As the UPA government is moving into election mode, trade unionsare working towards bringing the railways to a halt three months from now. The key demand is for setting up the seventh Pay Commission.
The Congress-backed National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) one of the largest unions in Indian Railways has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a month ago that the employees would go for a strike if their demands are not met within four months.
The largest railways union the All India Railwaymen Federation (AIRF) affiliated to Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) which is independent of political leanings has also informally announced plans for going for a strike if a seventh Pay Commission was not set up.
If the strike is indeed called after three months, it would be the second railway strike in Indian history, with the first one having taken place in 1974 led by AIRF.
AIRF's president and HMS general secretary Umraomal Purohit said that a declaration was made at a seminar of AIRF that there was no alternative but a general strike for getting a pay commission. Now the constitutional body of the union the general council has to take a final decision.
"The Industrial Disputes Act requires that the decision is then voted by all members of AIRF by secret ballot after which it would become official,'' Purohit who was sent to jail for nine months following the only railway strike of 1974 told Business Standard.
Meanwhile the NFIR which stayed away from the 1974 strike said that it expected the entire railways to be paralysed when a strike was called.
Sanjeeva Reddy president of Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) to which NFIR is affiliated said that union has sent its list of demands to the Prime Minister seeking his intervention after there was no response from the Railway and Finance Ministries.
NFIR general secretary Raghavaiah said that the strike would paralyse railways as 14 lakh workers would take part in it. The trains carry 2.40 crore people every day and this traffic would be hampered if we are forced to hold a general strike, he said.We had given four months time and one month is already gone, said Raghavaiah.
The main demand of the unions is setting up of the seventh Central Pay Commission.
"It is long overdue. We have been writing to the Railway Ministry and to the FInance Ministry. The Railway Ministry sent a proposal to the latter. But there is no response which forced us to seek the Prime Minister's intervention,'' said Raghavaiah.
If we dont get any response from the Prime Minister, we would be compelled to give notice for a strike, he said.
NFIR has only nine lakh members while AIRF has about 11 lakh members. NFIR is banking on dual memberships and expects 14 lakh to support the strike. AIRF had 18 lakh members earlier when the railways workforce was 22 lakh. This has shrunk to 14 lakh while the union membership has also come down, union members say.
Purohit said that there is no strike call as yet by anyone. A strike call has to be preceded by serving of notice, he said.
'' When we give notice for strike, the Government would take it seriously. But there is a long process to follow. We have to go to the general council and do the secret ballot,'' he said.
"Once the notice is served, the Government will talk. Last time we gave notice asking for the sixth pay commission, we did not have to call a strike,'' the veteran union leader recalled.
On the legality of railway strike, Purohit said that Industrial Disputes Act has set some conditions for strikes only for the railways. ''So we have to follow the process like taking a secret ballot. But even then the Government would declare the strike illegal..It would pass an ordinance and call it illegal,
The Government is also likely to withdraw our recognition but we are not bothered about that either,'' he says recalling that HMS lost its recognition for some time when NFIR called a railway strike lasting several weeks in 1974.
An old NFIR member recalls that the 1974 strike was never called off though it died off after several arrests and some deaths.