Trade unions will hold a confidential vote on November 20 and 21 to determine whether to go on an indefinite strike to replace the National Pension Scheme (NPS) with the Old Pension Scheme (OPS). The vote will involve approximately 12 lakh Indian Railways employees and 3.9 lakh civilian workers in various defense establishments, including ordnance factories. If two-thirds of the voters favour, the unions will go ahead with their indefinite strike plans. Already parallels are drawn comparing the proposed strike with the railway strike of 1974, which has very much relevance even today. So what is this 1974 strike all about?
The 20-day railway workers' strike of 1974 was a watershed moment in the history of labour movements in India. It sent shockwaves through the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, raising concerns about the growing power of labour unions in the country. This strike, which paralyzed the Indian Railways and disrupted daily life for millions, was a turning point in the ongoing struggle between the government and labour unions, highlighting the pressing issues of workers' rights and the demand for better working conditions.
The Spark of the Strike
The origins of the 1974 railway strike can be traced back to several long-standing grievances of the railway workers. The primary issue was the demand for better wages and working conditions, which had been accumulating for years. Workers were frustrated with their stagnant wages, lack of job security, and the absence of a pension scheme.
The labour unions, notably the All India Railwaymen's Federation (AIRF) and the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), spearheaded the movement. These unions had been negotiating with the government for several months before the strike, seeking better terms for the railway workers.
The All India Railwaymen's Federation (AIRF) held a strike demanding an eight-hour workday for locomotive staff and a pay raise. The strike was prompted by stagnant pay scales for locomotive staff, which had not risen in many years, even though pay scales for other government-owned entities had increased.
In addition, the AIRF was concerned about the Railway Board's practice of using the term "continuous work" to describe locomotive staff duties. This implied that workers could be required to work for as long as the train was in motion, even for several days at a time. The AIRF argued that this violated the internationally accepted standard of an eight-hour workday.
Traditional railway union leaders were also becoming increasingly distant from worker demands and aligned with politicians. This further alienated workers, especially locomotive pilots.
The spread of diesel engines and the increased workload on locomotive staff since the 1960s had extended continuous working hours to days, which created even more resentment. Despite being a government-owned entity, the Railways had not implemented the eight-hour workday for locomotive staff.
The Strike Unleashed
On May 8, 1974, the unions declared a nationwide strike, impacting the operations of the Indian Railways. Approximately 1.7 million railway workers joined the strike, leading to the near-total shutdown of train services across the country. The strike's widespread nature was an indicator of the deep-rooted dissatisfaction among railway employees.
The strike had a severe impact on the economy and daily life. Trains, which were the lifeline of transportation in India, came to a screeching halt. Passengers were stranded, goods remained undelivered, and businesses suffered significant losses. The government was forced to take immediate action.
The Indira Gandhi government, caught off guard by the scale of the strike, declared a state of emergency on June 25, 1975. This move gave the government sweeping powers, including the authority to suppress dissent and curtail civil liberties. It also led to the arrest of many labour leaders and activists who were actively involved in the strike.
The government began negotiations with the labour unions, ultimately reaching an agreement with them. The major outcome of the negotiations was the formation of a committee to address the workers' concerns, and a commitment to addressing some of the workers' long-standing demands, including wage revisions.
Legacy and Impact
The 1974 railway strike had a profound and lasting impact on labour movements in India. It demonstrated the collective strength of workers when they united for a common cause. The strike also highlighted the challenges faced by the working class in India, such as fair wages, job security, and access to a pension scheme.
The strike marked the beginning of a series of labour movements and strikes in the following years, challenging the government's approach to labour policies and workers' rights. In essence, it laid the groundwork for broader discussions on labour reforms, social security, and the rights of the working class in India.
The 20-day railway workers' strike of 1974 remains a significant chapter in the annals of India's labour history. It exposed the deep-seated discontent among the railway workers and the challenges they faced in their quest for better working conditions. The strike's impact was not limited to the railway industry; it had a broader influence on labour movements and workers' rights in the country, setting the stage for future discussions and reforms in labour policies. It is a testament to the power of collective action and the role of labour unions in advocating for the rights of the working class.