It's the second rung that flies the flag at trade unions

Last Updated: Tue, Feb 22, 2011 19:12 hrs

Trade unions are mostly averse to changing their top order. In at least two of the five leading central trade unions, elections are due in 2011, while in others, it is a year or two later. But, there has been a second rung that has been supporting the unions, often for too long. These are the vice-presidents and secretaries (often the latter), who do the bulk of the work.

And, when the top posts become political postings for some unions, the second line is also determined by positions in the party, and not the union.

The Centre for Indian Trade Unions (Citu), the CPI(M)-affiliated union had a sudden youthful makeover at its Chandigarh conference last year. M K Pandhe, who had been the union’s president for decades, was replaced by A K Padmanabhan, the Tamil Nadu state union president. But, Padmanabhan was also a central committee member of CPI(M), and so was the new general secretary, Tapan Sen.

Age and illness and, to some extent, an unexpected death accounted for the changes in Citu. While Pandhe had been ailing, W R Varadarajan, who was in race to be the general secretary at the previous conference three years ago, died under mysterious circumstances.

Union leaders see Padmanabhan’s selection as a measure to pacify the state union and party cadres, who were upset at Varadarajan’s death. The present state union president, A Soundarajan, was made the national secretary at the same conference.

Citu’s second line of leadership remains its many vice-presidents and national secretaries. The latter includes Dipankar Mukherji, a two-time MP and member of the Central Board of Trustees of the Employees Provident Fund Organisation, M M Lawrence and K K Diwakaran — all active in the state.

The unions, especially those affiliated to political parties, have a crisis of leadership, and union leaders admit this. One of the reasons is that a few union leaders, who are established in their states, are willing to come to the centre as office bearers only when nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

This does not bode well for the left parties, as elections are due in both their strongholds — West Bengal and Kerala — and the results are are expected to be unfavourable in both the states.

Since trade unions are mostly controlled by political parties, union positions and party positions are also interchangeable. So, many feel it may be the beginning of the end to Bengal’s domination in left unions and there could be faces from other states. Citu seems to have initiated this shift with its new president from Tamil Nadu.

The All India Trade Union Congress (Aituc) has been a trade union with its leaders trapped between a political ideology that does not work and a labour movement that is relevant and has become more challenging.

Aituc faces almost the same problems as Citu. Ajoy Bhawan, CPI’s party office, calls the shots, and union office bearers don’t always agree with the party’s ideology. This means appointments are not made on the basis of merit as a union activist but on standing in the party. If merit were to be the criterion, the trade union had people like H Mahadevan in its second rung, senior leaders like D L Sachdeva, G L Dhar, S N Thakur and Amarjit Kaur at the secretary level — most of whom are reluctant to consider top positions as these tend to be political.

Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh is a union that likes to remain youthful and elevates new and younger members to its top positions. It is expected to raise a new leader from among its vice-presidents, secretaries and state leaders to the top post in February.

Its vice-president, Amarnath Dogra, says the policy is to let people under 60 years lead the union. As we grow older, we tend to let the younger ones take up responsibilities, he says. So, while the president and general secretary are changed every six years, the seven vice-presidents and as many secretaries remain powerful as the second line of leadership. When BMS has its conference in February, a replacement has to be found for president Girish Awasthi, who has finished two terms.

Currently, in its second line, it has ageing vice-presidents like R V Subba Rao, Dogra, and D K Sadashiv and younger ones like Saji Narayanan, BMS’ representative at the International Labour Organization. The other vice-presidents are Akhtar Hussain, Gita Jayant Gokhale and Ram Deo Singh.

The Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress (Intuc) has a problem of too much authority in the hands of a few people for too long. Sanjeeva Reddy, 73, has been the union’s president for decades and also heads a few federations, besides being the president of the Andhra Pradesh Intuc. Its general secretary has already had multiple tenures in succession. The second rung comprises mostly the vice-presidents, including Parliamentarians like Pawan Singh Ghatowar and R C Khuntia. The next elections are due in 2012, which is a distant date.

The merger of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) with HMKP of Maharashtra led to a minor shuffling of leadership this year, with HMKP leader Sharad Rao replacing president Thampan Thomas.

The general secretary remains from HMS and the top wrung remains in the hands of people like secretaries R A Mittal and Thomas. It is railways that determines a lot of things for HMS. And its present general secretary is president of the All India Railwaymen Federation.

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