Kerala's news agents strike: some issues

BY N P Chekkutty| IN Media Practice | 03/04/2012
Internal divisions within the newspaper agents' association, the uncompromising attitude of major newspaper groups, as well as public resentment brought the strike to an ignominious conclusion,
says N P CHEKKUTTY. Image:
The indefinite strike launched by the All Kerala Newspaper Agents’ Association on March 20, seriously holding up the distribution of all major newspapers in the State, fizzled out by the end of the month and most agents were back at work by the dawn of All Fools Day.
The strike was called by the association, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the powerful trade union arm of the CPM. The strike came to an ignominious conclusion thanks to a number of reasons: The internal divisions within newspaper agents’ association and its own lack of clarity on their objectives; the tough and uncompromising attitude adopted by the major newspaper groups in the State refusing even to negotiate the demands, and the public resentment as the strike was being increasingly seen and described as an infringement on the citizens’ right free access to information. As the strike continued and the distribution remained in disarray in most major cities, people were seen queuing up to buy newspapers at the temporary sales counters set up by major newspapers at their own offices and printing shops. A senior staff member at Mathrubhumi told this correspondent that at their Kozhikode office, the daily sales were often between 20,000 to 25,0000 copies a day!
Yet, the agitation and the movement for organizing the newspaper distribution agents in the state were based on good intentions and solid foundations. When their grievances were first brought to pubic notice over a year ago, they did enjoy a good measure of public sympathy despite the fact that major newspapers refused even to carry any news items on their demands. It is very clear that the factors that brought the present discomfiture were the political pulls and pressures that divided the movement causing a vertical split in the agents’ ranks and consequent public resentment about the strike. Though the strike itself was not formally withdrawn even on April 3, substantial sections of those who joined it initially had withdrawn from it. A senior marketing staff at a Kozhikode newspaper said more than 80 per cent of the daily distribution has been resumed by the first of April.
The Kerala Newspaper Agents Association was launched as an independent organization over a year ago, mainly as a result of the price war brought to the Kerala market by powerful national newspaper chains like the Times of India and the Deccan Chronicle. When Deccan Chronicle launched their fist Kerala edition from Cochin a year ago, they reduced the cover price to Rs 2 a copy, while most newspapers were selling at Rs 3.50 in the State (Now Rs. 4 a copy.). To win over the distributors and persuade them to distribute their newspaper at Rs 2, the Deccan Chronicle management offered them 50 percent commission, while all local newspapers were offering between 27 to 30 per cent over the cover price. These English newspapers sold only a few thousand copies in the cities, the major Malayalam newspapers sold more than a million every day.
This set off a chain reaction. The agents raised demands for a higher commission pointing out the difficulties to get boys to work in the wee hours, the increasing number of special sections and pull-outs every day that added to their work load, and the generally increased profits made by the newspapers with substantial hike in ad flow. They pointed out that the Deccan Chronicle and Times of India were offering higher rates of commission at a reduced cover price, and demanded the local newspapers also to follow suit. They even called a one day strike on September 3, 2011 which was a big success as most newspapers decided not to print their editions that day. The agents association also went ahead with a move to charge Rs. 10 on the newspaper bill per household as service charge which met with widespread public resentment.
Then came the decision to affiliate the association with the CITU, whose Marxist leaders had a long standing running battles with some powerful media groups in Kerala like the Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi. The decision for an indefinite strike was decided upon by the new leadership, based on a 12-point charter of demands. These demands included setting up a welfare fund for agents, hike in agency commission from 27 to 50 percent, a common pattern for the holidays being declared in all newspapers, special remuneration for pull-outs and supplements, etc. Later a new demand was raised that the agents must be treated as employees of the newspapers and given benefits available to staff members.
The Indian Newspaper Society’s regional committee refused to entertain these demands and when Labour Minister Shibu Baby John called a meeting to discuss the matter they abstained from it. But even before the strike was launched on March 20, there were differences within the agents association, following a suggestion made by the CITU  leadership to give exemption to political party newspapers like Deshabhimani, the CPM organ. A section of agents in the Kozhikode district committee walked out, and later it was decided to give exemption to all political party organs including Deshabhimani, Chandrika of Muslim League, Veekshanam of Congress, Janayugom of CPI and Janmabhumi of BJP. Thus from March 20, the State’s readership has been fed only with the political party organs while the major newspapers remained inaccessible to most of the reading public.
In the past few days, even as the strike was crumbling, there was a massive public outcry against the politicization of the strike that has seriously threatened the public’s access to information. A number of cultural orgnizations, residents associations, professional groups and public persons like Justice V R Krishna Iyer have come out openly against the strike and its politicization though most agree that some of the demands originally raised by the agents were genuine and should be sorted out to pave a smooth functioning of the mass print media at least in the days to come.