STORY OF A STRIKE

Story of a Strike

Revisiting the Bombay Mill Strike of 1982-83

The cotton textile industry had formed the backbone of Bombay’s industrial economy since the late 19th century.

Up to the 1980s, around 2,50,000 workers were employed in the textile industry in the Central Mumbai area known as Girangaon. The majority of the workforce was made up of migrants from outlying districts of Maharashtra, including Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, Ratnagiri, and the Konkan coast, with a smaller number migrating from United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar.

Navigate this timeline to know how the events in the textile industry in Bombay (now Mumbai) transformed the city, the lives of workers, and the nature of politics in the last three decades of the 20th century.

1856

Bombay's first cotton mill starts functioning.

1860s

Mill building activities are held up because of the cotton boom which diverts capital to other investment, particularly trade in raw cotton. Owing to the boom, this is a period of rapid accumulation of capital.

1870

There are a total of 10 cotton mills in Bombay city employing 8,103 workers.

1890

With rapid development, there are 70 mills employing 59,139 workers. From 1890 to 1918, only 17 mills are added to the list but there is vast internal expansion. The number of workers rises up to 1,24,199.

1893 onwards

Introduction of electric lighting in mills encourages mill owners to operationalise night shifts, which results in 14–15 hour workdays for already burdened workers.

Late 1800-early 1900s

Census and studies document the abysmal living and working conditions of mill workers. High death rates, high infant mortality, high prevalence of diseases, unsanitary and cramped living conditions, and absence of basic drainage are documented..

1905

A massively attended meeting of the workers is held at Chinchpoogly (now Chinchpokli) where a memorial to the government is adopted, demanding the restriction of working hours to 12 a day. The Bombay Mill Owners Association (BMOA) is compelled to pass a resolution: That for the present, the mills shall continue to work the shorter hours (not exceeding 12 working hours) up to December 1, 1905. This is hardly followed in the coming years.

1911

Government legislation restricts hours of work to 12 and introduces a relatively strict supervision on that count.

1919-20

Massive agitation launched by workers in the form of general strikes, demanding higher wages and reduction in work hours.

1920

A 10-hour day is introduced to settle the strike of 1920..

1923

Legislation enacted for compensation to be given to injured workers.

1928

A major strike breaks out in the mills. This is the first industrial conflict in which the communists play a role, and the Girni Kamgar Union (GKU) is established. After 5 months and a huge loss of person-days, the strike concludes more or less successfully. The two sides agree not to extend the rationalisation to new mills, to undo the wage cuts, and to submit the charter of demands to a commission of enquiry. There is near-total absence of support from the Indian bourgeoisie and the bourgeois nationalist forces.

1929

GKU-sponsored strike begins in the oil installations and later spreads to the mills. Communal tensions surface.

1934

Global recession leads to wage cuts and retrenchment of over 10,000 workers, sparking a strike. This strike is characterised by mass meetings and picketing, the active involvement of women workers, the formation of Chawl committees and a joint action committee of all unions in Bombay, Nagpur and Solapur.

1938

In collaboration with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the GKU is able to bring out half of Bombay's textile workers in a protest against the Industrial Disputes Bill, which aimed to prevent strikes and lock-outs while promoting the “amical” settlements of disputes. Workers protest against the bill, which neglects the democratic nature of their protests. GKU single-handedly also calls a political strike against the war, and 35 out of 72 textile mills are forced to close.

1940

The GKU (Red Flag) organises a near-total strike in the textile industry over the issue of dearness allowance.

1946

The Bombay Industrial Relations Act (BIRA) is passed by the newly elected Congress government. Only those unions whose membership includes a quarter of the industry’s workforce can qualify as representative unions. To do so, these unions have to first renounce the option of a strike until they have exhausted all other means of resolution. The Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS) (the trade union wing of the Congress in the textile industry) is officially granted representative status on the basis of the membership that it claims, without even cross-checking the preferences of the workers. The second strategy adopted by the mill owners is to differentiate between the permanent and the badli workers (temporary workers).

1947

The concept of a minimum wage is first actualised in the textile industry through an award of the Industrial Court. The minimum wage is placed at ₹30 per month basic, linked to the pre-war price level as the base. Wages and other benefits in the cotton textile industry in Bombay become the pacesetters for other industries in the city, and perhaps even for the whole country. While the figure itself is slightly scaled down for some industries outside the city, it is hardly ever scaled up anywhere for several years.

1950

A nine-week industry-wide strike is staged under the leadership of the Socialist Mill Mazdoor Sabha against the undeserved recognition of RMMS and for a higher bonus than that awarded by the Industrial Court, Bombay. The Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) opposes the strike from the start and INTUC volunteers fully cooperate with the police right from the beginning for breaking the strike.

1950s–60s

With the emergence of the question of statehood for Maharashtra, it becomes important for the residents to define their identity, and “linguistic nationalism” evokes considerable popular support. The Samyukta Maharashtra movement gathers support from all sections of the working class, irrespective of caste and religion.

1959

Agitation by a coalition of all opposition unions is held against the dominance of the RMMS.

1960

The Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (SMS) launches a new union called Mumbai Girni Kamgar Union (MGKU) with the hope of uniting the working class. The MGKU also tries to oust the RMMS as the sole representative of the textile mill workers, but their attempts are defeated when the judge of the industrial court dismisses their case citing a “technical flaw.” In May 1960, the demand for a united Maharashtra is successful and the SMS disbands. This also deals a blow to the MGKU and its influence on worker politics wanes.

1965

The average monthly pay of a badli worker is less than ₹125 and only 18% of workers get more than 20 days of work per month.

Mid-1960s

The textile industry enters a phase of “crisis,” characterised by a deceleration in the growth of output and investment and disclosure of a number of firms afflicted by “sickness.” In the literature dealing with this crisis, three aspects have received substantial attention: (i) the deceleration in the growth of demand for the products of the industry; (ii) the technical backwardness of the industry; and (iii) the uneven incidence of both the decline in demand and the backwardness of technique across firms in the industry, resulting in the coexistence of firms with widely varying levels of productivity and technical advance on the one hand, and wide variations in financial performance on the other.

1966

The Shiv Sena is founded and built upon the idea of securing the rights and ensuring justice for the Marathi manoos. It insists that 80% of the private and public sector jobs be reserved for Marathi-speaking people (Maharashtrians). In subsequent years, this stance grows to encapsulate a Hindu nationalist agenda directed specifically against Muslims.

1968

The Shiv Sena launches its trade union wing, the Bharatiya Kamgaar Sena (Indian Workers Army) amidst widespread labour unrest in Bombay. One of the most important objectives for launching the union is “wiping out communism from the minds of the workers.”

1969

A Textile Wage Accord is finalised between Bombay Mill Owners Association and the RMMS. Unions agree to the Central Wage Board’s recommendations for a wage increase. In real terms, however, the rise in wages is suspect—it works out to an increase of only about ₹1 per month for the lowest-paid workers, and a ₹1.5 increase per month for skilled weavers.

1970

A “bonus war” occurs between mill owners. Union members criticise the RMMS’s ability to negotiate in their interests after it fails to secure an increase in bonuses from 4% to 8%. Spontaneous agitations in different mills lead to owners providing increases in their employees’ bonuses to avoid trouble in the mills.

1973

RMMS and BMOA agree to a seven-day work week. This is almost unanimously opposed by the textile workers. The 7-day work week results in an increase of 16.67% in production. This means an increase of ₹50 crore from 1974 onwards, without any extra cost of additional machinery or floor space. Millowners try to present this as a benefit to the workers. They give a wage rise of 4% of the total wages and offer additional employment. However, if the number of sealed holidays, weekly offs, and paid holidays are taken into account, then the wages of the daily rated workers does not move up more than 1.75%.

1973-74

A 41-day strike is led by the opposition unions against the RMMS wage agreement. From the involvement of 26,735 workers on the first day, the participation rises to over 1.15 lakh workers on the third day.

1973–77

Notices of change concerning the introduction of new machines, retrenchment, reduction and stoppage of certain machines, introduction of efficiency measures, shift to four looms per weaver, four, six and 12 sides per sider, and changes in the nature of work and readjustment of duties increase from 120 to 173.

1975

The Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971, comes into force. It recognises the RMMS as a union, but ignores the militant GKU. It also introduces the conception of an “illegal strike.” Among other provisions, strikes are deemed legal only if employers are given due notice and if they are pre-approved by a recognised union. Critics demand that the act is removed in its entirety.

Mid-1970s

Between 1974–75 and 1978–79, the number of accidents increases by over 77%, and about 54% of these accidents are caused by unsafe working conditions in the mills.

May 1976

1 May 1976: RMMS and BMOA agree on “workers’ participation” in the management side of the textile industry. This agreement excludes the GKU.

October 1976

15 October 1976: Approximately 75,000 mill workers go on strike against the non-payment of bonuses. Mill owners claim that they have made a loss and hence cannot give any bonus. This strike is across unions and is organised more by the workers than the leaders.

1977–80

With the large-scale modernisation that has taken place in the industry there emerges a differentiation within the Bombay mills. There is a shift to finer counts, and a 44% increase in the number of automatic looms during this period.

1978

December 1978: Rate of absenteeism among textile workers is as high as 20%. This is likely caused by the increasing pressure and intensity of work and the feeling that with the new machines work had become too much, too quickly.

1979

The revamped Mumbai Girni Kamgar Union and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha combine to dislodge the RMMS again, but their attempt fails once more due to the government’s patronage of the RMMS and the backing it receives from the Mill Owners Association.

1979

The Maharashtra government announces a net increase of ₹61.26/month for all textile workers. Most consider this inadequate, and around 70% of workers go on strike. The threat of an indefinite strike, however, is tempered with the RMMS’ refusal to participate. The GKS backs out soon after, leaving only the left unions, who cannot maintain the strike indefinitely.

Late 1970s

The textile mill workers in Bombay become increasingly aware of their stagnating wages and deteriorating working and living standards especially in comparison to the new industries like engineering, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

1980

The Payment of Bonus Ordinance, 1980 provides for a minimum of 8.33% and a maximum of 20% as bonus. Its special feature is that, from 1980 onwards, the bonus could be linked with productivity instead of being based on profits.

July 1980

30 July 1980: Datta Samant calls his “long march” and is directly associated with the stoppage of work in 26 mills. He is arrested soon after in connection to a double murder.

End of 1980

The average number of workers employed in the mills comes down from over 1,97,000 in 1961 to just over 1,05,000, a drop of over 32,000, or about 16% in 20 years, although a number of mills are now working all seven days in a week, unlike in 1961.

1981

The Girni Kamgar Sena is the first to raise the issue of an annual bonus. It even threatens to launch an indefinite strike if the demand for wage increases is not met. However, Bal Thackeray calls off the strike on the basis of assurances he claimed to have received from then Chief Minister Abdul Rehman Antulay. The workers realise that they have been marginalised.

May 1981

24 May 1981: Police are deployed to break up a rally organised by Datta Samant. Samant is detained under the NSA.

Late 1981

Datta Samant threatens a six-month strike if demands to increase wages are not met. The chief minister sets up a three-person team to look into its feasibility. Workers from Standard Mill approach Samant to lead them over a 12.33% bonus payment.

October 1981

The Maharashtra Girni Kamgar Union (MGKU) is formed under Samant's leadership. The union's initial demands are a flat wage increase of ₹250–₹400 per month for different categories of workers, permanency to nearly 1,00,000 badli workers, increase in leave facility, and additional wages to workers employed by mills having carried out automation and modernisation.

Late 1981

In the last quarter of the year, there is a growing trend of demand stagnation and piled up stocks in the mills in Bombay. The Indian Cotton Mill Federation (ICMF) expresses concern about the demand recession and the high costs of inputs (particularly the rise in the price of raw cotton).

1982

The number of power looms operating in the country has gone up from 23,800 in 1951 to about 6 lakh in 1982.

January 1982

On 18 January, mill workers go on strike, marking the beginning of the Bombay mill strike in 60 mills.

In general, most of the opposition unions, with the exception of the GKS (Shiv Sena), support Samant as they realise that he is the only one capable of really dislodging the RMMS and removing the BIR Act. They also realise that the consequence of this would be to break up the present form of industrial unionism and lay the field open for inter-union conflicts. For Samant, it seems more important to obtain the wage increases, obtain de facto political support from the mass of the textile workers without official legal recognition. The Shiv Sena on the other hand often helped the management by dissuading workers from striking and used violence to break strikes declared by the communist unions.

February 1982

The process of organising this discontent of the workers in the rural area itself begins with Datta Samant's appearance at the agricultural labourer conference at Satana in Nasik district in February. The conference is organised mainly by the Lal Nishan Party (LNP), and it is followed up by a rural tour of Samant and the two LNP leaders Yashwant Chavan and D S Kulkarni through villages in the hilly western and dry eastern talukas of the three southern Maharashtrian districts. The CPI and CPI(M), for the most part, ignore the task of rural organising. Even at the beginning of the strike, they urge workers to stay in Bombay rather than return to their villages, apparently in the belief that it is only in the dynamic heart of the city that a real mass movement can take place.

End of February 1982

By the end of February, the continuation of the strike has an effect on the market for raw materials and other inputs that go into textile manufacture. The absence of demand for these items leads to a fall in the prices of raw cotton, dyes, chemicals, caustic soda flakes, filament yarn, polyester yarn.

June 1982

In a press statement issued on 8 June, the Bombay Millowners Association claims that a "high-power delegation" on its behalf had met the union finance minister, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, and other senior officials in Delhi.

End of 1982

In Maharashtra, person-days lost due to strikes, even excluding the Bombay textile strike, nearly treble in this single year. Despite the 6% fall in aggregate cloth output and 25% decline in the mill sector's production resulting from the strike, consumer requirements are easily met.

1983

The union government announces its takeover of 13 sick mills in Bombay

The mill owners argue that any decision to take over the mills will be a political one and will not benefit the workers since most of them have gone back to their village homes or are resettled in other jobs. A second argument advanced by the mill owners is that even if the government runs the sick mills the problem of marketing the output would remain since there is a glut in the textile trade.

August 1983

Three hundred thousand workers march in pouring rain in Bombay on August 1, bringing the mill strike to a new level of political confrontation with the Congress(l). "Without destroying the anti-working class power of Congress, the basic problems of textile workers and other sections of workers cannot be solved," declares Datta Samant. Other union representatives, women's organisation representatives, and activists of the Lal Nishan Party call for workers' take-over of factories, recalling China's "long march" and stressing the transformation of the workers' struggle into a political one.

End of 1983

By the end of the year, over 1,00,000 textile workers have lost their jobs. The number of textile workers continues to decline. The strike in Bombay's 60 textile mills is estimated to have led to a production loss of 1,400 million metres, that is, roughly half the annual output of the organised sector of the industry, over about an 18-month period in 1982 and 1983.

1984

Raw material prices skyrocket. Mills find it difficult to market their cloth as well as yarn at remunerative prices.

1984

Communal riots take place in Bhiwandi, a hub of the power loom sector. Suspicions are raised regarding the role of mill owners and the Shiv Sena.

1990s

There are only around 80,000 mill workers left and their jobs too are at stake. As many as 10 textile mills close down with the owners citing accumulated losses as a reason. The mills that reopen also decide to undergo massive rationalisation, implying a further reduction in the workforce. Most workers are unable to return to their jobs and those who do find employment realise that conditions have changed. They are asked to join afresh as new recruits. This means that they lose their seniority and continuity of service, resulting in a considerable reduction in post-retirement benefits. Some workers are taken back as casual workers with no employment security. This marks the beginning of the textile workers’ transition to the unorganised sector, where they become a part of the urban poor.

1991

The state puts in place a set of new Development Control Regulations (DCR). Rule 58 of the DCR states that one-third of the mill lands should be reserved for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to be used for public purposes such as parks, maidans, schools, and hospitals. Another third of the land should be used for affordable housing to be constructed either by the Maharashtra Housing And Area Development Authority (MHADA) or through housing cooperatives. The last one-third would be released into the open market with a floor space index (FSI) that would be based on the amount of land surrendered to the city by the mill owners. However, owners are exempted from these provisions if the land is less than 15% of the mills' total land, which has provided an excellent loophole in several instances: on successive occasions, owners can sell up to 15% of their land. Additionally, with the dilution of zoning laws, following the economic liberalisation, the areas previously designated as industrial in Central Mumbai gradually make way for office and residential accommodation.

1992–93

Communal riots are triggered off by the frustration of the youth, who faces the spectre of unemployment, particularly in the textile industry, which had been a hereditary occupation for thousands of families. The Shiv Sena, part of the ruling coalition, draws its ranks from this neighbourhood, as does, indeed, its arch-rival, the party headed by Arun Gawli.

1996

A committee headed by architect Charles Correa is formed to make recommendations for the planned development of the mill areas. The Correa committee is not allowed to deliberate on private mills and is only to prepare a report on the mills owned by the state-run National Textile Corporation. The committee decides to make a second report separately for the private mills.

January 1997

16 January: Datta Samant is assassinated by four gunmen near his home.

September 1997

Faced with opposition from textile workers to the sale of land as a prelude to closing down mills, the Maharashtra chief minister announces that he proposes to amend the DCR further to provide a quarter share each instead of a third, with workers being the new beneficiary. However, he also proposes that the owners receive higher floor space index (FSI) on this land.

2000

With a change in government to the Congress party in the state elections, subtle changes in the wording of the DCR are instituted, so that the amount given over to the BMC and MHADA is only a third of open land, that is outside the perimeters of the mill buildings. This amounts only to about 10%–12% of the land surface in mill areas. This clarification also held only if the mill owners demolished the buildings. For those mills in which renovation into shopping malls takes place, however, no land has to be parted with, for example, Phoenix Towers. A group of activists, the Bombay Environmental Action Group, files a public interest litigation with the Mumbai High Court, charging that the change in phrasing subverted the purpose of DCR Rule 58.

October 2005

The Bombay Environmental Action Group wins its case in the Bombay High Court, but the National Textile Corporation, which owns 13 of the 60 mills, files a counter-petition with the Supreme Court on the basis that some of these lands have already been sold.

March 2006

The Supreme Court rules in favour of the National Textile Corporation and allows the development of the lands already sold to continue, most apparently slated for shopping malls.

In the years that have followed, there has been a large-scale but often unnoticed migration of ex-textile workers and slum dwellers from the central areas of Mumbai to North Mumbai and the outlying suburbs. Meanwhile, the erstwhile mill area, Girangaon, has transformed into a hub of white-collar workers, with high-rise residential and commercial structures burgeoning on the very land that once gave Mumbai its distinctive working-class character.

Curated by Sohnee Harshey and Kieran Lobo

Designed by Gulal Salil, with inputs from Vishnupriya Bhandaram

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