Union troubles create tension between Chennai metro rail management, workers
Disagreements between the employees and management of Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) continued on May 3 (Friday) despite the workers calling of their strike on May 1 night. A long-simmering row over the CMRL management outsourcing highly technical work to contract workers flared up late last month, resulting in a strike.
After three days of striking, CMRL workers — who were part of a union — called it off and returned to work on Thursday (May 2). But according to a few employees, though they were allowed to enter the main office of CMRL in Koyambedu, Chennai, none of them were given any work. They were given an attendance sheet to sign and were asked to sit in a conference room.
Only five people, who work in the Operation Control Centre (OCC), were given work. “It is because it is a core area that controls all operations of the metro,” said a worker on condition of anonymity.
The employees said they were informally told by the officials that they would not be given any work for a couple of days, and that the situation might remain the same for a week. The workers also alleged that the move was disciplinary action against them for striking. “We signed the attendance sheet, but were not allowed to work. However, this cannot be given as the official explanation,” says another permanent technician.
When asked, a CMRL official told The Federal that they had not intended to take any disciplinary action against the workers. “It is up to the operation head to give them work. The operation heads will take a call to deploy them wherever they are needed,” the official said.
Trouble brewing since 2018
Metro rail employees in other states — Delhi, Bengaluru and Kochi — too have unions to protect their rights. In these metros, too, disagreements between the administration and employees flared up after the management outsourced work on contract basis.
The disagreement between the CMRL workers and the administration began after a few workers revolted against the management’s move assigning highly technical work to contract workers. In late 2018, a labour union was formed in CMRL. As the management ignored the grievances of the workers, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) wrote to the private contractor to stop sending inexperienced people to CMRL. However, the private contractor complained to the CMRL management.
Though the letter was written by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) state secretary A Soundararajan, the CMRL management suspended seven permanent workers whose names were found in the labour union’s letter pad. “Though they cannot legally ask workers to not form a labour union, the move was to curb them from uniting for their rights,” said Soundararajan.
Nevertheless, as the CMRL management could not take action against the union workers, it filed a civil case against CITU functionaries for getting involved in the working of the organisation. The matter, which had been on the back burner since March, came to light in late April after the CMRL management terminated eight workers, including seven of them who were already suspended. “Though the official reason was given in regard to their discipline at work, the direct reason could be the union,” Soundararajan said.
Subsequently, in solidarity with the terminated employees, all permanent employees launched an indefinite strike demanding that the management revoke the termination order. After two rounds of talks, the management acceded to look into the issue, and asked the eight terminated employees to file an appeal as per procedure.
Before the second round of talks began on May 1, CMRL suspended three employees – two traffic controllers and one depot controller — for sabotage of train services on April 29.