Two things caught my attention when I met Rajan Raje, the union leader, on the first occasion. He was invited to speak at a seminar which I was also attending. His philosophical mooring was unmistakable and so also his passion about his work. I also discovered that he stayed not too far from my residence. I wrote to him asking if he would be willing to grant me an interview.
Raje was more than willing, he called back to tell me that I should rather spend a good time with him. For me it was a great opportunity, we fixed our meeting.
I waited for him opposite our building; he was about ten minutes late. That was quite excusable given his busy schedule. I had seen union leaders come very late. A silver coloured WagonR pulled up in front – this was a surprise I was expecting him to come in a better vehicle, perhaps an Innova or a similar vehicle. Raje was sitting on the rear seat and he urged me to sit in the front which was more comfortable given that there were three persons on the rear seat. He was polite and insisted that I occupy the front seat and be comfortable. ‘Thomson kade ghe re’ [Take us to Thomson Press] he instructed his driver.
We moved towards Thane Belapur Road. Raje was speaking passionately and he seemed unstoppable. “Vikrant Karnik was beaten up mercilessly. He was given up as dead. He later got up somehow and went to doctor. It was good that he went to Civil Hospital. Two doctors started stitching up his wounds and later two more joined. They stitched up his wounds like a ‘godhadi’ is stitched.” He said. [Vikram Karnik was a social activist who had taken on a local Shiv Sena leader who is suspected to be behind the assualt.] Our conversation was interrupted by a few telephone calls which were in connection with the assault on Karnik. Some people were asking him to take the lead role in the agitation.
For a Mumbaikar who are known to sprinkle at least two English words in their sentences when they speak, Raje was exceptionally good in speaking his mother tongue, Marathi. No surprise as he is a scholar who has consistently done exceptionally well in academics. His academic bent of mind shows repeatedly as Raje quotes liberally from Bhagavadgita and other scriptures. I wondered whether it will work in his favour, but I was later proven wrong. The workers listened to him with full attention.
We were now on the Thane Belapur road. This road was known to be the hub of blue chip companies in seventies and eighties. Nocil, Polyolefins, Pfizer, Union Carbide, Poysha, ICI were some of the companies which had set up their manufacturing facilities there, later many of them fled to Gujarat. Those companies are now replaced by giants like Reliance, and there is quite a presence at this location of the print media establishments. Thomson Press, Hindustan Times, Lokmat, Times of India have their units on the Thane Belapur Road.
We crossed the Hindustan Times facility. “They have given a Rs 5,000 pm rise when they heard of unrest in Thomson Press and heard that many of their workers had come to me with a request to lead their union” he said. “The benefits of liberalisation have not at all percolated down to lowest strata of the society. It is swallowed by the affluent. My workers are where they were and time is running out. They are paid low wages. So they have no choice but to work 12 hours a day if they want to make both ends meet. The entire minimum wage calculation is a farce. It should be increased three times straight away.”
We reached the tent opposite Thomson Press main gate. The strike had entered ninth month. Workers eagerly surrounded our car. He got down from the car. The air was filled with expectations. As we approached the tent many workers bowed down and touched his feet. May touched mine too – I felt embarrassed and asked them not to do it. I remembered how ladies, probably widows of deceased workers, who were to receive payment from Workmen’s Compensation Commissioner would stand in front of him with great expectations and folded hands. People place so much hope on people in authority in our society I realised.
The tent was a make shift arrangement but over one hundred workers assembled under its roof. There was a wooden platform inside. We climbed up the platform. One worker put three plastic chairs for us. I took my seat. I had not expected this moment; I was not afraid of it either. He made a brief speech introducing me and asked me to speak. This was getting very interesting. As HR Head of a large company I had faced many strikes and lockouts. I believed I had a good understanding of the psyche of workers; but meeting them at the negotiation table is one thing and in their tent is another; this situation was different. I saw curiosity in workers eyes. I spoke briefly about conflicts and ended my talk by wishing them good luck in settling the dispute to their benefit.
Raje got up. He asked all to put their mobiles on silent mode. But two workers sitting in the front row switched on mobiles and video-recorded entire speech. Raje ignored them. [Towards the end of his speech he mentioned that there would be some spies of the management in the crowd, but he was not afraid of them.] In a fiery speech lashing out at the Government and political leaders, he lamented the inaction of the middle class. Raje pointed out that there was no middle class person who attended the protest for the assault on Vikrant Karnik. Raje also mixed cleverly capitalism’s Indian mascots instead of using the word capitalist. He blamed Gujaratis and Marwaris for taking a short term view of the business to personal gains. His diatribes were aimed at political leaders at Thane in particular who were willing to take up the case of Thomson’s workers only if it suited their political positions. He explained how contract labour ‘system’ was working against their interest.
Before he ended his speech he cautioned Thomson Press workers that their struggle was reaching the final and decisive stage. He gave them two options and said that the decision was theirs as they had to finally decide their own future. He asked them to close eyes so that they did not allow themselves to be influenced by others, and then explained the two options twice or may be thrice. The workers voted in favour of one option almost unanimously. [For obvious reasons, I am not giving details of the option.]
Raje sat down. There was a round of applause. I sensed tension, but also felt that the workers were expecting these options and they were not caught by surprise. Some workers quickly filled up plates for all. Both Raje and I ate along with the workers of Thomson Press.
I spoke to one of them who stood close to me. “This struggle is very long drawn, you must have suffered,” I said to initiate conversation. “We used to work twelve hours every day. Yes they paid us overtime, but it was paid only on basic wage and they kept it very low. The allowances were high” he said. Another joined the conversation, “They employ contract labour. They must be employing ten contract workers for every permanent worker. They don’t pay any attention to our grievances. It does not matter now whether the Press runs or closes down, but things must change.”
We got back in the car. Workers surrounded it, they waived at Raje. He said that Aroon Purie [Chairman of Thomson Press] had blocked all press coverage of this eight and half month old strike.
I came home and googled to see if that was true. Search of ‘Thomson Press Strike’ drew blank. No news of the strike at all.
I narrated the experience to a friend. “There is a rumour that Thomson Press has sold the land to Reliance” he told me. A Reliance establishment is not situated too far away from Thomson Press.
I could see the shape of things to come; is this is a typical story of businesses today? I hope not, but I know deep inside that I am wrong!