Yamaha workers’ strike against union-breaking tactics: A ground report from Chennai

Yamaha's management is following unfair labour practices by creating and backing a proxy trade union. The labour department is also colluding with the management.

Chennai: On October 11, more than 500 permanent workers of India Yamaha Motors started an indefinite strike inside the company’s manufacturing facility at Vallum in the Kancheepuram district, Tamilnadu.

The agitation is led by Indian Yamaha Motors Thozhilar Sangam (IYMTS), a trade union affiliated with CITU.

The primary focus of the movement is to protest against the ruthless union-breaking tactics of the management and recognition of the union supported by the majority of workers through secret ballot.

At the time of writing this report, the strike is completing its sixth day and a round of negotiation is scheduled on Monday, October, 17.

2018 Massive continuous strike

To understand what concerns led to this movement, it may be wrong to try to understand the present phase of the movement in isolation, but one needs to understand the historical context of the workers’ movement in the plant for the past several years.

We went to the Yamaha Motor factory and tried to understand the various dimensions of the movement by talking to the workers on strike.

Due to the environment of terror created by the factory management, workers were not able to talk on the record. Keeping in mind the concern for the safety and security of the workers, we are keeping their identities anonymous.

To understand the present round of strikes one first needs to look back at the 2018 massive strike by the Yamaha motor workers.

In September 2018, the workers of Yamaha Motors started the agitation for the recognition of trade unions and wage agreements along with other demands.

2018 Yamaha Motors strike in Chennai

In response, the company initially expelled two workers who were playing a key role in the unionization initiative.

Against this initially, 700+ permanent workers started a strike within the factory promises, and later they came outside the factory premises and did a continuous 55 days long strike.

At that time similar massive workers’ strike was happening in the nearby Myoung Sin and Royal Enfield factories.

Fearing the huge workers’ solidarity, the company eventually became compelled to accept the demands of the workers and reinstate the expelled workers in their job.

Union-breaking tactics of management

Although due to the pressure of the huge workers’ movement company became compelled to accept the demands of the recognition of the union, it started playing various tactics to effectively break the union.

While DMK as a party is holding massive rallies throughout the state against the central government’s Hindi imposition, they haven’t come in solidarity with the Yamaha motor workers’ strike happening at the same time.

By September 19, 2021, the current office bearers of the union were elected. But the company denied to recognize them. From that time, throughout the last one year, workers kept on protesting in some form or other.

But apparently, the company was playing something more sinister behind the doors.

As per the claims of the CITU, the management is following unfair labour practices by creating and backing a proxy trade union.

According to the representatives of workers on strike, on October 7 the management formed its own pro-management worker union named Sudhandhiram (Independent) India Yamaha Motor Thozhilalar Sangam (SIYMS) by bribing a section of workers.

This new union went for a wage agreement with the management, which was not acceptable to the majority of the workers. This was the triggering point for the current phase of the strike.

According to IYMTS, despite the bribing and incentives by the management of up to Rs 20000  to join the SIYMS, and all-out efforts of the senior officials for the enrollment drive; SIYMS represents a small minority of workers.

IYMTS claims that among the 850+ permanent workers, they have the support of at least 540+. They are demanding the management that a secret ballot should be arranged and through voting, they will prove that the majority of workers are with them.

Role of the labour department

The role of the labour department in all these processes has also created serious anger amongst the workers regarding its intention. While usually, the registration of a trade union takes two to three months, this newly formed pro-management union was registered at a surprisingly fast speed within two days.

According to the IYMTS, this clearly signals that the labour department is secretly colluding with the company management and helping it wi its anti-worker policies.

IYMTS says that even from a purely legal standpoint, the creation of a rival union in such a manner is illegal.

In the New Indian Express newspaper, the CITU Tamilnadu deputy general secretary Mr. S. Kannan has said “It is against union rules to create a rival labour union, setting off in-fighting”.

Company’s ‘image’ over workers’ rights?

It is interesting to see to what ridiculous extent the Yamaha company is concerned about its “image” and brand value over the well-being of its own workers. While talking to the workers we came to know that for the company one of the main issues has been that their workers going on strike inside the factory premises is damaging to its brand value and “image”.

While listening to the genuine concerns of the workers and trying to address them in a democratic manner could have been the correct thing to do; due to this lens of seeing, the company is hell bound to either break the strike by any means necessary or the very least, force the workers on strike to move outside the factory premises.

While the profit of the company comes from the labour of the workers, they are dehumanized in this whole process. This also shows the power of these strike actions, as the production being stopped is always a great point of worry for the management.

Strong Solidarity among workers

While from the management side, various tactics to break the unity of the workers continue without a break, the solidarity among the striking workers helps them keep fighting braving all the serious challenges lying ahead for the movement.

Trade unions and ordinary workers in the nearby factories of Apple, Hyundai, MSI, Valuelights, etc have come in support of the striking workers of Yamaha motors.

The solidarity extends beyond the formal level and includes helping each other by various material means. We saw an environment of a serious sense of cooperation and care among workers to each other.

Sharing food or helping each other in terms of necessary medicine was very common. It seems that there is an actual realization of the popular slogan “United we bargain, divided we beg” in this movement.

From all India CITU, a statement has been issued in the name of general secretary Tapan Sen. New Democratic Labour Front (NDLF) state organizing committee has given solidarity with the Yamaha Motor workers on strike.

DMK’s dilemma?

It is important to notice the dubious role of the state government led by DMK regarding the Yamaha Motor workers’ strike in particular and the workers’ issues in the general.

The DMK supremo M K Stalin has been one of the most staunch outspoken critics of the various anti-people policies of the Narendra Modi-led central government in the cultural domain.

However, in recent times rarely he has spoken in favour of the workers or taken strong affirmative actions to solve the concerns of workers. While DMK as a party is holding massive rallies throughout the state against the central government’s Hindi imposition, they haven’t come in solidarity with the Yamaha motor workers’ strike happening at the same time.

On the condition of anonymity, one of the Yamaha Motor workers on strike told us that, doesn’t matter whether it’s BJP, Congress, AIADMK, or DMK, all the parties so far have been anti-worker in some way or the other.

What Lies Ahead:

At the moment, the movement while being heroic by its nature has various challenges in front of it. So far all the rounds of meetings and negotiations with the various stakeholders of the administration had limited or zero positive outcomes. It is likely that in the coming days’ management will be more ruthless in deploying various tactics to break the solidarity among the workers on strike.

How the movement becomes able to overcome these challenges in the future, is to be carefully seen. It is also important to keep in mind that this is the movement primarily by the permanent workers, who are the relatively more unionized section of the total worker pool of the factory.

Relativity less unionized contractual workers and trainees are yet to play any significant role in the current phase of the movement.

Management’s various anti-worker policies also affect them badly.  Whether the contractual workers also become able to build a strong unionization effort and build an even stronger united struggle with the permanent workers in the coming days, is yet to be seen.

The report was first published in our fraternal newsportal workersunity.com  

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