Railway unions threaten general strike

Trade unions have threatened to bring Indian Railways (IR) to a halt three months from now, if a new national pay commission (the 7th such) isn’t announced for government employees.

The Congress-backed National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) one of the largest unions in IR, wrote to the Prime Minister a month before that the employees would go for a strike if their demands were not met within four months. The largest railway union, the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), affiliated to the Hind Mazdoor Sabha and formally independent of political leanings, has also informally announced plans for a strike if a 7th Pay Commission was not set up.

If the strike is indeed called after three months, it would be the second national rail strike in Indian history of such magnitude. The first one was in 1974, led by George Fernandes, AIRF’s Socialist Party leader which eventually took dramatic changes that led India towards Emergency in 1975.

Umraomal Purohit, president of AIRF and HMS general secretary, said a declaration was made at a seminar of the former union that there was no alternative but a general strike for getting a pay commission. The union’s general council has to take a decision. “The Industrial Disputes Act requires that the decision is then voted by all members of AIRF by secret ballot, after which it would become official,” Purohit, who was sent to jail for nine months following the 1974 strike.

NFIR stayed away from the 1974 strike. It said it expected the entire rail network to halt when a strike was called. Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, to which NFIR is affiliated, said the union had sent its list of demands to the Prime Minister after there was no response from the railway and finance ministries.

NFIR general secretary M Raghavaiah said the strike would paralyse IR, with 1.4 million staffers taking part. The trains carry 24 million people every day. “We had given four months time and one month is already gone,” he said. Setting up of a 7th Central Pay Commission, he said, was “long overdue”. “We have been writing to the railways ministry and to the finance ministry. The railways ministry sent a proposal to the latter. But there is no response,” he said.

Adding: “If we dont get any response from the PM, we would be compelled to give notice for a strike.”

Said Purohit: “Once the notice is served, the government will talk. Last time we gave a notice asking for a 6th Pay Commission, we did not have to call a strike.”.

On the legality of a strike, he said the Industrial Disputes Act had set some conditions for strikes only for IR. “So, we have to follow the process, like taking a secret ballot. But even then, the government would (probably) pass an ordinance and declare the strike illegal. It is also likely to withdraw our recognition but we are not bothered about that,” he says, recalling the HMS union had lost its recognition for some time after the 1974 strike.