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Battle of banking employees

The recent bank strikes witnessed a massive congregation of disappointed employees demanding wage revision and opposing the announced bank merger

Battle of banking employees

Some strikes stand out as unique in respect to their overall impact. Take the case of the December 26, 2018 strike by a million bank employees. Disrupting nearly 30 lakh cheque clearances worth anywhere between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 25 lakh crore, in the estimates of bank union leaders, and much more in terms of online transactions – it is akin to a de facto mini-general strike with huge losses all around.

And, mind you, the loss is not notional and neither is it just a matter of delay of business by one day. A leading charted accountant in Chennai explains: "For a street-corner kirana shop, it might not be a big loss if the same customer comes and buys the next day. But for a big e-commerce firm, loss of transactions and payments on a particular day would count as net loss for the account books; it hardly matters even if the same customers were to book the same orders and pay online the next day. For book-keeping purposes, a day's loss is a day's loss and it doesn't get offset by the next day's business. A day' delay could still take a toll in terms of cost of capital and the total volume of transactions for the month. It is akin to PVR cinema halls going without screening a movie on a particular day or having low occupancy rates due to some disruption. Even if the same viewers come and watch the same movie the next day, it doesn't make up for the previous day's loss".

On December 21, 2018, bank officers held a successful strike and all employees came together for yet another total strike on December 26 leaving the business community puzzled about two successive bank strikes within a week. The December 21, 2018 strike was called by officers on their wage revision demand and against the Indian Banks' Association's (IBA) divisive tactics. The bank officers are graded into seven layers and the IBA was first arguing that they would negotiate the wages of only the first three levels of officers and not those of level 4 to 7 as they are executives. By joining the December 26 strike too, the bank officers successfully forced the IBA to concede their demand. As officers today outnumber clerks, not only in private banks but in most of the PSBs also, and as they possess the passwords for virtually all banking operations, they brought banking to a standstill and the IBA was not able to divide them.

A unique feature of the December 26 strike was that it marked the broadest confluence – from peons and clerks to executives, all stood united. In fact, it was even broader a confluence – besides all the employees of public sector banks, the employees of regional rural banks too joined in demanding that IBA implements the Supreme Court's directive on extending the PSBs pension scheme to them too; cooperative bank employees also participated with their demands and even the retired bank employees took part in demonstrations in large numbers in support of the strike over the anomalies in their pensions. The main demand, however, was against banks merger.

Yet another unique feature is that for the first time in India the officers are demanding a floor-level minimum wage. The demand is for Rs 57,000 monthly wage for Grade I entry-level bank officer. When some uninformed media persons raised eyebrows at this figure, the unions showed the legitimacy of this demand by pointing out that it is nothing but wage parity with the Seventh Pay Commission scale for government officers!

BJP spokespersons argue that in view of the NPAs crisis, the government's latest offer of 8 per cent is quite justified. What they try to conceal is that this 8 per cent is on the aggregate salary bill similar to the 'cost to the company' and then this would be apportioned in different proportions between clerks and officers and between basic pay and other allowances – ultimately, the increase in take-home pay would be marginal.

BJP spokespersons are lamenting that this was the fourth bank strike in 2018 itself – with one on May 30-31, one on August 22, another on September 4-5 and finally on December 26 – and, if we include the December 21 strike called by officers it is the fifth. Some wonder why the unions are going by this serial tokenism. V S S Sastry, a leader of Canara Bank employees who is now retired, explains: "It is a game of low-key attrition. The government and the IBA hope that they could tire the bank employees out through delaying tactics and force them into accepting a low hike. It took a strike in 2017 and another in May even to force the IBA to come to the negotiating table and commence the wage revision talks. The initial offer was a paltry 2 per cent and it took two more strikes to raise it to the present 8 per cent. The unions are cleverly avoiding an immediate showdown and thus giving a handle to a rabid right-wing government for a major crackdown. Moreover, it is also a war of perception and winning public support by taking care not to cause undue hardship to the public".

Lastly, the strike was against the policy of bank merger. Vasant Rai, president of the Karnataka Bank Employees Federation says, "We are opposing mergers because banks with high NPAs are dumped on viable banks and, hence, even SBI is showing an operational loss. We have strong suspicion that the government, instead of reviving individual banks by going after defaulters, is doing this to ultimately privatise the banks. So, the strike was to save the public sector banking industry."

The bank employees are also joining the two-day general strike on January 8-9, 2019 and their demands would also figure in that general strike. The battle will go on.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

B. Sivaraman

B. Sivaraman

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