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Textile workers in Bombay are fighting for jobs and dignity and their struggle is uniting workers - Meena Menon, one of their leaders and prominent anti-globalisation figure, spoke to Socialist Worker
Issue 1857

‘THE TEXTILE workers are like the coal miners in Britain, to make a comparison. They are a very old section of the working class and have a long history going back to the mid-19th century. They have been involved in many struggles and formed the backbone of the city for many years.

‘In recent years not only have the mills been closing, but the entire working class belt built around the mills is affected. We have been working around that area with the textile union and a residents’ organisation fighting on housing rights. The fight is about jobs. It is about housing, It is also about urban planning and about how space is used. Space is not available to the poor, so people are getting marginalised, being sent out of the city, told the city no longer has space for them.

‘The reason why I started working on issues of globalisation is that they are real day to day issues as far as workers in India today are concerned. The textile industry got globalised long ago. The industry is getting smashed as mills are closing down. A lot is still being produced, but it is being pushed into the informal and unorganised sector where if you form a union, you get beaten up. It is as simple as that.

‘The only thing Third World countries can hold on to is the fact that labour is cheap. So they try to make it more and more competitive by pushing conditions down. The big mills are shutting down and in the little power loom towns where the cloth gets produced they work 12 hours a day. The ten-hour day was one of the textile workers’ first battles. After independence the eight-hour day became law.

‘Now you have workers on these power looms in small workplaces working 12 hours. No labour legislation is implemented. These are things in the day to day lives of people. You can see how globalisation actually works. This is not an issue on which a few people can fight by themselves. The textile workers alone can’t fight globalisation. So we saw the need to build wider unity, not just of textile workers and not just of workers. A political battle should involve groups like students and farmers fighting against globalisation.

‘It’s not enough to fight locally. It’s not that the fight against local or indigenous capital stops, as if they are all sainted and that they are not oppressive any more.

‘The workers are forced to fight at two levels. In the small companies you are forced to fight for labour legislation and to keep wages up. And on the other hand you have to fight this other battle, which is with the bigger monster.’

There was a year long textile strike in 1982-3. What effect did that have?

‘The strike was led by an independent trade unionist. It lasted a year. But the industry was already in crisis and it became clear the strike would fail. The most militant section of workers was left outside the mills. Out of 250,000 workers, 15,000 did not get their jobs back. Today, the mills are no longer really functioning and there are only about 30,000 mill workers left.

‘We fought relentlessly for ten years. First we fought for the mills to be reopened. We did succeed with seven mills that had closed after the 1982 strike, but the government compensated the mill owners by removing a ban on the sale of mill land.

‘The area has 1.3 million people living there. It has become prime real estate. We decided to shift our approach. We said the land from this 150 year old industry is going to be sold. The owners have already had a more than reasonable return on their investment. So we demanded that 50 percent of the land should be for workers’ housing and for the creation of jobs.

‘We used a combination of methods. We did a ‘gherao’ (blockading with our bodies) the owners of some of the mills. We demonstrated at their homes. We took over a couple of mills. We barricaded ourselves inside and would not allow the police in. Each one of us has 22 criminal cases against us.

‘One occupation was for several months. We decided to try to run the mill, but it was not possible. You need capital even to pay for the electricity and we did not have the people, the energy and the wherewithal to mobilise the whole city. There were some very powerful mobilisations on the street. We attacked the government because we felt there was no point in attacking each owner one by one.

‘The press was very positive. So were sections of the police, because mill workers are very closely related to policemen and they did not like to beat up mill workers.

‘There was a feeling in the city that the mill workers built the city and now they were being thrown out and left to starve. We did many actions like shutting the roads down – once we shut six roads and brought the whole city to a halt. Two or three thousand people were involved in that. We built very broad alliances with all kinds of other trade unions. I remember one action about six years ago. We were very badly beaten up. Even the Congress trade union, which is really a management union, said what happened to us was wrong.

‘It was 9 August – Quit India Day, a very important day of commemoration of the freedom movement. Workers decided they would say, ‘They have even taken the clothes off our backs’, so they marched in their underwear. The government said, ‘You are insulting the memory of Gandhi’ and stuff like that. They told the workers to disperse and the police beat the workers. Their backs were bleeding because they were not wearing anything. It was like a seesaw battle, sometimes in the favour of the government, sometimes in our favour. It was basically a battle for survival of a very old section of the working class. Finally the chief minister had to discuss legislation. We did not win everything, but we did win that 17 percent of the land should be used for workers’ housing.’

Bombay is the home of the far right, anti-Muslim Shiv Sena party led by Bal Thackeray. The area witnessed horrific communal riots ten years ago in which hundreds of Muslims were murdered. How does your work relate to this?

‘The area we work in is the birthplace of Shiv Sena. But they did not start with those Hindu chauvinist slogans.

‘They started with issues of jobs, because they were organising in a working class area and they needed to mobilise workers. The Sena argued that local people are not getting jobs because the jobs are all going to people who are outsiders. They mobilised local youth who had been educated and were looking for jobs when there were no jobs to be had. At that point it became a mass movement with branches in every street. Then they started to move against the Communists, and they even murdered one popular local sitting legislator. Then the party was Hindu chauvinist, right wing, anti-Communist, and this agenda took over in the area.

‘We were forced in the beginning to share platforms with Shiv Sena on workers’ issues because they would always try to project themselves as pro-worker, pro-poor and anti-outsider and anti-rich.

‘But mill workers did not really go over to the side of the Shiv Sena. In 1982 it was the Sena who first went to the gates and started to talk about wages. But they did not have the guts to go on strike. They pulled back and the workers stoned them when they went to the gates. They did not talk about textile workers after that, even though they still have a politically significant profile.’

Do you face Hindu-Muslim antagonisms among the workers?

‘The mill area is adjacent to the Muslim area. The mill workers are mostly middle caste Hindus, and there are very few Muslims. During the 1993 riots there was a lot of violence in this area. An elderly Muslim guy was passing and suddenly a group of young people came, dowsed him with petrol and lit him up. This kind of mindless, horrifying violence was happening. But it is also true that in other areas where the young boys were doing this, mill workers came out and said, ‘Don’t do this’. They tried to reason with them, but they did not succeed.

‘In the mills where there were Muslim workers, mill workers protected them. The rioters knew every mill where there was a Muslim worker. They would stand outside the mill and say, ‘Send that guy out’. The workers would say, ‘He’s not here,’ and would save the Muslim workers. At another time, we had gone inside a mill and were having these arguments with this guy who said, ‘I’ve killed nine people.’ We were not known in the mill. There was just me and another woman. It was a Shiv Sena mill. The other workers surrounded us and said ‘Are you Muslims?’

‘I was wearing a bindi (a Hindu mark on the forehead) that day. But my colleague was not and they were looking at her. That was a frightening moment. You never think of workers like that. You think that they are workers and if you talk to them they will understand.

‘At another meeting with them we talked about this and we said, ‘Where does this come from? How does this become part of our culture?’ And they said, ‘You do not understand our culture. Our culture is Hindu.’ So we had this huge argument. But three months down the line they said, ‘You know, you were right. This is not part of our culture.’

‘Many progressive people asked afterwards, ‘Why did you not turn people who had committed violence over to the police?’

‘We discussed it and we felt that if we did it would not help in the long run. We would have been known as informers. We would have been completely divided from the people. We wanted to build up confidence in the area that in the long term it would be able to stop this sort of chauvinism and violence.

‘So we shut up and worked quietly with groups. Three years down the line mill workers were marching and chanting, ‘Thackeray, Hai, Hai’ about Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Sena. ‘Hai, Hai’ is what you say when people die. The fact that mill workers were shouting that slogan was a shock for the Sena. That is how we count success.

‘I’m part of the left. But I’ve found the left does not have that kind of inclusive agenda of working among people, of building up confidence. It is not just sloganeering. You have to have tactics. Otherwise we are not going to win. And you have to win. We can’t be martyrs all the time. These people are workers and they are poor. They are marginalised. If we are working with them, the point is to be able to unite and make that effective and political.

‘Why are we all in the movement? Because we have a vision, we see another world. Why should we expect it to be different for other people – do we think that it is only for us, and not for them? And if they are not fired up by that vision, they will not fight for anything.

‘If we can inspire people, they will say, ‘Yes, we can fight and we do not have to look to the BJP or the Sena for the answers.’ We work with the World Social Forum because the slogan ‘Another world is possible’ is one we want to make concrete. The forum is going to be from 16 to 21 January in Bombay.

‘We feel the bond between the movements of the North and the South is very important. The anti-war movements here have inspired us.

‘The London demonstration on 15 February was reported very widely and everybody in political circles in India and Asia knows about it. People who are involved in the various battles also have to be aware of a whole different way of thinking – a systematic alternative. Some people might call it revolution – some call it socialism.

‘There is room for people who are fighting for the same things but don’t call it by the same name. I would call upon people here, the organisations with which you are associated, and the people who read your paper – come to India to the World Social Forum.’

Key facts

BOMBAY (now Mumbai)
Population 14 to 15 million

(Bharatiya Janata Party) ultra right wing, anti-Muslim party that dominates India’s governing coalition. Priorities include privatisation and attracting foreign investment
Shiv Sena Most anti-Muslim group in Bombay. Organiser of many murderous assaults on Muslims
Congress Party formed out of Indian independence movement – now commited to neo-liberalism. Until recently, the party that usually governed India
Communist Party (Marxist) Large workers’ party which has led coalition governments in some Indian states. Commited to reform rather than revolution

Communalism Indian term associated with violence between Hindus and Muslims. In 1993 Bombay communal riots led to 872 deaths. Last year in Indian state of Gujarat more than 2,000 Muslims were burnt, killed or raped. Muslims are a large minority in India but are often excluded from postions of influence
Caste Ancient hierachy which places Hindus in order of importance. Today can affect your chances of employment and marriage

Meena Menon is the vice-president of the Bombay textile workers’ union and an organiser of the World Social Forum. Meena Menon will be joining the opening rally at Marxism 2003 on the future of the left, Friday 4 July at 7pm

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