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Union-busting at Unilever factory in Assam: Union must disband before lockout is lifted, management says

Posted to the IUF website 17-Aug-2007

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Management at the Unilever factory in the Doom Dooma Industrial Estate in the north eastern state of Assam, India, is trying to smash the Hindustan Lever Workers Union by locking out its 700 members and creating a sham union. Management�s condition for ending the lockout is that the legitimate union must be disbanded and that all workers transfer their membership to the new union created by management.

The dispute began when management withheld payment of an allowance that - in accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in April 2004 - was to be paid to all union members from 1 April 2007 onwards. When union members didn�t receive the allowance in their May pay slips, the union sought an explanation from management. The situation rapidly deteriorated, with management refusing to respond to union concerns, then cancelling and postponing meetings. A meeting finally took place on the afternoon of 6 July, lasting 16 hours and ending without result on the morning of 7 July.

On 8 July management suddenly claimed that they had been �held� for 16 hours by the union, issuing 8 suspension orders as well as filing a complaint with the police. A 15-minute blackout during the meeting was also subsequently blamed on the union!

From the morning of 7 July until the lockout notice on 15 July, no management or managerial staff reported to work at the factory. All workers still reported for work, but without any managerial staff present, they received no work assignments. This continued for a week, until the management issued the lockout notice. Incredibly, the company accused the union of a 24-hour strike on 7-8 July despite the fact that all workers attended their shifts. In fact, it was management that was on strike!

It was soon clear that management had no intention of entering into negotiations, but was simply using the allowance dispute to smash the union. In response to the union's request for intervention, the Labour Department called a mediation meeting on 16 July, but management didn�t show up. Management then failed to attend conciliation meetings on 18, 24 and 27 July!

Instead of attending these meetings, the management was busy creating a new union called the Hindustan Unilever Democratic Workers Union. The HR Manager and Commercial Manager attempted to recruit workers into the new union contacting more than 80 union members by phone. But all of them refused to leave their union.

On 28 July management told the union president, Brother Nogen Chutia, that the lockout would only end if the union disbanded and all workers joined the Hindustan Unilever Democratic Workers Union.

In response to this attempt to smash the union, a mass sit-in protest by 700 union members was held for 3 days starting 3 August. On 8 August over 100 union members held a protest at Assembly Hall, the local parliament. Support has come from student, youth and social organisations who are creating pressure on Unilever management to lift the lock-out.

While the struggle of the Hindustan Lever Employees Union (HLEU) in Mumbai against the fraudulent sale and closure of their factory continues, and while action brought against the company by the IUF within the framework of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises remains ongoing, Unilever has again flaunted the principles and standards for responsible conduct enshrined in the Guidelines at one of its Indian operations and will be facing scrutiny by the OECD once again.