…was truly Orwellian after the management fired journalists for refusing to work during a lockout over a new union. SUSAN ABRAHAM recalls her 30 year legal battle to get justice over unfair dismissal (Pix: Express Towers, Mumbai).
Posted/Updated Thursday, Nov 20 23:31:29, 2014
The year 1984 was truly Orwellian: Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the anti-Sikh pogrom, and Bhopal gas disaster shook the nation. For workers and a few journalists of the Indian Express Bombay, the year also saw a slew of dismissals from their dearly held jobs. In January, I and four other workers from the printing and offset departments were sacked.
All in all, about 50 employees lost their jobs for taking sides with the workers who wished to form a union. Indian Express owner and media baron Ramnath Goenka, the ‘Durga’ slayer who shaped the anti-Emergency stand of Indian Express between 1975 to 1977, was famed for opposing any form of unionization by workers or journalists.
All those who lost their jobs in 1984 fought for justice to get their jobs back. But little did we know that the judiciary is no alternative for the average worker. The ‘long arm of the law’ for us meant a rigid legal system that expects workers to remain unemployed while paralyzing them with no alternative but to wait for ‘tareekh pe tareekh’.
In my case, it took 30 years for me to get a modicum of success. I filed a case in 1986 in the labour court against the Indian Express for using the dismissal weapon to victimize me and others for legitimate union activities.
However, my four fellow workers who were dismissed simply could not continue the fight. Around 15 workers dismissed separately by the management continued with their cases first in the Labour Court. Strange but true that all these cases in the Labour Court, including mine, went against us, forcing us to approach the High Court.
In my case, which was dismissed in 1997, a heavily biased Labour Court judge held me guilty of trying to close down the Indian Express, something which even the management had not accused me of!
My petition in the Bombay High Court was filed in 1998 to challenge both the Labour Court order as well as the 1984 dismissal order of the Indian Express. The case was finally closed by the High Court on September 19, 2014 when it gave its firm opinion that the 1984 termination order was totally unjustified and directed the newspaper and me to end the 30-year-old dispute by entering into a settlement.
So what was the fight all about? Many could not believe that I was fighting this case for so long. “For what?”, was the common refrain. Quite a few found me quixotic, fighting imaginary windmills! To them I would say “to dream the impossible dream…”.
Genesis of the struggle
It all began around August 1981 when a large number of workers at the Indian ExpressBombay formed the Dr Datta Samant-led Maharashtra General Kamgar Union (MGKU) which the Indian Express management opposed from day one.
In Bombay’s industrial belt in the ‘80s, industry after industry saw the rise of Dr Samant, the militant trade union leader. Workers and other employees in manufacturing, engineering and textiles embraced his unions enthusiastically in a veritable wave which eventually reached the Indian Express at Nariman Point.
A majority of workers from the printing, rotary and packing departments took the lead in forming the union. (This was the period when articles had to be typeset in hot metal, pages proofread, page impressions taken on ‘flongs’ and final pages rotary printed).
Goenka and his deputy editor Arun Shourie retaliated against these employees for daring to form a union of their choice. When it came to journalists, the management targeted a group of us seven journalists working on the Express magazine for supporting the workers by insisting that the lockout imposed by Goenka and Shourie to stifle the union should be lifted.
Dina Vakil was our editor and we were seven sub-editors/feature writers – Devika Sequeira, Adil Jussawala, Books Editor, Ranjani Shrinivasan, Smita Gupta, Cyrus Mistry, Savita Chandiramani and myself.
Towards the end of October 1981, our editor and Hiranmay Karlekar the resident editor held a meeting with the editorial staff saying that the management was not going to concede to the demands of the MGKU and that it was contemplating a lockout, which would ultimately lead to a closure of the Indian Express in Bombay.
They advised us that it would be in our interest to ‘’cooperate’ as Goenka would set up an independent bureau which would employ only those journalists who did `co-operate’ and that thus our jobs would be secure. We were even treated to a special lunch with Goenka at his penthouse in Express Towers, obviously to win us over!
Indian Express, Bombay was locked out from November 1, 1981 rendering about 1,100 employees in various departments out of work. The lock out was declared by the Goenka-Shourie combine to coerce employees into leaving the union. On November 11, a notice of closure of closure was up, citing “labour trouble” as the main reason.
On 2nd November, the seven Express Magazine journalists were called by our editor and the resident editor to be told that we would have to work during the lockout to bring out the Sunday magazine. The true import of the `co-operation’ expected from us by our editors and Goenka became clear then.
The pressure to work during the lockout arose from the fact that the Express Magazine had to be brought out from Bombay for the other nine cities where the paper had its editions. We discovered that, whereas the other journalists – on the news desk, the Loksatta, the Financial Express and the Screen – found their departments closed, the Express Magazine was going to be brought out by Vakil from the Indian Express guest house at Cuffe Parade and our editors expected us also to work.
However, the entire editorial staff took a principled stand that we could not work till the lockout had been lifted since it was out of the question for us to work when all other journalists and employees were locked out.
Our stand eventually led to our victimization by the management in one way or the other. We were not the only ones. Goenka and Shourie went all out to malign the workers and their union, even insinuating that former Maharashtra chief minister A. R. Antulay had bribed Dr Samant in revenge for the newspaper’s coverage of a cement scandal which had forced Antulay to resign in 1982.
On February 10, 1982, the management issued an advertisement indicating their intention of lifting the lockout if workers signed undertakings that they had no connection with the “illegal strike” or that they were “willing to terminate the strike and resume duties forthwith”. About 300 workers who signed these were allowed to resume duties. More than 800 chose not to sign since there was no strike in the first place, leave alone an illegal one. These 800 remained out while the MGKU union challenged the undertakings in the High Court. The court later directed the remaining 800 workers and employees to sign modified undertakings which did not use the term ‘illegal strike’. Thus the lockout came to be lifted by 26th March 1982.
Suspensions, transfers and terminations…
The first round of management reprisals saw a number of MGKU office bearers and activists issued letters of suspension and not allowed to join work.
Then it was our turn at the Express Magazine. Bar one, none of us had signed the `illegal strike’ undertaking. Once the lockout had been lifted, the management got down to work. Adil Jussawalla’s services were terminated summarily while Cyrus Mistry, who was due for confirmation after his six month probation period, was given a fresh letter of appointment, effectively extending the probation for another six months.
The lone journalist who signed the ‘illegal strike’ undertaking was rewarded with a double increment and all the writing assignments while the rest of us were given no increments and assigned only technical work.
In mid-April 1982, Ranjani Shrinivasan and I were transferred to Cochin and Chandigarh respectively. We filed a complaint before the Industrial Court challenging the transfer as malafide victimisation. After hearing Indira Jaising argue the case, the court stayed the transfer order and we were back at the desk where the harassment and discrimination continued.
Devika Sequeira, Cyrus Mistry and Ranjani Shrinivasan were later forced to quit.
The management then went on a suspension-dismissal spree between 1982 and 1984. In January 1983, I (and the four workers I mentioned earlier) was suspended for misconduct for threatening two supervisors. After a year-long ‘domestic enquiry’ all that was recorded against me was that one of the supervisors stating that I had told him “not to harass workers” and the other one stating that I had not told him anything. Despite this, the management terminated my services in January 1984 on the grounds that the charges against me had been proved.
Before settling my case in High Court on September 19, 2014, Justice Rekha Sondurbaldotta made it clear that the Indian Express had failed to make out a case for sacking me, forcing the management to settle. It was only then that “consent terms” were signed between the Indian Express and myself and filed in the High Court after the newspaper withdrew the 30 year old termination letter against me and offered a financial settlement towards back wages.
During these 30 years, after completing my law degree, I began working as a lawyer and often also worked with trade unions. The Indian Express workers continued to fight bravely in various courts. Sadly, with so many union leaders thrown out of their jobs, the MGKU was virtually thrown out too.
I realized that the notion that the judiciary is the best alternative to settle labour disputes was a myth but that does not negate the fact that the fight for the rights of workers – whether journalists or anyone else – is important.
Just because it was long, arduous and painful does not mean that the struggle was unnecessary; that is precisely the conclusion that the Indian Express management, and all managements who deny their employees the legitimate right to organise, would have loved to draw from the experience. For that reason alone, the battle was worth the fight.
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