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23 April, 2015

Old photographs bring the light of other days around me

A set of photographs taken when I arrived at the Bombay regional office of United News of India in July 1973 after the agency's management revoked the order terminating my services following a five-day strike. The pictures above show Madhu V Shettye, President of the UNI Employees Union, Bombay, and colleagues welcoming me. (Madhu was a veteran journalist of Free Press Journal.) 

Inside the Bureau. On my right is S B Kolpe, President of the Indian Federation of Working Journalists, and  on my left is K K Duggal, who replaced me as Regional Manager at Bombay.

In December 1972 the management of UNI transferred me from New Delhi to Bombay. The UNI Employees Union, Delhi, was agitating for wage revision at the time. I did not involve myself in the Union’s work since, as News Editor, I was functioning in a supervisory capacity. However, as Vice-President of the Delhi Union of Journalists, I was active in the campaigns of the Indian Federation of Working Journalists.

UNI journalists got MPs to raise the wage revision issue in the two houses of Parliament. Based on information provided by the UNI management, Information and Btoadcasting Minister I K Gujral told Parliament the Union’s demand was unjustified as the news agency had implemented the Wage Board proposals the previous year. Under the law, the Union cannot raise a fresh wage demand for three years. The government’s response demoralized my colleagues at the Desk,who were looking forward to an improvement in their emoluments. I told them to challenge the minister’s statement which was not entirely correct. UNI had not implemented the Wage Board proposals fully. The agreement the management signed with the Union only provided for implementation of the pay scales proposed by the Board. The dearness allowance rates proposed by the Board were not being paid. Since the Wage Board proposals had not been fully implemented the UNI management could not invoke the clause about three-year bar. In the agreement signed with the management, the Union had, of course, agreed not to raise any new wage demand for three years. On its part, the management had agreed to revise the emoluments if the agency’s finances improved. Its finances had improved, and the management had an obligation to revise the emoluments in terms of this commitment.

Gujral was furious when he got the Union’s rejoinder to his statement. He blasted the General Manager for misleading him and rendering him liable to be hauled up for misleading Parliament. The General Manager knew he could no longer get the government to back his stand. He was aware that I had helped the Union to save the situation and decided to get me out of the way. The Union offered to raise the issue of my transfer. I advised them against it. I told the Secretary, George Mathew, that the management could not now avoid wage revision and the Union should not provide it an opportunity to bargain by taking up the issue of my transfer.

Having worked closely with the General Manager for more than four years, I had a fair idea of how his mind worked. I knew he was sending me to Bombay since there was a rival UNI Employees Union there. I was ready to face more trouble from the management. When I asked for a week’s leave to visit my family, which was still in Delhi, the management decided to strike. Within an hour of arrival at my Delhi residence, a UNI messenger delivered the sack order. It simply said “it has been decided to terminate your services, which is done herewith”.  An hour later T. P. Alexander, a reporter of the Bombay bureau, telephoned me and said K.K.Duggal had come from Delhi and taken charge of the office. Duggal, who had been News Editor before me, was flown to Bombay the previous night for the purpose.

“What happens to you?” asked Alex. “I have got a letter saying my services have been terminated,” I said.

“We are going on strike,” Alex said immediately. I told him I did not want colleagues in Bombay to stick their necks out. I would consult the Delhi union and the IFWJ, and there should be no precipitate action in the meantime, I said.

IFWJ Secretary General B R Vats and I met M K Ramamurthi, former IFWJ Secretary General who had left journalism and was practising at the Supreme Court.  He told us: “If the UNI union is capable of action, this is the time for it.”

The Delhi Union called an emergency general body meeting. Vats and Santosh Kumar, General Secretary, DUJ, conveyed Ramamurthi’s advice to the staff in spirited speeches in Hindi. While the meeting was still on, the Bombay Union announced it was going on strike immediately. The Delhi Union followed suit.

Santosh Kumar, in a report covering DUJ’s activities during the period May 1973 to January 1976, recorded as follows: “In July 1973,we faced another attack. This time, it was the management of the UNI which most arbitrarily terminated the services of another active trade unionist and a former vice-president of our Union, Shri B R P Bhaskar. The attack was met with confidence and strength. The executive held an emergency meeting and congratulated the employees of UNI –both journalists and non-journalists – who had gone on a lightning strike to protest against the medieval and despotic action of the UNI management. Our Union fully supported the strike and also organized a protest demonstration outside the UNI premises. At our request, the journalists and non-journalists of many establishments participated in the daily demonstration held outside the agency offices. The employees of the banks situated in the area also participated in the demonstration one evening, when it was heavily raining and we take the opportunity to specially thank the bank employees and their local organization, the Delhi State Bank EmployeesFederation, for the splendid demonstration of solidarity with us in time of need. Shri Rangarajan, Spl Correspondent of the UNI, played a notable role in this agitation.

“Ultimately, the UNI management relented and revoked the dismissal order served on Bhaskar.”

When the Delhi Union initially decided on a 24-hour strike, the management felt it could weather the storm. The following day the Union extended the strike by 48 hours and then by 72 hours.

On the very first day IFWJ President S B Kolpe and All India Newspaper Employees Federation General Secretary S Y Kolhatkar in a joint statement described the UNI management’s action as one of victimization for trade union activity and demanded that it be withdrawn. Shashi Bhushan, MP from Madhya Pradesh, who happened to be in Bombay on that day, also issued a press statement. So did a host of local politicians including Muslim League MLA G M Banatwala.

Bombay PCC President Rajani Patel sent a telegram to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asking her to intervene in the issue. Blitz Editor RK Karanjia visited the UNI Bombay bureau to express solidarity and dealt with the issue in his column in the next issue of the weekly.

While the strike was on, the Maharashtra Union of Journalist met at Pune for its annual conference. Chief Minister V P Naik, who inaugurated the conference, condemned the UNI management’s action and said the state government would not let the agency get away with it. State Minister for Information Sharad Pawar who was the chief guest on the second day also made a similar declaration. The MUJ designated the following Friday as UNI Day and held out threat of a statewide newspaper strike. The newspapers which are owners of the agency rarely take interest in its affairs. They were forced to sit up and take notice when S R Kulkarni, President of the All India Port and Dock Workers Federation, said dock workers would refuse to handle newspaper consignments of the newspapers which are on the board of directors of UNI if the sack order was not withdrawn.

On the fifth day the UNI management contacted Vats and sought IFWJ’s help to settle the issue. It offered to withdraw the sack order but wanted me to accept transfer to another centre. The management gave me a list of six centres to choose from. They were all in states where the chief ministers were displeased with UNI correspondents for one reason or another. From the list I picked Srinagar after making sure that N S Malik, who was then posted there, was ready to move. “If Iam going to get into trouble,” I told myself, “let it be in Jammu and Kashmir.”

What infuriated the trade union movement was the arbitrary nature of the management’s action. The termination notice mentioned no charges. Union Labour Minister K V Raghunatha Reddy asked the General Manager what was cause for action. He replied that the management had lost trust in me. He explained that the agency’s lawyer had advised against mentioning any charges since that would cast upon the management an obligation to hold an inquiry into the charges. Air India had dismissed a senior executive without citing any reason and the Supreme Court had upheld the airline management’s stand that it could not keep a person whom it did not trust in a key position.

In UNI, there was also a third Union -- in Kerala. It did not join the strike. Its President was Vayalar Ravi, MP. When I met Ravi later I asked why his union had stayed away. He said he was told by a senior UNI journalist that the issue had been resolved.

I had been with UNI for seven years at that ime, and that was more than I had spent in any institution previously. After my reinstatement I believed I had an obligation to stay on as a large number of colleagues, both journalists and non-journalists, had stuck their necks out for me. In the event I remained with the agency for a total of 18 years, nearly half of my working life. Since I enjoyed considerable professional freedom in the agency, the strained relationship with the management was not much of a problem. (A Facebook note prompted by a set of old photographs)


Chandana Shetye said...

Your article is a great source of information about the strenght of Journalist Unions in 1970s. It also gives insights into the struggle of journalists to impelement wage board recommendations for raising payscales of journalists. The photographs are even more memorable.I am daughter of veteran journalist Shri Madhu Shetye and I have one of the photographs that you have shared. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Chandana Shetye said...

Your article is a great source of information about the strength of Journalist Unions in 1970s. It also gives insights into the struggle of journalists to impelement wage board recommendations for raising payscales of journalists. The photographs are even more memorable.I am daughter of veteran journalist Shri Madhu Shetye and I have one of the photographs that you have shared. Thank you for sharing your experience.