The first bus after the strike, on Route 453, makes its way out of Wadala Depot on Wednesday afternoon.

The first bus after the strike, on Route 453, makes its way out of Wadala Depot on Wednesday afternoon.   | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Relief for commuters as BEST workers call off nine-day strike; mediator to look into problems for next three months; interim 10-step increment given to some workers

Nine days after they first held the city’s red lifeline to ransom, striking Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) employees returned to work, with the Route 453 bus rolling out of the Wadala depot at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

This was the longest BEST strike in 37 years, and one during which none of the 3,337 buses were seen on the roads. Major strikes in 2007 and 1997 had only lasted three days. In the nine days since last Tuesday, the BEST lost ₹25 crore to ₹27 crore in revenue.

Jubilant: BEST workers congratulate union leader Shashank Rao after the strike is called off on Wednesday afternoon.

Jubilant: BEST workers congratulate union leader Shashank Rao after the strike is called off on Wednesday afternoon.   | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

At the end of the day, all 32,000 striking workers were back behind wheels after the Bombay High Court appointed former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court F.I. Rebello as a mediator to resolve the issues raised by the workers.

For now, as an interm relief, 13,000 junior grade workers will get a 10-step salary increment from January.

By about 7 p.m., 893 buses were back on the roads, much to the joy of the commuters who had suffered long queues waiting for taxis and shelling out extra bucks.

Psychology student Manasi Chindarkar (21), whose daily commute is from Bandra to Matunga, said, “I cannot wait to catch a bus for college from Thursday. I had missed travelling in the comfort of a bus and was commuting by train. Now, I can again revise my notes and read books en route.”

uring the hearing in HC on Wednesday, advocate Neeta Karnik, who was representing 32,000 BEST employees under the aegis of the Workers’ Union, sought a 15-step increment. However, senior advocate MP Rao, who fought for the BEST management, told the court that even a 10-step increment would cost them Rs 80 crore. He also argued that the strike was causing inconvenience to the public and now that all the sides had agreed upon the appointment of a mediator, the union should not strike work anymore.

Soon after the court hearing, Shashank Rao, leader of the BEST Workers’ Union, rushed to the Wadala depot to hold a meeting with the workers around 3 pm. He lifted the strike only after the workers gave their consent after accepting the HC’s mediation proposal.

It was at this same depot that 95 per cent of the employees had voted in favour of a strike on December 20. “We have been given justice today. The appointment of a mediator is a welcome step as it will give us an unbiased platform to place our demands and argue our case,” said Rao.

While addressing the employees at the depot, Rao made it clear that they had agreed to the 10-step increment proposal, but not the other economic reforms suggested by the high-powered committee.

With a 10-step increment, an employee is expected to get a monthly raise of about Rs 4,000. The pay hike will come into effect from January itself, while negotiations for other demands for improved wages and the remaining 10-step will be held in the next three months.

“It is victory for us as we got the 10-step increment without having to agree to any of the economic reforms, which included stopping of allowances, that the BEST administration wanted. We had sought a 20-step increment and will negotiate it further,” Rao added.

The discussion on wet leasing and merger of BEST budget with that of BMC is likely to take place over the next three months. “The budget merger was the other major demand that will be looked into. As for wet-leasing, we are still opposed to it,” added Rao.

BEST workers rejoiced across the city after notices issued to them under the stringent Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act (MESMA) and for indiscipline were withdrawn.

Ganesh Jadhav, who works in the Dadar workshop of BEST and is one of the 13,000 employees in the junior grade pay, said, “Earlier I used to earn Rs 11,000 a month, but now with the hike, I will get at least Rs 14,000 to Rs 15,000 and won’t have to take loans to make ends meet

The road ahead

Earlier in the day, drama unfolded in the High Court as the unions, BEST and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) played hardball over setting the terms of references for mediation, which is likely to go on for the next three months.

A BEST worker checks tyre pressure of a bus before it goes back on the road.

A BEST worker checks tyre pressure of a bus before it goes back on the road.   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

The terms of references covered a wage increment of 10 steps — equivalent to a ₹1,250 raise in the basic salary — the merger of the BEST and BMC budgets, and implementation of a string of efficiency measures as well as the charter of demands.

‘Hard-fought victory’

The court proceedings were followed by a gathering of jubilant workers at Wadala depot. Almost three years after they first placed the charter of demands before the State government and the BEST administration, the mood was of a win achieved after a hard fight. Shashank Rao, leader of the BEST Workers’ Union, told the roaring gathering, “We have fought a victorious battle, and have got our dues in writing. What we have been demanding for three years will now happen in three months. When a fresh agreement is signed, you will get arrears from April 1, 2016.”

Unsuccessful meetings

The three-member committee appointed by the State under Chief Secretary D.K. Jain met on January 11, 13, 14, but could not reach a settlement. “The committee met on January 14 at 9 p.m. and held discussions with the union until late in the night. However, no settlement could be reached,” read the minutes of the meeting accessed by The Hindu.

Family members of BEST workers celebrate the end of the strike at Ghatkopar BEST Colony on Wednesday evening.

Family members of BEST workers celebrate the end of the strike at Ghatkopar BEST Colony on Wednesday evening.   | Photo Credit: Prashant Waydande

“The committee has been making every effort to bring a negotiated settlement between the [Union and BEST]. However, this may take more time. In the interim, given the citizens are being inconvenienced, the honourable court may consider directing the union to withdraw the strike,” it said

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