Every bank had several unions, generally one or two major ones. Bank management did not want any battles with the unions. Hence, bank managers had to ‘manage’ the unions and not create any issues.
If you were a manager, every action of yours that even remotely affected the staff would be under constant watch and, if you slipped even slightly, the union would pounce on you with all the fanfare and din it could muster.
The reason was simple – a union leader enjoyed being the leader and was anxious to retain his position. The best way to ensure this was to constantly demonstrate that he was fighting the management and that without his leadership, the staff would be devoured by that big bad wolf.
In order to deal with the union boss, you had to understand two things:
- A known devil is better than an unknown ‘friend’.
- The union boss has to deliver to his constituency – the staff. If you prevent him from doing so, he will be ousted and in his place, there might come a firebrand who could be much worse.
So, the formula for survival was:
- Build a good relationship, man-to-man, with the union boss.
- Ensure that he is not embarrassed or made to appear a failure.
An example of how this works.
While working as operations manager at a big branch, I had built up a good relationship with Vasant Munde, the union leader with whom I had to interact every day. After three years, I returned to the branch as manager. Mr Munde was still the union leader, going strong.
In fact, he was very strong. He had ‘gheraoed’ my predecessor in his office for 16 hours, though he did allow toilet visits and some bun-maska (buttered bun, an Irani restaurant staple) from time to time.
I was determined not to get a dose of that!
The Indian Bank’s Association (IBA) was the apex organisation that negotiated with the unions on behalf of the entire banking system, and directives from the IBA had to be followed.
One fine day, IBA sent out a circular advising banks that apex level discussions had led to a new system of health benefits for the staff whereby they could, collectively, choose one of two formulae, say A and B. Banks were free to adopt either formula after agreement with their respective unions.
I told my operations manager to find out from the human resources (HR) department at the head office which formula we could choose. He reported back to say that whichever formula the union decided was acceptable.
Unfortunately, my operations manager had not obtained written confirmation of this guideline—a crucial error.
I called in Mr Munde, exchanged pleasantries and told him he could choose either A or B. After a few days, he informed me that the union wanted A.
I told my operations manager to inform the HO (head office).
A few days later, the HO responded with the directive, “It has to be B.”
I brought Mr Munde to my office and, behind closed doors, told him he must opt for B instead. He protested that he would lose face before the staff for reversing the union’s earlier decision.
But I managed to persuade him by listing out several reasons why B was actually better for the staff.
Mr Munde grumbled, but he accepted the idea, went back to the staff, and sold them B instead of A.
Two weeks later, a bombshell dropped.
HO came back in writing saying that the majority of the unions across India has opted for A, and for the sake of uniformity, all branches must adopt A.
I called in Mr Munde, closed the door, sat him down, and told him he must switch back to A.
He exploded. “Main to barbad ho jaunga. Un log mujhe maar dalenge. Yeh kabhi nahi ho sakta.” (I will be finished. They will kill me. This is simply impossible.)
I calmed him down and said, “Munde-saab, you and I are old friends. I trust you, and you trust me. Believe me, this has to be done. I will tell you how it can be done.”
Mr Munde looked at me suspiciously but listened.
I summoned my secretary and told her that Mr Munde and I had a lot to discuss, very confidentially, and nothing was to disturb us – no phone calls, no messages and nobody to enter my office.
As I knew it would, the message filtered down to the staff – Mr Munde was into something big with the manager.
I told Mr Munde, “Listen, we will sit together for three hours. We will just have a long chat and then I will tell you what to do. From time to time, I will call in my head peon (a well-known union spy) and, when he comes in, I want you to rant and rave about the management and your struggle against oppression. Got it?”
Mr Munde was a seasoned veteran in politics and intrigue. He nodded.
For the next three hours, we discussed all and sundry matters of mutual interest – the forthcoming India-Pakistan cricket series, who could oust Rajiv Gandhi, Madhuri Dixit versus Sridevi – all matters close to Mr Munde’s heart.
After every hour or so I buzzed for tea. The head peon would come in to find Mr Munde spouting invective at me while I tried to placate him, which the head peon duly reported to the staff waiting eagerly for news.
Finally, I told Mr Munde what to do.
“Go and tell the staff that you have figured out that A was better than B after all, and that getting the union to switch to B was a vile management trick. You have fought tooth and nail and restored the A formula.”
Mr Munde broke into a big smile, nodded, and left.
Next, I heard him launching into a rousing speech outside my office, describing to his flock how he had spotted the trickery of the management and how he had defeated the management’s machinations and saved the interest of his brothers and sisters in the oppressed staff.
Win-win for all!
A few officers were surprised at my 'giving-in' to the union, but who cared? I had averted being ‘gheraoed’.
(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.)