ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Media Beacons vs. Media Workers

The Indian Express-Maharashtra General Kamgar Union case is an eye-opener, which challenges the stand that the judiciary is better placed to address labour issues than unions. The writer, who stood by the cause for 30 years, chronicles the decline of the labour movement in Mumbai. 

After a long stretch of time, came the gladdening news of a pro-labour judgement from the courts.  Justice Suresh Kait of the Delhi High Court ruling on November 17 this year that 272 workers of the Hindustan Times be reinstated with back wages for the past nine years was unusual for its clarity about rights of retrenched employees for “re-instatement” and “back wages”. The court found the retrenchment to be arbitrary, upholding the January 2012 judgement of the Delhi Industrial Tribunal. That such a large number of workers remained united to see such a judgement is a rarity these days.

Two months earlier, on 19 September 2014, the Bombay High Court decided the last case in a series of retrenchment cases which began 30 years ago in The Indian Express Newspapers, Bombay terminating the services of this writer for belonging to and supporting a union not favoured by the management.  

Between 1983 and 1984, Indian Express Bombay sacked a total of about 50 employees for taking sides with the Maharashtra General Kamgar Union (MGKU), led by Datta Samant, formed by a majority of its employees. Indian Express owner and media baron Ramnath Goenka, who in public life opposed the authoritarian Indira Gandhi regime, particularly the 1975-1977 Emergency, was vehemently opposed to any form of unionisation by his newspaper employees or journalists.  

In Mumbai’s industrial belt in the 1980s, industry after industry saw the rise of Samant, the militant trade union leader. Workers and other employees in manufacturing, engineering and textiles embraced his unions enthusiastically in a veritable wave. By mid-1981, this wave reached the Indian Express at Nariman Point and a majority of its employees from the printing, rotary and packing departments took the lead in forming MGKU. However, Goenka and his then-deputy editor Arun Shourie retaliated against these employees for daring to form a union of their choice, by first declaring a lockout in November 1981 and then threatening to close the entire establishment by December 1981. By the time the lockout was lifted in March 1982 a number of leading MGKU office bearers, union activists and supporters were sacked by the management. Over the next two years, about 50 workers, office staff and a handful of journalists were dismissed from their jobs.

There was only one department, i.e. the Sunday magazine department (then called Express Magazine), where an entire group of journalists was victimised by the Goenka-Shourie combine for their support to the MGKU. There were seven sub-editors/feature writers – Devika Sequeira, Adil Jussawala (Books Editor), Ranjani Shrinivasan, Smita Gupta, Cyrus Mistry, Savita Chandiramani and this writer, at the Express Magazine.

In October 1981, prior to the lockout, the Express Magazine editor Dina Vakil and the  Indian Express resident editor Hiranmay Karlekar warned the Magazine journalists of an impending lockout and advised them that since Goenka would never recognise MGKU, it would be in their interest to work during the lockout to bring out the Sunday magazine.

Lockout and its aftermath

Indian Express, Bombay was locked out from 1 November, 1981 rendering about 1,100 employees in various departments out of work. The lockout was declared by the Goenka-Shourie combine to coerce employees into leaving the union. This was followed by a notice of closure on 11 November citing “labour trouble” as the cause for closure. 

The pressure on the Express Magazine journalists to work during the lockout arose from the fact that the Sunday magazine had to be brought out from Bombay for the other nine cities where the paper had its editions, whereas journalists from the news desk, the Loksatta, the Financial Express and the Screen faced no such pressure and instead found their departments closed. 

In such an atmosphere, the entire Express Magazine editorial staff took a principled stand that it was not possible to work when all other journalists and employees were locked out, at least not until the lockout was lifted. 

Goenka and Shourie went all out to break the strike, stooping so low as to malign the union with the canard that former Maharashtra chief minister A R Antulay had bribed Datta Samant to create labour unrest in Indian Express Bombay in revenge for the newspaper’s coverage of the cement scandal which had forced Antulay to resign in 1982. 

However, neither the lockout and threat of closure, nor such defamatory propaganda by Goenka and Shourie could break the unity of the employees under MGKU. On 10 February, 1982, the management tried another ploy by issuing an advertisement indicating their intention of lifting the lockout if employees signed undertakings that they had no connection with the “illegal strike” or that they were “willing to terminate the strike and resume duties forthwith”. About 300 workers who signed these were allowed to resume duties. More than 800 did not sign since there was no strike in the first place, leave alone an illegal one. When the MGKU challenged the undertakings as being illegal and factually incorrect, the Bombay High Court directed the management to remove the phrase “illegal strike” from the undertakings. The high court-modified undertakings were signed by the remaining 800 employees. Thus, on 26 March 1982 the lockout was lifted.

The reprisals

The first round of management reprisals saw a number of MGKU office bearers and activists issued with letters of suspension and not allowed to join work after the lockout was lifted. 

The next round saw the Express Magazine journalists being targetted – first for not working during the lockout, and secondly, for not signing the “illegal strike” undertaking (which barring one, none of the remaining five had signed).

This writer (together with Shrinivasan) was transferred in mid-April 1982 by the management outside Mumbai despite the industrial court having stayed the transfer orders on the ground that Indian Express had used the transfer to “victimise” the journalists for being union members. Not to be deterred, the management first suspended this writer in January 1983 and later dismissed her in January 1984 on fabricated charges of threat and intimidation to “loyal” workers of the management.

By the end of 1984, the Express management led by Goenka and Shourie had effectively smashed the union - first by the lockout, then the threat of  closure and later throwing 50 or more of the MGKU office bearers and leaders out of their jobs.  

This was the bitter irony. Indian Express which in its editorial policy stood opposed to the “iron heel” of the Emergency, showed itself to be a management which had no qualms in grinding its own employees down with the same “iron heel” for exercising their constitutional right to belong to a trade union of their choice.

Long Fight for Justice

A stock maxim used about the Indian judiciary among laypersons is “court mein der hein andher nahin” (There is delay in court, but no darkness). Another patent argument is that workers ought not to agitate for their rights since the judiciary will ensure them justice. The reality for the working class and other exploited sections is that the labyrinthine corridors of justice prove too lengthy and costly for them to taste victory in their lifetime.  Of those removed by the Indian Express management in 1983-1984 many simply could not challenge the management actions. Of those who did, only a handful experienced a modicum of success. Of this handful, it took all of 30 years for this writer to see her case coming to a close. The “long arm of the law” for those fighting cases meant a rigid legal system that expects workers to remain unemployed while paralysing them with no alternative but to wait for “tareekh pe tareekh” (one extended court trial date after another).

It is impossible for employees to litigate a case against a powerful company or newspaper for 30 years without the support of any organisation. The dismissed Indian Express workers continued to fight bravely in various courts. Sadly, with so many union leaders thrown out of their jobs, the MGKU was virtually thrown out too. This left those fighting their cases rudderless. Only a handful were able to manage to see their cases to the end. As for this writer, organisations like the Bombay Union of Journalists and Lawyers Collective supported her struggle. During these 30 years, after completing a law degree, she too began working as a lawyer and often also worked with trade unions.

The notion that not unionisation but the judiciary is the best alternative to agitate labour disputes is a myth. That organised labour is getting emasculated is a glaring reality. Now with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the centre, there is a tearing hurry to push for labour “reforms” - that most glaring misnomer regularly bandied about in the post-liberalisation era. The so-called reforms are nothing but an attempt to cave in to the industrial-corporate lobby and multi-national companies and will further whittle away the rights of ordinary workers.

When this writer began her saga against Indian Express way back in 1984, the Labour and Industrial Courts of Bombay (then at Arun Chambers, Tardeo) were bustling with workers and their unions. Today, the courts (which have shifted to Bandra East) are a sad reminder of the glory days of the past when labour litigation was at its sharpest and best.

This decline in labour litigation is a reflection of the long continuous decline of the labour movement in Mumbai since the mid-1980s, in terms of both, the levels of agitation and unionisation. This decline, along with the penetration of pro-liberalisation neo-liberal dogma in all spheres, has had its impact on the judiciary and the courts narrowing the definitions of labour law to the detriment of labour. This state of affairs is likely to continue, unless the trade union movement is able to devise strategies to halt the decline and build up once again. 

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