IT'S a long time since he's been in the news for the role he likes to play—leading mammoth labour struggles. For former MP and Kamgar Aghadi leader Dr Datta Samant, leading an agitation of employees of the Premier Automobiles Limited (PAL) may not be the stuff of the '80s when he had led the longest strike in history. But being pitched against the management in a struggle that has been making news for a month helps divert attention from the failure that the last three general elections had brought Samant in his labour-dominated South Central Bombay constituency.
"This is an agitation to press home worker dissatisfaction and lack of job security. In the last four years, the management has steadily reduced its workforce from 9,000 to 3,600 and now intends to reduce it to 1,800. They will ultimately run a paint and assembly shop," predicts Samant, articulating the employees' fears. An employees' go-slow in April was followed the next month by a management notice for a partial lockout. Among the latest face-offs is The Untold Story, a full page management advertisement listing the 'fiction' and 'reality' of the case. Denying Samant's main contention, the management says 2,300 workers have been shifted to PAL-Peugeot Ltd while another 2,800 accepted the voluntary retirement scheme, which was necessitated by recession in the automobile industry.
The management seeks to enforce an agreement it signed with the Samant-led Association of Engineering Workers Union (AEW) in September 1994, wherein it was agreed to produce 75 diesel or petrol (or both) Premier Padmini cars per shift. Brushing aside the issues listed by the union which range from job security to incentives, the official stand is fixed. Says a senior company executive: "The management is not going to bend. They want a fresh agreement. We say come to work and fulfill the earlier agreement, then we can talk." The result is a stalemate that threatens to go on—a familiar thread in the Samant saga.
Press conferences from both sides, heavy security, gate meetings, a morcha to the residences of the top brass—all are part of the action. Only, this time it is the fate of some 3,600 employees which is in the balance. Earlier it was lakhs of mill workers from South Central Bombay, a constituency that seemed tailor-made for Maharashtra's trade union titan. In 1984, Samant was among five non-Congress candidates to get elected to the Lok Sabha. That he never rewrote this success has many explanations. One of them is littered with the statistics of the indefinite textile strike he began on January 18, 1982. It went on creating history till it fizzled out and was officially reported to have ended in August 2, 1983, though Dr Samant actually never called it off. Before it began, there were 2.32 lakh workers employed by 60 cotton textile and processing mills in the city. By March 31, 1988, the number had reduced to 1.62 lakh workers in 54 mills, and the trade unionist stood accused of leading a sectarian struggle that achieved nothing but poverty and unemployment for the textile worker.
Today as he charts the destiny of 3,600 workers of PAL, one of the many companies in Maharashtra where his union dominates, Samant is at a loss to explain why even his workers don't opt for him at the ballot box. "They care for me from the heart, but never take this approach politically. It is some gene in the blood that makes them vote Hindu rather than for me. I have fought for them, more than their parents would," says Samant who finished a poor third in South Central Bombay in this election, chalking a hat-trick. The Shiv Sena has won this constituency since 1989.
The doctor who was moved in the '60s by the plight of exploited quarry workers to turn to trade unionism, became the biggest name in this line by the '80s. He controlled the largest number of workers through unions like the AEW and Maharashtra Girni Kamgar Union, all of which came under the umbrella organisation, Kamgar Aghadi, which he converted into a political party. Over the last decade a series of electoral failures—his wife Vinita and senior comrades losing in south central Bombay assembly segments—and a series of desertions, including that of his long-time lieutenant T.S. Borade in 1991, have hurt the doctor. In the recent general election, there were those in the Third Front, a coalition of non-Congress, nonBJP-Sena parties in Maharashtra, who wondered at the need to have Samant's group in the alliance.
At the labour end, the emergence of the Shiv Sena's Bharatiya Kamgar Sena, coinciding with the marginalising of his unions, has been no consolation for the doctor who seeks a return to significance. What better than a labour platform to spring back to the controls.