have happened on 15th May or 25th August. 

On 18 July 2012, workers challenged the customs that keep a worker labouring. The question, ‘what next?’, has become a live and vital question today. It is vigorously discussed among workers. A worker from Maruti Suzuki (Manesar) said, “It would have been quite something if what happened on 18 July had happened all across IMT.”

Today, when the ease with which a worker can be kept labouring is under duress, the questions of what comes next, of what can come after this, are questions that carry a force and a challenge for everyone, everywhere. Everyone, everywhere can participate in searching answers. 

Point number 3

How are factory workers reading the current circumstances and situation, what new kinds of interpretations are they bringing to bear on them, and how is this getting reflected in their practice and ways? This is very significant for understanding the challenges they have posed to power and the everyday changes that have resulted. Here are two examples, in brief:

1. On 14 October 2012, approximately 1600 permanent workers, trainees and apprentices gathered inside the Maruti Suzuki (Manesar) factory. Following an inspection of the factory by a constable, the DC, accompanied by gunmen and 20-25 officials, arrived. Here is how a worker described the scene: 

The DC walked around a little bit, then took his position in one place and started speaking. He said, you are good workers, you are educated, you have worked well the last five years, you have produced this much, you have contributed this much by bringing in tax, your salaries are better than those of others, your management is decent, you have been misled by some people, your occupation of the factory is unconstitutional, you must pay heed to the order that has been passed by the High Court, you will have to follow the order and vacate the factory, there is no other way, we won’t let you disregard law like this, Rico Auto lost a lot of orders when its workers got waylaid, if Maruti Suzuki were to shut down you would lose your jobs, but, moreover why should the government have to suffer losses?

The workers gave the DC their full attention for the half hour he spoke. But then the DC started telling a story, one that the workers had heard umpteen times from the management: The story of the tortoise and hare, only a little extended. The second time around, this version goes, the hare didn’t sleep, and he reached the finish line first. The third time around, even though the tortoise stopped for a drink of water on the way, he reached the finish line before the hare. The fourth time around, the route was sometimes even, sometimes treacherous, and water was needed as well, and sometimes the hare rode on the back of the tortoise, sometimes the tortoise rode on the hare’s back. Teamwork! The management and workers should walk together. The moment the DC started narrating this tale, workers started lying down, dozing off, chatting among themselves. At the end of his narration, the DC said that very soon he would arrange for a compromise with the management, but that for now the workers should follow orders. Then another official started waxing forth on law – that this is an illegal occupation, that we must vacate the factory. When the DC started to leave, a worker stepped up to where the mic was and said, ‘We heard you out, now you should listen to what we have to say.’ The DC stopped, but when workers started asking questions one after the other, he decided to leave. Workers now started shouting slogans, and when their shouting became a roar, the DC and his team pretty much scampered out of the factory.”

2. A worker hired through a contractor in Maruti Suzuki (Manesar) was on duty in shift-B on 13 January 2012, when he received a phone call from a worker in Allied Nippon that a worker had sustained burns in a fire in the factory. The company had got him admitted in Sapna Nursing home, and the doctors had said that he would be released from the hospital by evening. Both his legs, from the thigh down, had been severely burned. The worker at Maruti Suzuki advised that the injured worker should be kept at the nursing home. The next day, on 14 January, a Saturday, 10-15 workers hired through contractors in the Maruti Suzuki factory went to the nursing home to visit the injured worker. When the doctor said that he was ready to release the injured worker, they asked him instead to continue treating him, and that they would cover the expenses if the company didn’t. No one from the management visited the nursing home on Saturday or Sunday, though, of course, workers did. When they called the production manager of Allied Nippon, he lied that he had no idea a worker had sustained burns at the factory. When workers went to the nursing home on Monday morning, the doctor said that if they didn’t pay the nursing home’s fee, the worker would be transferred to ISI. The visiting workers called their colleagues, and within half and hour 70-80 workers from the press shop, assembly, paint shop and weld shop of Maruti Suzuki, and workers of Suzuki Powertrain hired through contractors gathered at the nursing home, from where they went together to Allied Nippon factory. They demanded to meet the manager. He refused to come out to discuss anything in connection with the injured worker. The workers assured him that he needn’t be scared, that he could talk to them from the safety of the other side of the gate, but he refused to meet them. The workers kept waiting, and when they had waited for half an hour, the supervisor of the contractor company, through whom the worker with burn injuries had been hired, arrived. A discussion ensued and it was decided that the expenditure of the nursing home till now would be borne by the company, that the injured worker would receive his wages for the duration of his recovery, and that his family would be informed by phone and brought here. He was shifted to ISI hospital in IMT, Sector 3. For gaining admission into Emergency, the hospital demanded the worker’s ISI card, but one didn’t exist. The supervisor requested the doctor to give him two hours, and that is how an ISI card for a worker who had been working in a factory since 12.12.2010 got made on 16.1.2012. An accident report was filed. The injured worker’s father arrived from the village. It’s 24 January today; the worker continues to be treated at the hospital. 

Durgesh, the worker of Allied Nippon Factory who sustained injuries while at work, stays on rent in Baas village. The workers of Maruti Suzuki and Maruti Powertrain, who took steps after he sustained burns, live on rent in Aliyar and Dhana. None of them knew Durgesh before this incident. Unshackling the factory from the control of the company and the government twice in six months has kindled in the workers of Maruti Suzuki ways of thinking and feeling that exceed known and familiar bonds. Permanent workers and trainees de-occupied the factory of the company and the government between 7 and 14 October to insist that workers hired through contractors be retained. Workers of eleven factories in IMT stood alongside them through de-occupation. This has transformed the environment; all those who are strangers have become ones own.

Point number 4

Lets look at another aspect. The speaking order that was passed by the Managing Director of Maruti Suzuki in August 2012 reflects the management’s terror of 18 July. But perhaps even more telling is what the speaking order betrays via the management’s views on ‘incitement to violence’ and ‘participation in violence’. Here goes: The Managing Director sent letters individually to 546 workers. Each letter states, for every worker it addresses, that he both incited and participated in violence. This means the management sees every worker as an instigator as well as a participant.  And what this means is that the company recognises that each and every worker is a potential de-occupier. Even in the eyes of the management, every worker has today become the fountainhead of a destabilising force. The language of the leader and the led has lost its valence; it has become obsolete.

The self-activity of workers has blurred the partitions that separate intellectual labour from physical labour. It is time, therefore, that in order to participate in the creation of a new world, all of us take the cue and let go of long-held assumptions and settled theories.

Point number 5

Instead of wrapping up with a conclusion, lets broaden the scope of our discussion some more. The young, 20-22 year-old workers of today often have work experience from 10-12 places under their belt. They exchange the wealth of experience and understanding and thinking that comes with this with each other, freely and rapidly. This is a global trend. Here is one worker’s trajectory – he started by working in Essar Steel in Hajira (Gujarat), then he worked in Gail, Bharuch (Gujarat), Jindal Steel & Power in Raigarh (Chhatisgarh), JSW Plant in Bellary (Karnataka), Jindal Stainless Steel Plant in Jajpur (Orissa) and Reliance Refinery in Jamnagar (Gujarat). Today he works in NOIDA.

We have already discussed the self-activity of workers in Maruti Suzuki (Manesar). And though little detail is known about the activity of workers in NOIDA on 20 February, everyone is aware that something quite extraordinary happened. It caused such alarm in Napino, Honda, Maruti-Suzuki and other factories in NOIDA, that all the factories were closed down the very next day. We have discussed the activities of the workers in Okhla on 21 February 2013 in one of the issues of Mazdoor Samachar. Here’s what a propagandist-thinker who would rather have existing and old ways continue ad infinitum said about 21 February: “It is understandable that when workers get angry, they can get violent. This anger can be reigned in through offering concessions. But what we saw in NOIDA and Okhla was different – the workers weren’t angry; they were enjoying being violent. This is an extremely problematic situation.”

Friends, it is time to let go of the image of tired, defeated and despondent workers. Our experience of factories in Faridabad, Okhla, Gurgaon and IMT Manesar urges us that we unfetter ourselves from these chains. And what we have seen in these factories is only a small glimpse of a transformation that is much more vast. In the course of six months, the workers of Maruti Suzuki (Manesar) were compelled to sign three agreements, but in their practice the workers saw them and treated them as meaningless scraps of paper. The image that is emergent today is that of workers who are filled with restlessness and are harbingers of a deep churning. This image challenges settled ways of seeing and thinking. Accept this challenge. This is an opportunity to shape the world anew, to think the world anew. This opportunity is for everyone. The events of 18 July have a place of immense significance in the chronology of events that have shaken the world recently. It emits a sense of the deep transformation the world is going through in our times. We are living in a time in which we can all stand up against prevalent ways and make them obsolete, more and more obsolete. It is for times like this that it has been said, “audacity, more audacity and still more audacity!”



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