On October 30 and 31, 2009, steel workers and contractors’ workers in the steel industry went on strike. The strike call came from the Steel Workers Federation of India (SWFI).
The strike was spread all over the country. Such a successful strike from Durgapur in the east to Salem and Bhadravati in the south never took place before. The marketing establishments dotting every corner of the country saw complete stoppage of activity. Along with the workers in the plants, workers in a large number of mines, offices and townships joined the strike. Work at all the places literally collapsed as the workers walked out of the work sites and offices.
Another aspect of this strike, which made it unique, was the fact that regular workers and those under contractors in the steel industry organised the strike jointly, making a common cause and mutually supporting each other for justice, better pay and better service conditions. In the public sector steel plants, mines and offices, there has been a good record of struggles by contract workers, particularly in Burnpur, Durgapur, Rourkela, Bokaro, Bhilai, Vizag and in the mines and offices. Yet this was the first time that synchronised strike took place in all the plants, mines, townships and offices as regular workers are convinced that the ruthless exploitation of contract workers must come to an end.
The demand for the strike was an early and satisfactory wage agreement for the steel workers and a simultaneous wage rise and implementation of statutory benefits for contract workers.
In SAIL, there were 230,000 employees in 1991, whereas now the number has come down to about 125,000; more than one lakh regular jobs have vanished, gone to contactors or are being outsourced.
In wage pattern also, there has been a drastic change in this period. The American system of huge salaries to corporate bosses and high level salaries to other officers is being adopted in India now. In the course of the last 12 years, public sector salaries have increased 200 to 400 per cent for executives, along with enormous increases in “perks” and other benefits. On the contrary, the wage cost has declined because of downsizing, contractualisation or outsourcing.
The steel workers’ new wage agreement was scheduled to come into effect from January 1, 2007, and it is thus 34 months overdue. The management refused to negotiate. After almost two years, the Justice Rao committee awarded a huge benefit to corporate bosses and also to the public sector executives. The workers demanded quick negotiation and a satisfactory level of pay rise. They demanded that simultaneously the wage of contract workers must be increased in view of their greater contribution to production and the profitability of the steel companies which are making huge profits now. In fact, SAIL stands first among all the steel companies in the world, making the highest profit in 2008-09.
A strike ballot took place in the second week of October. After getting an overwhelming support of nearly 92 per cent of the workers, notice was served on October 15 for a strike on October 30 and 31. Some units like Bhilai and Rajhara mines and the Central Marketing Organisation (CMO) decided to go for one-day strike on the 30th.
In Rourkela, it was 90 per cent strike on first day and 100 per cent next day. In Bokaro it was more than 90 per cent, in Bhadravati 98 per cent. Other centres too witnessed up to 70 per cent strike. Contract workers joined in full strength in all the plants, mines, offices excepting Rajhara mines (50 per cent), Kiriburn mines (40 per cent) and Bhilai (70 per cent). It was 95 per cent in central marketing all over India, and almost 100 per cent in Kolkata and other offices like the MSTC. In Vizag steel plant the strike was total. In Bolani iron ore mines in Orissa, the strike was 100 per cent successful. In Durgapur steel township, contract workers in construction, maintenance and other similar jobs completely stopped work on both days.
The strike showed the deep anger amongst steel workers across the country. Public sector steel industry had never before witnessed such a massive strike all over the country.