The massive and aggressive display of women power that forced the State government and the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) company management to accept the estate workers’ demand for a higher bonus package has left the established trade unions in Kerala groping for answers to some tough questions.
Whether the outcome of the marathon talks in Kochi on Sunday was a resounding success as it appears at first glance is a big question, but the gutsy show by the women, who surprised everyone with organisational and negotiation skills, has put the mainstream unions on the defensive, their leaders at a loss to explain what went wrong in Munnar and what the developments of the past one week portend for the trade union movement in Kerala.
Questions about the quality of the stir’s outcome arise from the fact that the actual bonus component of the agreement comes to only 8.33 per cent, the remaining part of the 20 per cent financial package announced being ex-gratia payment, which is discretionary. This could be termed a climbdown from the originally promised 10 per cent bonus. The implication is that the workers would have to drive a harder bargain next year as bonus negotiations would begin from a lower base.
That notwithstanding, leaders of major Central trade unions concede that they had failed to see the massive groundswell of resentment among the women workers and their decision to take matters into their hands. “It is clear that, in general, we have also got swayed by the management’s argument that it is having a difficult time and that if we drive hard bargains, the estates and factories would have to be shut down. We should not back off fearing such consequences. We should be able to argue the workers' case effectively. They are our constituency. The bourgeoisie and the middle class may come with us temporarily, but our strength is in the working class. Like the women of Munnar, they would have stood by us even if the police had opened fire,” Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) State president Anathalavattom Anandan told The Hindu on Monday.
Concurring with him, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) State general secretary and CPI State secretary Kanam Rajendran said the events in Munnar pointed to the way things could move in Kerala in the coming days. There is no relation between the cost of living of the workers and their earnings. The managements are ready to look at wage increasr only on the basis of profitability and increase in the workload of the employees. All the trade unions had demanded 20 per cent bonus and Rs. 500 as daily wage, but they could not push for it and, the events in Munnar show that, they could not also convince the workers about the reasons why they could not do so,” he said.
Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) State president R. Chandrasekharan said what had happened in Munnar is a clear failure on the part of the local trade union leadership. We had all sought 20 per cent bonus and when the management offered to give only 10 per cent, we took the unanimous decision not to accept it. But if, based on the happenings in Munnar, you begin to argue that there is no need for trade unions, you would be inviting anarchy. I have sought an urgent meeting of all INTUC-affiliates in the plantation sector to discuss the issue,” Mr. Chandrasekharan said.