Monday, May 19, 2008

Plus ça change....

A look backwards took place in my mind on returning from a recent trip to India – a country undeniably on the edge of great things, with a prosperous new middle class (300 million + ?) fueling rapid urban development. Lurking among all the buoyant statistics though is another which says that 300 million people live below the official poverty line and another 300 million or so inhabit the shadowy world between the very poor and the middle class ranks. These 600 million are now faced with the phenomenon of rising food costs worldwide. A recent New York Times report stated that working class families in New Delhi were having to do without milk or meat in order to buy rice. One wonders what else they are forced to give up.

Trying to explain all this to myself took me back again to India – this time in memory, to a hot summer day in 1967, when four of us sat for hours in a suffocating, dark room - air conditioning and lights turned off by an angry mob of striking workers. We were in a factory, 40 miles from Calcutta in the town of Kalyani. As I sat there, sweating, there was ample time to think back on the events which had landed me in this situation.

At that time I was the head of Finance and Administration of a British engineering company.

Business organisations all over the post-war world were embracing new developments in automation, computerisation and modern management techniques to survive. Calcutta too and the rest of West Bengal, traditionally the center of India's engineering sector began to take steps in that direction. India's first school for graduate business studies had been established in Calcutta in 1961 with MIT collaboration, funding from the Ford Foundation and with a young eager faculty, some of whom were my friends. Companies such as IBM set up operations in Calcutta. Professionals like myself now had access to courses and seminars that put us in touch with the latest developments in management thinking and technology of the '60s. There had been very little fresh investment in India's manufacturing sector since World War II and we were all excited by the prospect of being able to participate in the transformation of West Bengal's Rust Belt into a modern industrial environment.

Unfortunately, the modernisation of businesses in the 1960's invariably involved downsizing through automation and outsourcing (not unlike developments today). And also not unlike today, it was a difficult social argument to promote a degree of immediate unemployment in return for future growth. It was an even more difficult argument in Calcutta and West Bengal generally, which in the '60s was the nerve center of the Communists and Leftist movements of India. In 1967 they had come to power in the State Government and were not about to acquiesce in the loss of jobs. Closures or downsizing provided an obvious target as another example of capitalist exploitation. In the case of a British-owned business, the imperialist bogey could also be trotted out for good measure.

While all this was taking place our company had drawn up plans for modernization that would involve closing some processes. Approximately 75 of a total force of 500 would be made redundant through a Voluntary Retirement Scheme.

With the intention of finalizing these plans, a meeting was arranged with workers' representatives in the factory. The company was represented by our British Managing Director, myself, the Works Manager and a personnel executive. We soon found out that there was no negotiating intended on the other side. The Trade Union officials were under political instructions. We were summarily asked to withdraw all proposals for staff reduction. When we refused, we were advised that we would not be permitted to leave. The doors were locked, the power turned off, the phones disconnected and we realised that we were now being "Gheraoed" – i.e., subjected to a compulsory sit-in. We sat listening to the workers chanting slogans - inspiring ones at first such as "Long live the Revolution" - but as time wore on, more personal and offensive sentiments began to be expressed. I envied our British Managing Director, who couldn't understand a word of what was being shouted.

There had been instances of Gheraos continuing for 12 hours or more, until exhaustion or threats had forced the employers' representatives to capitulate or be carried out in ill health. We wondered how long our ordeal would last. Initially we did not really feel physically threatened. As the hours wore on though we all remembered with discomfort the infamous Jessop Steel Plant incident in 1949, two years after Independence, when a labor dispute turned murderous and a British engineer and his Indian colleague were pushed into a blast furnace. We had no blast furnaces in our factory, but there was no shortage of iron rods in an engineering establishment. We loosened our shirts in the heat and reconciled ourselves to waiting things out, since we did not really have a choice. There was an air of unreality about the whole proceedings.

Looking back on events, it seems incredible to me now that we sat through eight hours of this noisy confinement without food, water or access to bathrooms (Don't ask !). Suddenly the noise subsided, the door opened and we were advised we could go home. The union gave us notice that the workers were now officially on strike, and the management would have no access to the factory until the Company agreed to abandon any thought of labour reduction. We learned later that our workers had refused to be more harsh with us and insisted that we be released without further physical abuse.

We were eventually able to resolve the issue through measures which included protracted negotiation, some legal action and token improvements on our initial offer. The process took several weeks, during which time the striking workers received no wages.

Some time after these events, during one of my factory visits, I was talking to one of the workers and asked him how he had fared through those weeks. He told me that the strike had erupted during a period when he had fallen into debt because of the serious illness of his 2-year old child, who had then died as he could not feed his family and continue all the treatments at the same time. There was no animosity in his attitude - just an air of quiet resignation that I found more wrenching than any demonstration of rage or grief.

Management school theories seemed far away. I felt I was back in the Industrial Revolution, when conditions had prompted Thomas Hood in 1843 to write the lines

“Oh ! God ! that bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap !”

As the French say “.. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” ( “The more it changes, the more it's the same thing” )

No comments: