Between 1966 and 1969, JB D’Souza was general manager of the BEST Undertaking, which ran Mumbai’s bus service. In 1968, the BEST workers’ union, led by George Fernandes, who died on January 29, called a strike. The episode was one that D’Souza always recalled with relish – and explained his lifelong disdain for Fernandes.
This is how he wrote about it in his 2002 memoir, No Trumpets or Bugles: Recollections of an Unrepentant Babu:
“[By late 1966] it became clear that, even after a tightening of maintenance schedules and store procurement, the Undertaking could not escape from its [financial] condition without a substantial fare increase. … I sought support for a rise from the Urban Development Minister, Dr. Rafiq Zakaria. He agreed that fares would have to rise, but advised me to wait till after the general election, a full nine months away. I explained that the Undertaking’s operations could not possibly last that long; we might have to default on wage payments or something equally critical. He waved me away: clearly I hadn’t understood the political facts of life. And indeed I hadn’t. I still thought it was unethical to win an election on a pretence that low bus fares would continue, and then to raise them after the polls — a thought that disturbed the Minister not at all.
Yet, only three months before the election a stormy meeting of the Corporation (where the only studied speech made in opposition to the rise came from the workers’ union president, George Fernandes) did approve a fare rise calculated to bring in three times as much additional revenue as my predecessor’s last (abortive) proposal. [T]he new fares were put into effect [on November 7th 1966], in a hectic effort I directed from minute to minute from the Bus Control Room at Bombay Central.
The ink was hardly dry on the Corporation’s approval of the new fares and their introduction when George Fernandes’s union held a demonstration at BEST House and presented me with an impressive Charter of Demands. … The demands amounted (in calculations made later) to over Rs. 4.33 crores. They threatened to set the Undertaking back well behind where it was before the fare rise. Some of them were preposterous; for example, an innocent looking insistence that workers get dearness allowance for all the days in a month, not only the working days.
This conveniently overlooked the mode of calculating the allowance then prevalent, which took the full monthly rate and divided it by the number of working days to arrive at the daily rate. The demand was clearly one for double payment, and would cost Rs. 76 lakh. Another claim, evaluated at Rs. 135 lakh, required the reduction of bus crews’ daily working hours from eight to six, a reduction out of line with practice all over India.
Discussions with the union continued from November until May. Busy with his election effort for the South Bombay Parliamentary constituency against a formidable adversary, S.K. Patil, George found little time to give to BEST union affairs. I had told him that any wage concessions would have to be offset by gains in productivity. For example, the union’s wasteful insistence on manning a single-decker bus with two conductors, which one of my predecessors had allowed in a moment of weakness, should be given up. That would bring in substantial savings.
Suddenly on the 29th of May, the press reported that the workers would strike if the demands were not settled by the 4th of June. George resigned from his presidency of the union to head an action committee, a tactic he regularly adopted to distance the union itself from a strike, at least technically, and avoid the consequences the law attached to illegal strikes.
On the 14th of June Fernandes held a press conference where he threatened a strike that night if the management remained adamant. The strike could be averted, he said, if a private arbitrator – not an industrial court, which the law provided, for such disputes –were appointed. Our experience with the arbitrator who had settled an earlier dispute had been most unhappy; it had created more potential problems than it solved. Tension built up that day, but ultimately an appeal by Chief Minister [Vasantrao] Naik induced George to withdraw his threat. Perhaps he had just been shadow-boxing. When we met the CM a few days later to explain our case, Vasantrao Naik said he had made it clear to Fernandes that extravagant demands could not be conceded; they must be settled by discussion, both of the demands themselves and on the operational economies the management had suggested.
Discussions were resumed. We watched George resume his position in the union. He had won the Lok Sabha seat, but was now fighting Patil’s election petition in the Supreme Court. Our negotiations produced a statement of possible concessions, concessions that would be possible if they were accompanied by certain rises in productivity, such as running single-decker buses with only one conductor. Evaluated, these gains added up to Rs 50 lakh, which was all we thought the organisation could afford. One morning, before we shared this evaluation with Narayan Phenani, the union’s secretary, George asked me in strict confidence – adding that he knew the BEST couldn’t afford to meet his demands in their entirety – how much I thought we could afford. In my innocence and inexperience I trusted his assurance of strict confidence. Rs. 50 lakh, I said, with the stipulation that we needed offsetting productivity economies. That same afternoon, George addressed a gate meeting of BEST workers outside our office. I heard him tell the meeting that the GM had offered Rs. 50 lakh, which was totally unacceptable; the union would fight this repressive GM. Loud cheers.
Discussions continued desultorily. Until one memorable day: the Supreme Court confirmed George’s election. On the very next day, the 29th of January 1968, I believe, he called a strike. …
It was the first time that George Fernandes was to lose a strike in the BEST, which he and the city’s political leaders had for many years regarded as his own turf. With Shanti Patel, the Leader of the House in the Corporation, Ravji Ganatra, our Chairman, and A.K.Hafizka, President of the Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee, we decided to run no buses during the strike. …
Our workers were already pretty well paid, apart from other perks they enjoyed. Shanti Patel urged me to publicise widely the emoluments the workers enjoyed, which compared very well with wages in other industries. Day after day I did this in advertisements in the major newspapers, adding explanations in simple terms of the issues involved, and ourselves always apologising – wherever the blame lay – to commuters for the inconvenience they were suffering.
Here is one of those advertisements
IF YOU ORDINARILY TRAVEL BY BUS –
The Undertaking regrets the hardship its striking workers have imposed on you.
We would like to bring this strike to an end as soon as possible.
Further concessions to BEST strikers will cost you at least another 10 paise daily.
Bus travellers would have to pay 5 paise more for each journey they make. There is no other way to meet the extra cost since Mr. George Fernandes does not agree to economies in operation to the extent necessary. He does not agree to arbitration either.
SHOULD YOU PAY MORE TO RAISE THE WAGES OF BEST WORKERS?
An average municipal employee gets Rs. 180 monthly in pay and dearness allowance. He enjoys 50 days’ leave in a year.
An average BEST worker gets Rs.300 monthly in pay and dearness allowance. He may also earn an incentive bonus of Rs.50 to 60. Most BEST workers enjoy 47 days’ leave each year.
An IAS officer starts his career earning Rs.520 monthly in pay and dearness allowance. Throughout his career he gets no more than 45 days’ leave a year.
We are not averse to paying our workers even better, but this burden must not fall on you. It need not; we can pay better if our costs are reduced by economies. Such economies were proposed to the Workers’ Union, to offset the costs of the concessions it wanted. They were being discussed. But quite suddenly Mr. Fernandes decided to take the workers out on strike. It is now convenient to forget that equivalent economies were being discussed at all.
So the strike continues, and you have to walk to work. For this, though we are not responsible, we are extremely sorry.
Two consequences confirmed the wisdom of this effort: One, it discomfited Fernandes, who obviously saw in it the danger of an erosion of public sympathy for the strikers. He ranted against it in the Corporation, asking how an undertaking that could not afford to give in to the union’s demands could waste money on advertising. Two, the very effect he feared – there was a people’s morcha in harsh criticism of the strike, an expression of public displeasure that had never happened before.
George [later] pulled the taxis off the streets in a sympathetic strike, and vowed that each day would bring the citizen greater afflictions. … That was the beginning of the end: Taximens’ sympathy faltered the very next day; the buses’ absence had allowed them to profiteer as they had never done before; George’s blandishments to persuade them to stay off the roads were ignored. No other unions were interested enough.
On the strike’s tenth day – the workers’ pay day had come and gone with no disbursements – George held a “massive” late evening rally of BEST workers at Chowpatty, to chalk out plans for the next few days, to shut the city down, if necessary. I happened to be dining at a friend’s home very near Chowpatty. After dinner, along with one of Bombay’s leading lawyers, Atul Setalvad, who also happened to be there, I strolled over to the beach, hoping to catch at least the concluding thrusts of George’s eloquence. Unfortunately, the meeting was just over. We asked some of the dispersing workers whether there would be a bandh. We met a dispirited lot: “What bandh? Who’s going to join?” About 1.30 that night, [the strike was called off]. I spent the next few hours devising arrangements for the resumption of our services as fast as possible. …
Not too long after that George Fernandes seemed to relax his hold over labour in Bombay. He made Bihar the focus of his activity. He must have had strong reasons for doing so, and I cannot believe that our little squabble in the BEST had anything to do with it. But Bombay lost its bandh-master.