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1982-83 Bombay textile strike played major role in shaping working class movement

By Harsh Thakor 

On January 18th, 1982 the working class movement commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Textile Workers Strike that lasted for 18 months, till July 1983. It was landmark event that played a major role in shaping the working class movement. With more than 2.5 lakh workers from 65 textile mills joining in this strike for almost two years, this strike became one of the most significant strikes in terms of scale and duration All democrats should applaud the mill workers’ united battle, and their unflinching resilience an death defying courage continues to serve as a model for contemporary working-class movements. Many middle class persons harboured opinions that the Textile workers were pampered or were a labour aristocracy, ignorant of how they were denied wages to provide for basic necessities.
The Great Bombay Textile Strike is notably one of the most defining movements in the working class struggles in Post-independent India. Bombay’s textile industry flourished in the 20th century, accompanied by a growing number of worker grievances. As a result, the Great Bombay Textile Strike sprung from a set of grievances that Bombay Textile Union and All India Trade Union Congress were unable to resolve. On January 18, 1982, textile mill workers led by Trade Union Leader Datta Samant went on strike for better wages, employment conditions, and repeal of the Bombay Industrial Act of 1946.
The protest underwent several incidents of police brutality against striking workers and a rise of indifferent attitudes on the part of the Bombay Municipal Corporation. Additionally, the introduction of the liberalisation policies (the 1980s) to expose the Indian economy to global finance capital struck a mortal blow to the ongoing strike—the new reforms led to dissipation of labour laws; fragmenting the labour market and patronising of exploitative working conditions.
I can never forget how it tickled or was major thorn in the flesh of the Mill Owners in their very backyard, striking a mortal blow to production or profits. The mill industry was literally paralysed.
The relentless spirit of the mill workers left a permanent mark and won the support of many an intellectuals and other sections of workers.
Democratic forces underwent serious mobilisation in support be it trade Unions, civil liberties organisations or even students and youth groups. They consistently exposed the ruthless exploitation of the workers who were denied adequate wages, and the conspiracies of the mill owners who were backed by the politicians and police machinery. Qualitative roles played by Indian Federation of trade Unions, Naujwan Bharat Sabha-Vidhyarti Praghati Sanghatana and Lok Shahi Hakk Sanghatana. Playwright Ratnakar Matkari wrote a soul searching play
It was classical resistance of an independent trade Union not affiliated to any political party, and an aura built around a single political leader.
The strike resurrected earlier events in Indian working class history.
It taught the working class important political lessons when being at the brunt of police repression.
However it also later broke the backbone of the organised working class movement. It led to massive loss in jobs of workers. The industry was paralysed.

Datta Samant leading Strike

While some workers had been already agitating about wage issues with their respective employers, mill owners and the government were startled by the workers’ spontaneous decision to reject established unions and leaders and accept the leadership of a new trade unionist – Datta Samant.
Until the fiery Datta Samant came on the scene, the officially recognised union of the textile workers had been the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh, which was affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). Samant was able to get a substantial wage hike for the workers of Premier Automobiles, and this paved the way for his election as the representative of textile workers. The strike called by Samant lasted a year, and at the end of it nothing was achieved. Before the strike, there were about 2, 50,000 workers in the mills. When the mills reopened a year later, about a hundred thousand lost their jobs. Predictably, the majority of those who had lost their jobs had been active during the strike. Some of the mills had either shut down or moved out of the city, and this also resulted in loss of jobs.
Samant’s aggressive style invited wrath from the government. Although Samant had connections with the Congress, especially with A.R. Antulay, who was Maharashtra’s Chief Minister from 1980 to 1982, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was wary of him. The ruling classes trembled that if Samant was successful with the textile mills strike, resistance would spread to other labour-intensive sectors such as the Railways and the docks. Thus, it was politics and labour policies that prevented the government in conceding to Samant’s demands for textile workers.
The strike led by Dr. Datta Samant involved 247,189 Mumbai mill workers paralysed Mumbai. The 1982-83 strike was the last industrial action by the Mumbai mill workers when the city witnessed an industry-wide strike bringing the workforce to the centre of politics.
The conflict between the mill workers and the owners sprouted over the issue of bonuses. However, as the conflict gained momentum other demands were added, such as providing for an ad hoc increase of wage per month from Rs 120 to Rs 195 per month depending on the years of service.
Secondly, to make the badli workers permanent who had worked for an aggregate period of 240 days.
Thirdly, payment of House Rent Allowance (Rs 52 per month), Leave Travel Allowance (Rs 42 per month), and Educational Allowance (Rs 30 per month). Substantial improvement in leave facilities such as privilege leave, casual leave, sick leave, and paid holidays was also one of the demands.
Finally, the strikers demanded non-recognition of Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS) as the representative union, and the sole bargaining agent for workers. These demands shocked the employers. The mill owners were able to suppress the strike by colluding with the state machinery and the RMMS, the officially recognised trade union, which had complete control in speaking up for the workers.
Events on October 23, proved to be a determinant for much of what was to follow. On that day striking workers, totally unaware of all established trade unions in the textile industry, sought the intervention of an outsider who inspired them greatly and whose reputation had sparkled over the years in spite of the countless attacks staged on him and on the way he dealt with labour problems.
In fact, what was mostly rebuked as adventurism or irresponsible trade unionism by employers and trade unionists alike was precisely what seemed to attract workers towards him. Hundreds of workers from Standard Mills, one of the mills that would have to pay the highest bonus, walked that day from the gates of the mill to the residence of the both famous and infamous Datta Samant (in Ghatkopar with the demand that he should lead them in the strike.)
If they under the apprehension that they would warmly received they were in for a rude shock. Dr Samant declined the honour and informed them that he didn’t want to lead them as their industry was regulated by the BIR Act. Apart from that he had no desire to increase the burden of the many responsibilities he already shouldered.
However, the workers, relentlessly, staged a dharna* at his home, staying there throughout the night in an effort to force him to accept leadership. When Samant found that the workers were determined to battle the employers at all costs and the fear of severe hardships in the course of a struggle would not intimidate r them, he decided to give in.
The news spread like wildfire, and when Datta Samant addressed a gate meeting at Standard Mills in the morning of October 26, thousands of workers of the mills on strike assembled near the gate, turning the meeting into a massive rally. Interrupted by thunderous cheers of approval, Samant declared that the fight would not just be for a higher bonus but also for a wage increase and permanency of badlis.
It was the first of a series of meetings and rallies which would attract ever-larger audiences, of sometimes over a lakh. A spark was turned into a Prairie Fire. In the days to follow, Samant’s office poured with workers from mills where no strike was taking place and who continued the trail of the Standard Mill workers, which was that ‘Doctor’ should lead them in the struggle. Datta Samant grew convinced that the request made by the Standard workers was no accident but a manifestation of intense inner rage possessed by all workers.
There was only one red flag union that wasted no time in waiting for the cat to throw itself to the pigeons and this was the communist-oriented Sarva Shramik Sangh (SSS) led by the independent Lal Nishan Party, which a union in the textile industry had called the Kapad Kamgar Sanghatana. Their support to the workers’ cause was immediate and unconditional, and it was the SSS again that would share the dais with Datta Samant on the eve of the strike.
Hoping to recover ground that they had lost a few years earlier, the Shiv Sena-affiliated Girni Kamgar Sena (GKS) also acted promptly. Sena leader Bal Thackeray at once called for a one-day strike on the first of November, putting up a charter of demands in which a wage increase of not less than Rs 200 per month was claimed.
To this was added the threat that an indefinite strike would follow if this demand was not met by mid-November. Practically all the workers participated in this strike but Thackeray’s threat stood exposed as empty when the militant action ended there. The formidable response to the one-day strike was a sure indication of the workers’ mood and their readiness for battle but in the process, it also showed that the workers at that point had not yet developed a strong commitment to Datta Samant.

Consequences of Strike

After this, about 91,251 mill workers were laid off. The catastrophic outcome of the strike also had national-level implications, as Mumbai’s mill workers held the vanguard position of the country’s labour movement.
The failure of the 1982-83 strike stripped workers of their entitlements which they won through various struggles and transformed workers’ claims over the city’s social fabric. Following termination oh the strike, the workers fighting spirit was greatly nullified, which they had demonstrated historically.
Throughout the strike, the state deployd its police machinery to undertake repression on the workers. The judiciary took a long time in deciding on the case that challenged the RMMS status as the representative union. The bureaucracy too assisted in delaying the process.
The mill workers who were taken back to work had to return on deeply unfavourable terms.
First, many workers who returned to work did not receive the payments they were entitled to.
Secondly, workers had to face a most unwelcoming environment inside the factory. They were fined for the slightest mistakes and often abused and very easily charge-sheeted.
Thus, the mill management gave warning to the workers that henceforth no resistance against its policy would be brooked. Before accepting the jobs workers had to sign a statement in which they declared that they had participated in an illegal strike, and they would henceforth refrain from agitation and not cause trouble in future. Left with little choice workers were compelled to sign the statement without even having the opportunity to read it.
The attempts by the state to term strike illegal under some conditions traces back or have roots in introduction of the Bombay Industrial Disputes (BID) Act by the provincial government in 1938. In 1938, the then Bombay provincial government led by the Congress party introduced the BID Act which sought to curb workers right to organise industrial actions. The BID Act was opposed by various labour organisers which culminated in the successful organisation of a one-day strike in 1938 by Ambedkar’s Independent Labour Party.
During the 1982-83 strike, the Datta Samant led union was able to dislodge the representative union but the state agencies, both the bureaucracy and the judiciary, ensured that the RMMS retained its position. As a result, after the strike was put down by the state and mill owners, the RMMS became aggressive towards the strikers and penalised them for participating in the industrial action.
It is probably this reason that a section of mill workers constantly evokes that the 1982-83 strike was never officially called off. For the workers, the strike symbolised their whole struggle for emancipation, and given the fact they were pushed into involuntary servitude, it continues for them even today.
The events illustrated the autocratic nature o the socio-political system, which was partisan with the industrialist class and sanctioned repression of machinery on workers.
By the 1980s, leftist parties in Bombay had become weak and the number of mill workers in the city had gone up to around 2.5 lakhs. However, working class militancy continued. In the absence of a Left leadership capable enough to lead and organise the workers’ movement, the Congress-run state government and the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS) affiliated to it, controlled the labour relations in the city. RMMS was the only “union” recognised by the mill owners and the administration, despite the Industrial Disputes Act of 1938. While the Girni Kamgar Union would organize strikes against the management, the RMMS would be the signing authority on the settlement as the workers’ legitimate representative. Many struggling workers were termed as “Laal Bawtewaale” [One with the Red Flag], and removed from work on grounds of being a Communist. These were workers who were agitating not just for fair wages, but also against increasing mechanization and loss of jobs in the textile industry.
In 1982, large sections of the Bombay textile mill workers went to strike under Dutta Samant’s Maharashtra Girni Kamgar Aghadi, against the Mill Owners’ Association and the Congress-affiliated official trade union RMMS. The communist controlled Girni Kamgar Union had to support Samant’s leadership, though he was throughout seen as “a Congress agent” or “Congress fraction” by some sections.
Under his leadership, around 2.5 lakh mill workers of Bombay went on the historic general strike that was never lifted and technically continues even today. Though the expectation was that the strike would last for a few months, it extended to a year and a half. With the Left already cornered, and with Samant’s Congress affiliation guaranteeing natural limits on his class politics, Bombay’s bourgeois political class decided to give a final knockout punch to the city’s working class politics.
They never reopened the textile mills again. After a year long strike that began in 1982, the workers’ families finally surrendered, though after waging a prolonged battle. A large number of workers’ families had left the city due to the prolonged strike, and in parts because of a call given by Samant himself sending struggling workers back while he manages the strike in the city. The 1982 strike is technically still going on, because it was never officially called off.
By 1984 however, the strike was morally averted with Samant winning no concessions. The mill owners gradually started shifting their mills to the outskirts of the city – at places like Bhiwandi and Malegaon. Many mills shifted to the neighbouring state of Gujarat. Over the years, mechanized big composite mills got replaced by smaller power-looms and separate smaller units for dying, for weaving, etc – converting a once organised advanced industrial workforce into unskilled, unorganised daily wage and contractual labour force.
For many Dalit-Bahujan workers, mass closure of the mills meant getting pushed back into the same old economic and social slump. “My grandmother was working in the Dawn Mill at Lower Parel during the British era. She was earning Rs. 40 per month. There was economic mobility for people from lower castes for the first time, as they were getting mill jobs. The mills should have been saved.” said Madan Khale, a former CPI worker who is now active in the BSP. “While we can talk about the ‘glorious strike’ and all, but it is true that the workers got crushed,” said Com. Prakash Reddy of the CPI.

Principal causes for Defeat of Strike

What defeated the mill workers strike was
1. The lack of penetration of any genuine revolutionary left force within the unions of mill workers.
2. Powerful prevalence of revisionism of the CPI and CPM within the movement.,
3. The absence of any revolutionary democratic workers movement, strong trends of legalism within trade Union Movement,
4. Lack of organisational structure to confront attacks and Weakness in solidarity from other sections of the workers or even the peasantry.
5. Political preparation was inadequate and links with workers from other sections.
6. Inadequate mass political work was undertaken by revolutionary sections which made the workers unable to distinguish between revolutionary politics and opportunism and economism.Glaring absence of fractional work by Communist revolutionary sections.
7. Absence of a coherent revolutionary working class movement and fortified Communist party prevented giving a genuinely revolutionary shape to the textile strike or a class cutting edge.
8. Workers were unable to gauge the bourgeois class character of Datta Samant, who indirectly played into the hands of the management. Democratic functioning was absent within the Kamgar Union of Datta Samant.
9. There was lack of proper study circles for the workers.
10. Democratic revolutionary forces were unable to organise struggles to save the jobs of workers in the mid 1980’s.
11. Unable to mobilise temporary or badly workers

Impact of globalisation and liberalisation from 1991

The strike precipitated the ground for the introduction of liberalisation in 1991, which fragmented the working class, breaking up all it’s organisational mechanisms. The rulers in period of globalisation devised a strategy to freeze trade Unions and close many traditional industries, including the mill workers.
With the advent of economic liberalisation in 1991, the militant trade unionism of the 1970s and 1980s took a huge backseat.. The influx of money and investment sharpened competition in the industry, and as a result managements started rebuking unions’ demands. Workers were not being paid. There was reverse migration. Some workers survived on unskilled jobs. The dismantling of trade unions had begun, who were now championing the new business ethos in which labour welfare played a very marginal role. The failure of the trade unions lay in not establishing link the larger brotherhood of textile workers in the power loom and garments sectors. These sectors were already enstrangled by the government’s globalisation policies. The national trade unions showed scant regard in addressing the grievances of Mumbai’s textile workers. As a result of this lack of interest, the larger issue of textile policy reform was not addressed.
The mill sethia gauged the situation to perfection and welcomed their businesses to slide. Capital was used for diversionary purposes, machinery was not repaired, equipment was not modernised. The mills were allowed to turn sick. However the sprawling mill properties, obtained at concessional rates for industrial use, fetched huge amounts of money for the owners. When the mills became unproductive, the sethia s requested the government to allow them to sell the land in order to revive the mills. Unhesitatingly, the government allowed this. Needless to say, the money from the sale of land was not invested in the textile industry. Instead, high-end housing complexes and shopping malls came up on the 600 acres (240 hectares) of mill land.
During the strike, the majority of the private mill owners had sub-contracted cloth production to Bhiwandi, the power loom centre on the outskirts of Mumbai. Therefore, the mill owners were less keen on running the mills after the strike was over. Citing the ‘losses’ their business incurred during the strike, the mill owners sought the state’s permission to sell a ‘surplus’ portion of the mill lands in the real estate market to generate interest-free capital.
Despite workers’ opposition, the Maharashtra state eventually introduced the Development Control Regulations (DCR) 58 in 1991. For the first time, DCR 1991 permitted the mill owners to sell parts of mill lands in the real estate market for the revival of the textile mills and payment of workers’ dues. This provision was misused by several mill owners.
None of the mill owners who utilised the provisions of DCR 1991 invested their land sale profits in modernising the sick textile units and clearing workers’ dues. A few mills violated the norms entirely. For instance, the Phoenix Mills sought permission for ‘workers recreation’ centres but instead constructed an expensive commercial bowling alley and mall. Given the violations of DCR 1991, the Maharashtra government further amended the DCR 58 in 2001. The DCR 2001 permitted the mill owners to use the entire mill land for the non-industrial purpose.
This decision created the ground for the final closure of the textile mills most of which were over a century old. The pressures of the real estate market, an ever-growing service sector economy and the need to cater to the necessities of the city’s elites, the upper-middle classes and the ‘new’ middle class played a prime role in hurrying execution of the closures.
For instance, Lower Parel, an area identified with the working classes, is now renamed Upper Worli to create a new sense of identity for the new middle class. This has gradually pushed a large section of the working classes and the lower middle classes from the central parts of the city to the extreme suburbs or even their own villages.
Over the years, the mills gradually shut down, and with the unions in state of turmoil not much was achieved for the mill workers.
A most comprehensive and balanced report was brought about by Lok Shahi Hakk Sanghatana and ‘Giragaon Bachao Andolan’ on ‘Murder of the Mills’ .which undertook a classical case study of Phoenix Mills. Classically the reports illustrate the connivance or conspiracy of the politicians with the mill owners in facilitating selling of mill land, how every step was undertaken to give a crippling blow to the mill workers and an economic model incorporating culture of globalisation and promoting luxury. “Behind the golden promise of a globalised Mumbai lie massive financial frauds committed in the name of workers’ livelihood and urban development, devastating job losses and the various tactics used by employers to pressure and dismiss workers, forcing them into insecure employment in the informal sector, destitution, and often crime. We hope to demystify the deindustrialisation of the city, the closures of its industries and the change in its political and cultural economies — a process which is by no means the work of impersonal “market forces”, but the very real coercion of workers by venal employers and vested interests.”
“The denial of wages to the workers, many of whom have been residents of Girangaon for generations and have been working in the mills since early in the century, is a denial of their rights legal and constitutional, but also cultural and human. Demoralised, most of the workers have submitted to this strategy of the management and accepted the misleadingly named Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) packages of Rs 50,000 to 2,00,000 in compensation for their lost jobs, a pittance compared to the security and livelihood offered by constant employment that was once their right. In the meanwhile, the management and their agents have subcontracted production of textiles to the informal powerloom sector in the urban hinterlands in Bhiwandi, Malegaon and Ichalkaranji, while stamping and packaging the cloth produced in powerlooms at the mill godowns before sending them to market. This phenomenon of outsourcing or subcontracting of production, is becoming more commonplace in almost every industry in the country, and is behind the spate of industrial closures throughout the city.”
Since the late 1980s protests by the working classes in Mumbai have substantially nullified. Industrial actions from the late 1980s and 1990s demonstrate that while workers protest did attract solidarity from the artists, writers and leaders of opposition parties (in some cases ruling party too), it did not crystallise into the working classes occupying centre stage in politics.

Struggle resurgence

There was a minor bout of surge of unionisation when workers of 10 closed mills bonded together and formed the Bandh Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Shut Mills Workers Action Committee) in 1989. Their objective was to reopen the mills and re-employ the 25,000-odd jobless workers. They succeeded in enabling a large number of workers to get their dues. The majority of them were apparently given cheap houses in lieu of jobs, but the Samiti was unable to achieve its main goal of reviving the textile industry. Formidable powers obstructed the reopening of the mills. Some most praiseworthy struggles were undertaken by the Bandh Girni Sangarsh Commitee from 1991 formed under the initiative of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions which was later converted into the Girni Kamgar Union.It organised an impactful black flag takeover of a closed mill in February 1992 and drew in thousands of workers on the streets in protest. Also organised a most impressive protest at a Bowling company in August 1999.Although resorting to legalism it built a strong base for workers to wage battles for their basics rights.
Strong currents of legalism of the Bandh Girni Sangarsh Commitee, weakness of penetration of revolutionary currents as fractions, fragmentation of working class and lack of revolutionary political consciousness were obstacles in the mill workers posing a challenge to their adversaries. Still I can never forget the heart rendering service of Meena Menon,convenor of Girgaum Bachao Andolan and Datta Ishwalkar.
Today we have to resurrect spirit of 1982 Mill workers strike in a new form, when globalisation has created a complete metamorphosis of production , separated workers at work places , multiplied powers of the management and nullified workers striking power at an unparalleled scale. New methods have to be devised of organising workers, particularly contract labour, with respect to changes in digital age. Imperialist culture has to be confronted at it’s hardest point. Today organised labour is on the brink of extinction, with corporates having complete monopoly.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has covered mass movements around India ad extensively studied movement o Mumbai Mill workers. Owes gratitude to research of writer Hub van Werch in ‘The 1982-83 Bombay Textile Strike and the Unmaking of a Labourers’ and Sumit Mhaskar



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