Munnar Women Workers' Uprising : Challenging Corporations and Male-Dominated Trade Union Bureaucracy

The Munnar women tea garden workers’ uprising represents a fresh wave of militant trade union struggles against exploitative corporations and managements, and poses many significant questions and challenges to the Trade Union establishment, which has for long been marked by bureaucratic and paternalistic leadership.

What stands out in the 9-day strike by some 7000 women workers of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) company’s tea gardens in Munnar is the fact that the women workers, who were members of various TUs including AITUC, CITU and INTUC, wrested leadership for themselves as women workers and asserted their unity as women workers. This is why they formed ‘penmai orumai/pembila orumai’ (women’s unity), warning their husbands who were also workers and TU members, to stay home; formulating slogans and demands and making decisions; and chasing away most Trade Union and political leaders who tried to appropriate the struggle. This struggle was undoubtedly a rebuff of TU leadership that the women workers felt had been co-opted by the management and was not representing the demands of the women workers themselves. After the initial attempts of TU leaders to tarnish the struggle by implying it was backed by ‘Tamil militant groups’ or ‘Maoists’, the TU leaderships have now come around to supporting the struggle and backing the demands of the women workers.

To quote from a report by Amrith Lal in the Indian Express (September 18, 2015), “Two aspects of the Munnar mobilisation need to be recognised. One, the protesters openly stressed the gender aspect of the mobilisation — Pembila Orumai (Unity of Women) is how they called themselves. Two, the protesters were part of the organised sector and members of trade unions including the AITUC (affiliated to CPI), INTUC (Congress) and CITU (CPIM). Both aspects indicate a departure from the dominant political narrative of Kerala. The women were discovering agency and identifying trade unions as a male preserve, a trend increasingly visible in women dominated work sectors. It also exposed the patriarchal nature of the state’s trade union politics. ….

“There have been a series of strikes in the state in recent times for women, and led by women. Mainstream trade unions were not involved in these, or only had a supporting role to offer. For instance, textile shop floor workers demanding better working hours, nurses’ strike in private hospitals for decent wages, unorganised sectors workers in Kozhikode demanding the right to sit during work hours, etc., were all successful struggles that followed innovative mobilisational strategies, and were led by women from the workforce and from outside the traditional unions.”

The Munnar uprising brought to mind a 2010 British film Made in Dagenham. That film tells the real life story of a strike in 1968 by women sewing machinists at Ford Motor Company’s factory at Dagenham, UK, that forced UK to pass the Equal Pay Act in 1970. The film shows how working class women gradually develop as union leaders in their own right, articulating and asserting their own demands, in the process bypassing the bureaucratic male Trade Union leadership that was cozy with the management and believed that women were incapable of leadership. It also shows how this growing assertion inevitably requires the women workers to confront and resolve domestic conflicts with their husbands, who are also workers and Trade Union members.

With the ‘Munnar Effect’ spreading across tea gardens in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and among women workers in other sectors of the economy, women workers are emerging as a political force to reckon with – and hold the potential to change the character of politics and Trade Union struggles.

Liberation Archive