Vantage point

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

From a Striker's POV

Peter is a very affable guy. We got to know each other during the 26th July flood, when both of us had waded through chest deep water to reach a grocery store and stake claim to the last carton of milk over there. Since he has kids who will drink the mils, while I only wanted some fortification for my tea or coffee, he took the milk and I bought milk powder. Ever since then, whenever we meet on the streets, we stop for a couple of minutes and chat.

Met him again today morning near the same grocery store, but he wasn't his usual cheerful self. I guessed it had something to do with the AAI workers agitation, since Peter works at the Mumbai Airport, like a lot of people in my neighbourhood do.

To assure and console him I said the usual comforting things "everything will be ok" etc. To which I am surprised at his reaction. He says -

"I know everything will be OK in the long run. Everyone knows that the airline sector is doing well and there will be no job problems. My worry is for the short term. There is intense pressure on us to do something."

"Do what? What pressure?" I ask him.

"The Union leaders are hell bent on making a big issue out of this. And since yesterday's strike didn't cause any major issues, they want a bigger and more newsworthy demonstration of our protest."

"Like what?"

He looks at me worriedly, and asks me "Maybe you would have been too young at that time, but do you remember Rajiv Goswami?"

Of course. Who doesn't know Rajiv Goswami? The student who set himself ablaze during the Mandal demonstrations. the incident which shot the whole controversy to the front pages. Was there pressure on AAI employees to immolate themselves?

What Peter said shocked me. He said that most of the striking workers, including him, have no interest in striking. But Workers Unions don't work on a participatory basis. It is the union leaders who call the shots. They just come with a decision already made, mostly sent from Delhi, that there should be a strike. As members, they are supposed to abide by it, whether they think the strike is sensible or not.

There have apparently been a lot of general meetings called by the airport officials, and even people from the ministry to talk to employees and assure them that privatisation won't lead to job losses. And all those who are working properly at the airport know that their jobs are safe, regardless of such assurances. After all, Peter says, with capacity expansion, there will be more terminals, more gates, more counters, and people will be needed for it.

"Why is there such a high demand for pilots? Because there are so many more flights. Don't these flights need to be taken care of? Their passengers have to be checked in, luggage loaded, etc. So the same thing which has caused pilots to be in demand will also help us." he says.

Peter then tells me of how the launch of the new airline Spicejet has resulted in extra earnings for the workers. He says that before Spicejet, there were no post-midnight flights from the domestic airport. Until about 4-5 in the morning, there would be no flights. But now with the spicejet flights, there is business. And there is a need of check-in counters, security officers, baggage handlers, etc. Either existing employees were roped in for these shifts, and paid extra, or new people were recruited. So Spicejet's launch, which translated into reduced fare for customers, and more options for pilots, also translated into employment/income for the AAI staff.

He also tells me how the working conditions and facilities in Terminal 2B, the only portion of the domestic terminal which has been modernised, are great, and how the floating workers are always asking to be posted there.

"Then what is the problem with privatisation, Peter? If you don't fear job losses, if you think there are better facilities, why are you a part of the strike?"

He smiled, as if at my "innocence" and said "Because if I don't take part in the strike, I will be beaten up. And I know that this will be just a small token strike for 1 or 2 days for the union leaders' benefit. After that, everything will be normal. So I don't want to take unnecessary panga against these 'gundas'. I will go there, be part of the protesting crowd, make sure I am standing far away from the police and the union leaders, so that I am not used as a weapon."


"Yes, a friend who works with me told me this yesterday. If a strike is really just 'peaceful', then it serves no purpose of the union leaders. What happened yesterday was, we were on strike, but planes were flying properly. So one union leader forced a group of people to follow him, and unnecessarily attacked the police. The police were shouting, don't come near, don't come near, but yet these people were forced to. Then the police counter charged. And it becomes a head-line."

Peter told me how the men who actually provoke the policemen, smartly escape, leaving innocent workers to bear the brunt of the police rage. How it is all set up after ensuring that the media's cameras are trained on them.

Peter now worries about what next. What next in the short term. Have the puppet-masters of the Union leaders had their share of the emdia frenzy? If so, then they will go away, let the airport workers get on with their lives in peace. If not, and if they want to derive more mileage out of this, then a bigger and more extreme demonstration will be on cards. An immolation, a bigger police attack, or something.

He tells me his wife is worried sick about such an escalation. He is worried too. He wonders when the masters of the unions will have their fill and let him move on with his life.

Needes to say, the name of the airport worker in this post has been changed on his request.