Nearly half a century after the impactful 20-day railway workers' strike in 1974 that sent shockwaves through the then-Indira Gandhi government, preparations are in motion for an impending indefinite strike in the sector. This strike pertains to the longstanding issue of the old pension scheme (OPS). Trade unions are set to conduct a confidential ballot on November 20 and 21, involving approximately 12 lakh Indian Railways employees and 3.9 lakh civilian workers in various defense establishments, including ordnance factories. The purpose of this vote is to seek approval for an indefinite strike aimed at replacing the National Pension Scheme (NPS) with the OPS.
The movement advocating for the reinstatement of the OPS has garnered support from the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a trade union affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). On November 22, the BMS is organizing a workers' rally with the same demand. BMS General Secretary Ravindra Himte explained that his organization would not oppose its members from participating in the secret ballot. He stated, "We are demanding the restoration of OPS. We will not instruct our members to participate in the secret ballot, but we will not obstruct it. The BMS will simultaneously intensify its protests in favor of OPS."
The Joint Forum for Restoration of Old Pension Scheme (JFROPS), a coalition of approximately 60 unions operating in Central government establishments and Central Public Sector Undertakings, is overseeing the strike ballot. Given that Railways and Defense sector establishments are governed under the Industrial Disputes Act, recognized unions are required to conduct a confidential strike ballot among their members.
For the ballot to be valid, it necessitates the participation of 75% of members, and a strike can be initiated if two-thirds of the votes favour it. C. Srikumar, the General Secretary of the All India Defence Employees Federation, expressed confidence in obtaining support from all employees for an indefinite strike, representing the demands of 30 lakh Central government employees. The unions' objective is to execute a legal strike involving every worker.
Following the ballot, JFROPS will convene in Delhi to determine the date for serving the strike notice to the Central government. The discussions among unions are considering commencing the strike in February, before the announcement of the General Election.
Given that nearly 60% of the entire Central workforce falls under the NPS, the unions anticipate substantial support for the strike, particularly from younger workers. Harbhajan Singh Sidhu, President of Hind Mazdoor Sabha, who was previously arrested, incarcerated, and removed from his Railway job for participating in the 1974 strike, emphasized that the workers are unwavering in their stance. He stated, "We will settle for nothing less than the restoration of OPS. This time, the enthusiasm among workers is much greater, especially as 7.6 lakh young Railways workers under the NPS are unwilling to compromise on factors such as increasing the pension amount provided under the NPS."
Sidhu noted that although there have been three confidential strike ballots in the Railways since 1974, the government has managed to avert strikes through discussions. However, this time, the sole demand is the abolition of OPS, and the Central government has not presented any proposal thus far. The primary grievance of the workers lies in the fact that under the NPS, their post-retirement pensions would range from ₹2,000 to ₹5,000, while the OPS guarantees 50% of the last drawn basic pay as a statutory pension, with adjustments for price inflation, including dearness relief.