Syndicate Bank and Ors v. K. Umesh Nayak, 1995
This appeal has been elevated to the Constitution Bench due to conflicting opinions rendered by this court in its previous three judgments: Churakulum Tea Estate v. Workmen,[i], Crompton Greaves Ltd v. Workmen,[ii], on one hand, and Bank of India v. T.S. Kelawala,[iii], on the other. The central question is whether workmen who engage in a strike, whether legal or illegal, have the entitlement to wages for the strike duration. In the initial two judgments of this Court, the stance taken was that for workmen to claim wages during a strike, the strike must be both legal and justified. Conversely, in the latter judgment, the court asserted that the legality of the strike is immaterial, and employees are not eligible for wages during the strike. In the current case, the Appellant bank has denied wages to the employee federation (the Respondent) during their strike, making this issue pertinent to the present case.
On April 10, 1989, a memorandum of settlement was executed by the Indian Banks’ Association and various All Indian Bank Employees’ Unions, including the National Confederation of Bank Employees, as the fifth bipartite settlement. The Appellant Bank, through its employee federation, was bound by this settlement. Three separate settlements were subsequently reached between the Appellant bank and its employee federation on June 9, 1989. These settlements entitled the employees to certain benefits, except for those provided in the Bipartite Settlement. However, the Appellant bank did not immediately implement these settlements, which prompted the employee Federation to send a telex message on June 22, 1989, urging the bank to implement them without further delay, under the threat of launching an agitation if not implemented. The bank responded that it required government approval to implement the settlements and was actively seeking it, requesting the federation’s cooperation. On July 24, 1989, the federation repeated their request, this time with a threat of a token strike. The bank’s response remained the same. On September 1, 1989, the Federation issued a strike notice, scheduled for three separate days starting from September 18, 1989, demanding immediate implementation of all agreements and understandings between the parties. During these events, the Deputy Chief Labor Commissioner and Conciliatory Officer initiated conciliation proceedings to resolve the dispute. While these proceedings were underway, the employee federation filed a writ petition before the High Court on October 6, 1989, seeking immediate implementation of the three settlements reached on June 9, 1989. The High Court ordered the immediate implementation of the settlements. On October 12, 1989, the bank issued a circular stating that if employees proceeded with the strike on October 16, 1989, the bank would deduct their salaries for the strike days. Despite the circular, employees went on strike on October 16, 1989, and on October 17, 1989, they wrote to the conciliatory officer requesting to consider the proceedings as closed from their side. They also filed a writ petition on November 7, 1989, to challenge the circular of October 12, 1989, and to prevent the bank from deducting strike day salaries. The writ petition was admitted, and the High Court issued an interim injunction preventing the bank from making salary deductions. In the course of the legal process, the Single Judge ruled in favor of the bank, but upon appeal to the Division Bench, it overturned the Single Judge’s decision and ruled in favor of the employees. Due to these conflicting outcomes, the present appeal was filed, leading to the matter being referred to this court.
Statutes and provisions discussed
- Section 12 of the Industrial Disputes Act
- Section 18(1) of the Industrial Disputes Act
- Section 22 of the Industrial Disputes Act
- Section 23(a) of the Industrial Disputes Act
- Section 24(1) of the Industrial Disputes Act
- Rule 58.4 of the Industrial Disputes (Central) Rules
- Whether the strike is legal or illegal?
- Whether the decision of the Division Bench should be set aside?
Arguments of the Appellant:
The Appellant contended that, according to sub-section (1)(d) of Section 22 of the Industrial Disputes Act, employees were prohibited from striking during conciliation proceedings and for seven days after their conclusion. Given that conciliation proceedings were pending to resolve an industrial dispute between the parties, the strike in question was illegal. The industrial dispute had arisen because the bank was required to obtain Central Government approval for the settlements in question, while the staff argued that no such approval was necessary and that such a condition was not part of the settlements. As this constituted an industrial dispute under the Act, the conciliation proceedings were validly pending on the strike date.
Arguments of the Respondent:
The Respondent argued that there was no valid conciliation proceeding as there was no industrial dispute. The settlements had already been agreed upon solemnly between the parties, and there could be no further dispute regarding their implementation. Consequently, the conciliation proceedings were null and void. Therefore, the provisions of Section 22(1)(d) were not applicable.
On the first issue, the Supreme Court refrained from making a decision, as it deemed the proper forum for resolving this issue to be the adjudicator under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which is the Deputy Chief Labor Commissioner and Conciliatory Officer.
Regarding the second issue, the Court held that the High Court had erred in assuming jurisdiction that rightfully belonged to the Industrial Adjudicator under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Therefore, the order issued by the Division Bench was set aside.
The Court also exercised its power under Article 142 of the Constitution of India, allowing the Appellant to appeal to the appropriate authority under the Act within eight weeks from the date of this judgment.
Issue 1: The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, provides a proper procedure for resolving industrial disputes, and the Supreme Court is not the appropriate authority to determine the legality of a strike. The proper forum for resolving this issue is the adjudicator under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.
Issue 2: The High Court exceeded its jurisdiction by assuming authority vested in the Industrial Adjudicator under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Therefore, the Division Bench’s order was invalidated.
The strike, as a form of protest, has evolved as a tool for workers during their prolonged struggles with employers. Determining whether a strike or lockout is legal or illegal is relatively straightforward, primarily involving an examination of whether relevant provisions have been breached. However, work stoppages, whether by workers or employers, can have adverse effects on production, the economy, and society’s well-being as a whole. Industrial legislation, while acknowledging the right of workmen to strike, has aimed to regulate it along with the employer’s right to lockout. Additionally, it has established mechanisms for peaceful investigation, settlement, arbitration, and adjudication of disputes between them.
In conclusion, the legality or illegality of a strike must be determined through the proper procedure and forum provided by the Industrial Disputes Act. It is not within the jurisdiction of the High Court to decide industrial disputes when they are pending before the appropriate forum established under the Industrial Disputes Act. If a court oversteps its jurisdiction and intrudes upon the authority of an industrial tribunal, such action is subject to nullification.
Advocate Muskan Chauhan