GE Workers Fight Back in India, Reach out to GE Workers in the US

At the end of a two-hour ride from Bangalore, just where the southern state of Karnataka meets the adjoining state of Tamil Nadu, I was met by C. Parthiban, a slightly graying handsome man with an ironic smile.

He had been waiting for the bright green rattling Ambassador car that I drove up in and waved us to stop on the side of the road. He told us to follow him on his motorcycle to the town of Hosur, the site of the dramatic protest being staged by the determined GE Employees Union outside the GE Power Products Limited plant where they had been locked out by the company.

The workers had been expecting me--an Indian activist from the United States now based in Bangalore. The workers were gathered, fully dressed to go to work, on a narrow grassy area under some trees, right across from the gates of the plant that displayed the sign board of GE Power Products.

It was hot and the shade provided some relief. The workers, although engaged in a grim battle for the past five years, were in good cheer and obviously a tightly knit group.

I sat down with Parthiban, the General Secretary of the union, and he introduced me to the different union officers, whose names became increasingly familiar as I heard about GE’s methodical targeting of them. Among them were Satyanarayan Reddy, Treasurer, P. Raman, Assistant Secretary, and Shankara Narayan, Vice President.

Parthiban laid out in detail the history of this plant. It had been established in 1981 and had consistently yielded excellent profits to its two previous owners - both are Indo-European ventures - English Electric Company of India Limited and GEC Alsthom India Limited. The unit had also distinguished itself in terms of cordial employee relationship and effective union-management bilateralism throughout the period.

On July 1, 1998, it was bought by General Electric. Since then, the workforce of 268 had been reduced to 136, and labor-management relations had deteriorated dramatically.

A day earlier I had met with Babu Mathew, the president of the union. Given his experience in dealing with Indians and Europeans compared to that with GE he told me bluntly that if he had his way, no U.S. company would be allowed in India. He would deal with the Europeans any day, "although they were not exactly angels."


As he told me the story of GE’s maneuvers "legal and illegal" I got the clear sense that the union was astonished at the ruthlessness of GE’s management practices. The question in their minds was--is this a GE management policy from the top of the hierarchy or an aberrant practice by a group of especially diabolical managers?

The first confrontation occurred when GE laid workers off, using as a pretext that the company, which had been very profitable under Indian and European management, was suddenly running at a significant loss, almost overnight. The workers, backed by Indian law which prohibits lay-offs in the absence of specific justification, challenged the company’s claims, demonstrating that they were based on lack of transparency in the accounting practices which led to misleading conclusions regarding the lack of profitability. For example, the company had assumed that sales were zero, and that demand was declining, when in fact the plant was still productive, and sub-contracting rather than declining demand was responsible for decreasing production. The company’s petition was rejected by the Department of Labour in October 2000.

That same month, GE began using a new approach. Instead of either accepting the decision or challenging it legally, they started removing some of the machinery and gave orders to transfer 36 workers to sales offices in far flung cities. Workers who had worked on assembly lines for years were suddenly supposed to perform sales duties far from their homes, often in places where other languages were spoken. However, the union soon realized that this was a tactic designed to generate fear to get workers to accept a Voluntary Retirement Schemes (VRS, which Mr. Soundaraj, who was sitting with us, called a Compulsory Retirement Scheme or CRS). Unfortunately, GE succeeded, as 108 workers accepted VRS during the bitter fight that ensued. The threat of transfers became a regular occurrence during most negotiations.

The turns and twists in management practices continued. It illegally failed to pay workers amounts they were due under an incentive system that was part of the contract. The matter was referred to the office of the Joint Labour Commissioner, in June 2001, who advised management to fulfil its contract with the workers and settle the arrears.

And then, when the time came for wage negotiations, the company tied an increase in wages to unrealistic increases in productivity levels--in some of the operations they demanded 500% increased productivity--and an increase of half an hour in the work day.

The union said it would consider the increase if the management could demonstrate that this increase was humanly possible. The union argued that since 1985, as part of successive wage negotiations, the productivity level had already increased by over 50%, and it was physically impossible for the workforce to operate at the norms demanded by the management.

Twelve rounds of discussion took place between September 27, 2002 and March 25, 2003. However, the wage increase offered by the management worked out to a mere 0.25% of total turnover of the Hosur plant, while the productivity increases demanded worked out to over 50%. As a result, the union refused the management offer of a wage increase and demands for productivity increase.

GE once again resorted to pressure tactics. It claimed that the union was bound to accept the management demand for increased productivity based on its ‘work-study’, and that this was not an issue for negotiation. It dismissed M. Satyanarayana Reddy, treasurer of the union on March 27. P.Raman, assistant secretary of the union was suspended from work on April 4 for refusing to attend a training program, and when he submitted his reply a few days later, was given a second show cause notice proposing his dismissal.



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C.Parthiban, General Secretary of the union, was given a second show cause notice on April 11 proposing his dismissal, for having discussed GE employee issues at a public forum. Shankar Narayan, the vice president was also charged for criticizing GE publicly. M. Satyanarayana Reddy, the treasurer faced a similar fate.

The workers repeatedly told me that GE was putting pressure on them to get rid of C. Parthiban as a leader in the union. However, this seems to have only strengthened the workers loyalty towards him.

Then, in June, the company issued another transfer order regarding six workers. The union appealed the transfer orders as being an attempt at unfair coercion and obtained an injunction against any punitive action by management against the workers for refusing to transfer.

The final straw was when, in August, GE suddenly escalated its attack by threatening all workers on the MCCB product line for not achieving the new production norms. This is clearly illegal, as the union had never accepted the new norms, and the company did not have the right to unilaterally impose new working conditions. The company gave transfer orders to another six workers to further pressure them. When they refused to transfer, the management dismissed them, and fired C.Parthiban.

At 4.30 p.m. on August 29, 2003, the workers started a stay-in strike and refused to leave their positions and the premises. This turned into a hunger strike on the following day. Seven workers fainted by the afternoon and were taken to the hospital but they returned to their positions that night. The women workers recounted the support they got from their husbands who took over housework and childcare at home.

On September 3, the management announced a partial lock-out and asked the workers to leave the premises which the workers refused to do. The management cut the power supply and the workers came back with candles and gas light. Then they cut off water supply and locked the toilets. Fear of snakes and insects added to the stress that the workers were already experiencing. GE also called the police, but they declined to evict the workers who were engaged only in a peaceful strike.

The company then filed papers in the court with a new and uninformed judge, even though another experienced judge had previously refused to issue an eviction order, and on September 9 were finally successful in obtaining an order. The police took action and the workers had to leave. Their family members staged a hunger strike outside to show their indignation.

According to the union’s lawyer, GE has taken the position that the workers are locked out, and "is putting up a show of running the factory with trainees and temporary labor, having obtained an injunction against picketing."

Although diminished in size to 136, this struggle has already and will leave a mark. Indeed, its outcome will have repercussions that go well beyond these workers. The fight of this union is important, not just for the GE workers in the plant, 99% of whose families depend solely on their income, but for the labor movement culture in general. In India’s world of politically fragmented unions, this fight has generated an unusual level of unity across different unions and political parties.

The local community in surrounding villages and towns have sent in support and turned up for solidarity rallies and hunger strikes. The companies in this industrial region are all watching to see which way this fight ends--they will then draw their conclusions about their own management practices should they follow in GE’s footsteps or not?


We were not sure what to make of the fax which arrived at the United Electrical Workers (UE) office from an unknown lawyer from India, V. Prakash, who said he was about to visit the United States, asked to meet with American workers, and said that he represented GE workers at a plant in Southern India where the workers were engaged in a sit down strike. But we knew that we wanted to learn more.

So we invited him to meet with us at UE’s office in Pittsburgh, and since it was just a week before the Labor Notes conference, we encouraged him to also attend that meeting, where he would have an opportunity to speak with progressive trade unionists from around the United States, and specifically with officers and workers from both UE Local 506 which represents GE workers in Erie, Pennsylvania who manufacture locomotives and from the IUE/CWA in Lynn, Massachusetts who manufacture aircraft engines.

He took us up on both suggestions and we were really pleased he did! In Pittsburgh, V. Prakash met with UE President John Hovis and International Representative Steve Tormey, where we were able to discuss in some detail the situation of the workers at the GE Hosur facility, as well as the political and labor situations in the United States and India.

Two days later, with the gracious assistance of the Labor Notes staff who took our last minute logistical requests totally in stride, we pulled together an excellent meeting. Concrete plans for communication and solidarity were discussed. They included meetings with local management, a formal letter to GE and information to our members and other U.S. workers about the situation.

Commenting on the meeting, UE Local 506 Chief Plant Steward Dave Kitchen said," Having an opportunity to meet with a representative of GE workers from India is truly global worker solidarity in action. We in the labor movement must reach out to our sisters and brothers regardless of geography if we are to have a chance at stopping exploitation of workers and exportation of jobs."

Alex Brown, Vice President of IUE/CWA Local 201 added: "Too often workers are pitted against each other in a continual forced competition over jobs and working conditions. It is exciting to sit down and talk directly and learn about their struggles against GE, which are similar to ours. Their sit down strike is inspiring and we will help in any way we can "