Labour unions used to be a major thorn in the side of corporate managers in India, along with the demons of inspector-raj, goonda-raj, and income tax (I-T)-raj.
Having grown up in Kolkata in the 1950s and 1960s, I had seen what unions could do when they grew nasty. My uncle had been ‘gheraoed’ in his office for 26 hours, meaning that he had been confined to his desk and surrounded by slogan-shouting mobs of workers. He had not been given food or drink, no phone call and not even a trip to the loo. Finally, he had collapsed at his desk and was rescued by a sympathetic peon.
So, when I started my first job as an engineer trainee in a consumer durable factory in Mulund, near Mumbai, I was curious to know, firsthand, how unions should be handled.
I developed a friendship with a shift supervisor – Sunil Maity – a fellow Bengali. He had one curious trait. Whereas the other shift supervisors hated working the night shift (10pm to 8am), Sunil Maity loved it. On this shift, he was the only boss on the factory premises. As most of the ‘shops’ (sections of the factory, e.g., press shop, machine shop, etc) would be closed at night and only a few would be working, one shift supervisor was considered to be sufficient for the whole factory.
After some judicious praise for Uttam Kumar, and extolling the “ektu beshi jhaal” phuchka (Bombay’s gol-gappa did not even come close), I managed to get close enough to Sunil-da to ask why he liked the night shift.
After making me swear on Maa Kali, Sunil-da explained that he lived nearby, in Thane. When on night duty, he would show up at 9.45pm to take charge from the afternoon shift supervisor. After 10pm, he would allocate the production quotas to the shift workers, and around 10.30pm he would go home to sleep. By 2-2.30am the workers would finish their production quota, barring the last few pieces, and go to sleep too. By 7.30am everyone would be up and back at work, Sunil-da would have arrived after his chaa-biskoot at home, and all was as it should be. The understanding between Sunil-da and the workers led to a win-win all around and, naturally, mum was the word.
Now that I had gained his confidence, I ventured to ask the crucial question: How did he manage the union?
Sunil-da smiled and asked, “Dekhbe ki bhabe manage kori?”(Want to see how I manage?), and when I nodded, he summoned Prabhakar Sawant, the head of the union, who was running a Traub six tool automatic lathe.
“Aabey saale, idhar aa” (come here), he said, much to my consternation. How on earth could he abuse the union leader?
Prabhakar left his machine and came up to Sunil-da, smiling.
Sunil-da gave him one slap on each cheek and said “Jaa, kaam kar” (go, do your work).
Prabhakar went back to his machine with a big grin on his face. The other workers were watching and they smiled too.
I could hardly believe what I saw. So Sunil-da explained in a rather rustic Bengali.
“These boka…..s are suspicious of all managers. But when they find one whom they can trust, they are 100% loyal. The main thing is to win their trust, make them believe that you have their good at heart, that you will be tough, but you will be fair. And above all, they must believe that you will protect them and never let them come to harm, at least not through your own hands.”
These words stuck in my mind, and I was able to use this pearl of wisdom in later years when dealing with unions myself.
The ‘No-bribes’ Boss
My first assignment as an engineer trainee was to manage the assembly shop when the regular supervisor went on leave.
Our product was an excisable item. Attached to the assembly shop was an excise store where finished products would be stored awaiting dispatch. From time to time, an excise inspector would arrive to check the records and verify that excise duty was being paid correctly and on time.
One fine morning, an inspector arrived. After the usual checks, but before signing off on the compliance certificate, he asked for one piece of our product, for free, of course.
Since I did not have the authority to give the ‘gift’, I went to ask permission to do so from the factory manager.
It turned out that he did not have the authority either, so he called up the managing director (MD) and received a resounding 'no bribes' directive. Not only that, he was specifically instructed that nobody was allowed to buy one piece and ‘gift’ it to the inspector. The most that could be done was that one of the staff would buy one piece, with the usual 11% staff discount, and give it to the inspector against payment.
When I conveyed this message to the inspector, he flew into a rage at this mighty insult. He, an excise inspector with the power to stop dispatches from the factory, was being asked to pay?
This was the time of inspector-raj, and the inspector did have the power to stop dispatches. He did just that, citing suspicions of irregularities in excise duty payments which had to be investigated.
Dispatches stopped, but production continued for a while. Soon the excise store was crammed full. We started storing the finished goods wherever we could find space, but the product was a bulky item, and every nook and corner of the factory started filling up. We could not move the finished products out of the factory because of the dispatch ban placed by the excise inspector.
Soon, production had to stop because there was no more storage space. The factory came to a grinding halt. Only a few small parts continued to be produced, some maintenance work was done, but largely the workers sat around chatting, playing cards and generally enjoying the break.
Our wholesalers started howling for deliveries. These were the license-quota days, and only one other company in India was allowed to manufacture the same product.
Our product started disappearing from the market. Our company was losing money, much more than the paltry cost of one single piece of our product.
Yet our MD was unmoved. 'No bribes' was the only remark he would make.
Ultimately, the excise inspector gave in after pressure had been put on his bosses through several bureaucratic and political sources. Excise clearance was given, dispatches resumed, production started and soon things returned to normal.
The moral of the story? None, actually. You are welcome to derive one if you can.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)