To come to a decision on calling a general strike in February to push for their long-pending demands

Over 13.5 lakh railway employees will exercise their franchise on December 20 and 21 to decide on calling a general strike to press for their long-pending demands.

The decision to call for the ‘strike ballot’ was taken at the 89th Annual Conference of All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) in Patna, held from November 22 to November 24.

AIRF president Shiva Gopal Mishra said the employees would have preferred a negotiated settlement, but their hands were forced. He put the blame for the present impasse on the Finance Ministry’s anti-labour, anti-railwaymen attitude.

The main demands include scrapping the new pension scheme and introducing guaranteed pension and family pension schemes that were available prior to January 2004; removal of pay anomalies of the 6th Pay Commission; and payment of arrears and allowances of drivers of goods and passenger trains.

The other demands include filling all vacant posts, of which 1.5 lakh are safety related, including 20,000 running staff (loco drivers); sanctioning additional posts commensurate with the increase in number of trains and workload; and settling the grievances of air-condition mechanics and attendants deputed on trains over duty hours and accommodation in trains.

Such a strike ballot was last adopted in 2006, but the government averted a showdown by announcing the constitution of the Sixth Pay Commission.

Mr. Mishra said he had already informed the Railway Board of the decision to obtain the mandate for a strike and if the employees voted in favour he would serve the necessary one month notice, aiming for a strike in February.

The last major railway strike was in 1974 under the leadership of George Fernandes. The government moved fast and decisively thereafter, never allowing the unions to press their strike call.

Mr. Mishra said the running staff association had willingly extended support to the call, while the guard staff association was in the process of ratifying it. He said their condition was pitiable and their working hours need to be reduced.

With 10.26 lakh employees on AIRF rolls, Mr. Mishra said he was in talks with all unions and associations to join hands on the common issues affecting employees. The Railway Minister, the Railway Board Chairman, and other members of the Board, he said, were sympathetic to their demands, but the Finance Ministry came in the way of implementing the agreements reached earlier.