Hail the Munnar Moment of Working Class Movement in India

After peace and tranquillity apparently returned to the misty mountains of Munnar, CPI(M)’s Central Organ People’s Democracy (October 4, 2015) published a typically lifeless, stereotyped account of the pathbreaking struggle of women tea plantation workers (‘Victory for Striking Women Plantation Workers). The article praises “trade union and political leaders” whose generous help alone, it is claimed, led to a negotiated settlement; but fails to appreciate the independent initiative, creative energy, proletarian steadfastness and organisational talent of the strikers and their organic leaders. The well-known fact that even Left TU leaders and politicians (barring the veteran popular leader Achuthanandan) were kept at bay by the agitated women workers, has been shamelessly denied.

The CPI(M)’s actual role on the ground, its evaluation of the struggle and its self-assessment are along expected lines. The brazen sectarianism, the entrenched bureaucratism, the fear of independent popular initiatives and the arrogant refusal to learn from lapses – all characteristic hallmarks of the party and its TU wing – have combined in this particular case with a patently patriarchal mindset to produce a conservative, nay, reactionary stance. However, some well-meaning people on the Left, who have expressed solidarity with the agitation also have their share of reasonable concern.

Kollontai on Forms and Contents of Women Workers' Struggle

Some of the debates the independent women workers’ movement in Munnar has given rise to in left circles, are quite old. In her “Women Workers Struggle for Their Rights” (1919) Alexandra Kollontai deals with “the exclamations and questions” that were then doing the rounds in socialist/communist circles:

“What is a women workers’ movement? What are its tasks, its aims? Why can’t it merge with the general movement of the working class, why can’t it be dissolved in the general movement…? Isn’t it a hangover from bourgeois feminism?”

Kollontai examines these issues in minute detail and provides a clear, cogent answer:

“Women workers are pariahs even among the modern slaves of capital … Whether in politics, in the family, in relations between the sexes (prostitution, double morality), or in the work situation, the woman is always allotted ‘second place’, her lack of rights is underlined by her life itself.

“It is natural that even the psychology of a woman, under the influence of century-long slavery, is different from that of a working class man. The man worker is more independent, more decisive, and has more feeling of solidarity; his horizon is wider because he is not confined within the framework of narrow family relationships; it is easier for him to become aware of his interests and to connect these to class problems. But for a woman worker to reach the maturity of the views of an average male worker – that means a complete break with the tradition, the concepts, the morals, the customs, which have become part of her since the cradle. … From this the conclusion is clear, that one can arouse woman’s sleeping brain, and bring to life her will, only by means of a special approach to her, only by using specialised methods of work among women.

“The peculiarity of these methods consists in the fact that while not breaking off general links between the general workers’ and women workers’ movement, while welding both wings into one in the process of struggle, bringing them together under the banner of general class tasks and demands, they nevertheless provide for a separate structure for agitation specifically designed to cater for the working class women.”

However, seldom does this happen in a smooth, premeditated, perfect manner. As Kollontai explains, “The women workers’ movement literally grew out of the womb of capitalist reality. But for a long time”, that is, in early stages, “it advanced tentatively, seeking its way [and] hesitating in its choice of methods.” Depending on concrete conditions and the stage of the movement, she adds, it “takes extremely motley and varied forms. … Women workers joined general, mixed unions, organised themselves into separate women’s trade unions, founded their clubs, and societies for self-education, or, finally, formed a special women’s collective within the party, which undertook the responsibility for agitational and organisational work among women.”

The Munnar movement showcases one fine example of such bold exploration of a new path of advance; many others are to be found in our country and elsewhere, in our time and in the annals of history. Why not take a look at two such experiences?

First Phase of Women Workers’ Struggle in US

Since early 19th century, the Lowell family’s textile mills in Massachusetts worked to attract the unmarried daughters of farm families, expecting them to work a few years before marriage. These young women factory workers were termed “Lowell Mill Girls.”

The factory owners and managers tried to allay family fears of allowing daughters to live away from home. The mills arranged boarding houses with strict rules akin to those in the Sumangali scheme of Tamilnadu in India, but also sponsored some cultural activities including a magazine called Lowell Offering.

Wages and working conditions were, of course, extremely bad. In 1844, Lowell Mill factory workers organized the Lowell Female Labour Reform Association (LFLRA) to press for better pay and working conditions – all by itself to begin with and then jointly with the New England Workingmen’s Association (NEWA). It was the first organization of working women in the United States.

The textile and garment workers in New York held a massive protest on 8 March 1857 with various demands, including the right to unionise. They won that legal right two years later. But the journey ahead proved extremely strenuous in the face of stiff resistance of capitalists, the state machinery and some of the male trade union bosses. The American Federation of Labour (AFL – the national trade union confederation in America) saw women as threatening the jobs of men, since the latter often worked for lower wages. Naturally it was not keen on supporting women’s attempts to unionize.

But women workers fought on. In 1860, 800 women operatives and 4,000 workmen marched during a shoemakers’ strike in Lynn, Massachusetts. Three years later, women in Troy, New York, organized the Collar Laundry Union. They went on strike, and won an increase in wages. In 1866, their strike fund was used to aid the Iron Molders Union, building a lasting relationship with that men’s union. The leader of the laundry workers’ union, Kate Mullaney, went on to become assistant secretary of the National Labour Union. The latter, founded in 1866, used to support the rights of working women.

The first two national unions to admit women were the Cigarmakers (1867) and the Printers (1869).

Meantime, Susan B. Anthony was using her paper, The Revolution, to help working women organize in their own interests. One such organization was formed in 1868, and became known as the Working Women’s Association.

In 1869, a group of women shoe-stitchers in Lynn, Massachusetts, organized the Daughters of St. Crispin, a national women’s labour organization modelled on and supported by the Knights of St. Crispin, the national shoe workers union, which also went on record supporting equal pay for equal work. The Daughters of St. Crispin spread to other areas and became the first national union of women workers in America.

When the Daughters of St. Crispin went on strike in Baltimore in 1871, the Knights of St. Crispin successfully demanded that the women strikers be rehired. The depression in the 1870s led to the demise of the Daughters of St. Crispin in 1876 and in 1881 the Knights of Labour began admitting women.

The Women’s Trade Union League, formed at the 1903 American Federation of Labour (AFL) convention in Boston and loosely tied to the latter, was composed of both workingwomen and middle-class reformers. It did not organise local unions but provided financial assistance, moral support, and training in work skills and education for women workers and employees. The WTUL also lobbied for minimum wages and restrictions on hours of work and child labour.

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900 in New York City. It was one of the first US unions to have a primarily female membership and led the historic struggle depicted below.

“The Uprising of 20,000”

In late 1909, some 20% of the workforce in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (in America a blouse is called a shirtwaist) staged a strike protesting against the starvation wages, long hours and brutal treatment in the sweatshops and the factories. In retaliation, the firm declared lock-out.

The news of the strike spread quickly to all the New York garment workers. On November 22, 1909, New York City garment workers gathered in a mass meeting at Cooper Union to discuss pay cuts, unsafe working conditions and other grievances. After two hours of indecisive speeches by male union leaders, including AFL head Samuel Gompers who waxed eloquent on the need for caution and moderation, 23 year old Clara Lemlich took the floor. “I have listened to all the speakers”, she said in her native tongue of Yiddish, “and I have no further patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move we go out in a general strike!” The crowd responded enthusiastically and, after taking a traditional Yiddish oath, “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise,” voted for a general strike. Approximately 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out from nearly 500 shops.

During the 13-week strike, more than 600 striking picketers, mostly women, were arrested, many of whom were beaten by the police. Police taunted the women strikers by calling them “whores” for their “unladylike” behaviour. They beat the young women picketers, and then charged them with assault. Employers hired local thugs to beat them as police looked the other way. Fathers and husbands implored them not to go to the picket lines for fear of their safety. And yet, the strike continued.

75 percent of the strikers were women -- primarily immigrants and teenagers -- which gave the lie to a dominant male superstition in the TU movement. As Clara Lemlich put it, “They used to say you couldn’t even organize women. They wouldn’t come to union meetings. They were ‘temporary workers’. Well, we showed them!”

Solidarity Turning Sore

The WTUL extended generous financial and other kinds of support to the fighting workers, such as setting up a strike headquarters, arranging their bail, and even walking the picket lines with them. The League members used their connections to get sympathetic coverage of the strike in the newspapers which, of course, accorded more importance to the support of the middle-class suffragists and the high-society “ladies” than to the grim determination of the young underfed strikers and socialists working with them. And as the struggle lingered on and intensified further, the clash of class outlooks between “the female representatives of the working class” (to borrow a phrase Kollontai used in the article referred above) and their middle class “sisters” began to overshadow the alliance. The WTUL continued to run a soup kitchen to help feed the strikers, but gradually they began withdrawing their support. With strike funds running very low, the Manufacturers’ Association took advantage of the situation and made a negotiated settlement with the union in late December. While making minor concessions on other issues, it refused to budge on the main demands like union recognition and application of “union standards” (standard wage rates for all, safety rules like adequate fire escape facilities etc.) in all factories.

The strikers, however, overwhelmingly rejected the contract. Bewildered and angry, the “allies” began abandoning the struggle, citing the strikers’ “unreasonable” demands and the excessive influence of socialists. Eva McDonald Valesh, a prominent member of the WTUL, proposed to “start a campaign against socialism,” because “socialism is a menace...It just makes those ignorant foreigners discontented, sets them against the government, makes them want to tear down.”

The union began signing individual contracts with the bigger shops and finally, on February 15, 1910, officially declared the strike over. Despite the scant success in material terms, the strike generated strong public opinion against the sweatshop conditions and galvanised the garments workers for an even larger strike, which broke out next year -- “The Great Revolt”, as it came to be called -- of 60,000 cloakmakers. This time, after months of picketing, an agreement was reached, whereby the ILGWU won union recognition and higher wages, as well as a rudimentary health benefits program. In fact “the uprising of 20,000” set off a wave of women’s strikes between 1909 and 1915 that spread from New York to Philadelphia and other places.

There is thus enough evidence of strong class solidarity between male and female workers in the US even in the period when the rapid influx of immigrant women workers into the workforce was exerting palpable downward pressure on the general wage level and thereby causing some consternation among the older white, male, skilled and semi-skilled workers: the joint struggle of LFLRA and NEWA; the Collar Laundry Union offering their strike fund to help the Iron Molders Union; Kate Mullaney, leader of the Laundry Union becoming the assistant secretary of the National Labour Union and so on. Then starting with the Cigarmakers Union and the Printers Union in 1860s, mixed unions became the norm, except for all-women sectors. Similar has been the experience in subsequent periods and other countries too. Not only waged women workers but workers’ wives and daughters too have played exemplary roles everywhere during strikes and other struggles, lending credence to Lemlich’s assertion that that the working class housewife was as important a participant in the class struggle as her wage-earning husband/son/daughter. That is because her unwaged domestic and procreative labour in the household is essential to the work of social reproduction under capitalism. She, too, is a labourer whose conditions of labour is shaped by capitalism and who is exploited under capitalism.

Kalyan Sarees Workers’ Struggle in Kerala

“This report … seeks to highlight the ongoing Kalyan Workers Strike that began on 4 January, 2015. The Kalyan Sarees is a huge network of high-end clothing shop in Kerala which embodies our new-found craving for the opulent and the extravagant. It arose when six salesgirls at the Kalyan Sarees showroom at Thrissur were transferred without prior notice in retaliation against their exercise of agency, evident in taking the lead in joining the Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU) and encouraging their co-workers, all women, to join. They represent a very large group of women workers spread out all over Kerala and working under highly exploitative conditions.

Working for, on an average, ten to twelve hours a day, women in this sector are paid far lower than their male counterparts. …Wages for overtime work or allowances of leave are far away right now. …[S]hockingly enough, their struggle, at the moment, is for recognition of their human-status, as women – for the right to relieve themselves and the right to sit. Most shops and buildings do not have toilet facilities and do women workers are forced to either pay and use public toilets or go to nearby hotels. …most women refrain from drink any water at all lest they feel the need for a toilet break. When they do ask for such breaks, they face verbal abuses or sexually-coloured remarks. A common suggestion offered to them, apparently, is to ‘attach a hose-pipe or a cover under their sarees’. Such daily denigration is intended to kill whatever little self-respect the woman might have gained from her employment, forcing her back into the patriarchal self-identification of being vulnerable, worthless, and irretrievably gendered, an interloper in public space.

Worse, these women who are subjected to constant surveillance and monitoring are not allowed to sit down even occasionally. Lest they do, there are no chairs or stools available and any worker who may attempt to rest for a moment is immediately chastised by floor managers or owners.

It was in such a scenario that the Central Government in 2008 passed the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, a highly inadequate law but one that nevertheless became the rallying force around which the hitherto unprotected workers in the unorganised sector began to mobilise. Starting from a group of 25 women working in the S.M. Street (Mittai Theruvu) in Kozhikode who got together to discuss this law and share their common grievances, a group named Penkoottu[1] came into existence. … it was after the formation of this that the AMTU was formed so as to incorporate men in the same sector as well. Thus it was the organizing of the women that gave impetus to the men to do so too.

The first issue that they took up was the right of access to adequate toilet facilties.  A signature campaign and numerous representations to all authorities concerned including the Owners Association and the Municipal Corporation resulted in the Collector intervening. However there was precious little gained materially, except the building of a few toilets. More significantly, the women gained a collective and empowered voice strong enough to act as a pressure group, and recognized as an important stakeholder in all matters concerning them. Penkoottu continued to organize for many other demands too such as access to safe public spaces by forming vigilante groups to prevent sexual harassment on the streets, taking up issues in specific shops or companies. ...”

The Kalyan workers’ ongoing strike must be viewed in the context of this sustained process of struggle and resistance. Representing the demands of co-workers in the unorganised textile outlets, the women of the Thrissur showroom of Kalyan Sarees joined the AMTU in December, 2014. The six women workers were punished for having played a leading role in this, and were transferred to distant places without any notice or consent. They were also prevented from entering the shop premises and repeatedly threatened of suspension. All this led them to declare an indefinite strike which will enter its 69th day on March 8 [2015].”

[Excerpted from “Bread and Roses in Kerala today – the Kalyan Sarees Women Workers’ Struggle” by jdevika Kafila March 7, 2015 (Based on a telephonic interview with Ms. Viji, Secretary, Penkoottu.)

Note: [1]  A pioneering union of unorganised sector workers set up in 2009 with over 6,000 members. Penkoottam members include workers drawn from private healthcare and anganwadis, shop floor assistants, and unaided teachers. The union has been highlighting issues like long work hours, absence of restrooms, ban on textile shop assistants from sitting during work hours, etc.

A Hard-won Victory

The long-drawn struggle evoked a lot of support from members of public, but none of the mainstream media – print or visual -- covered this issue because Kalyan sarees are a major ad generating source. Eventually the management had to relent on April 15. The six women’s transfers were cancelled, they were inducted back into the Kalyan Sarees depot in Thrissur with salaries for the duration of the strike and given office work.

Class Struggle and Women’s Empowerment

To come back to our starting point. By standing up boldly and effectively against the Tata management, the women workers of Munnar have finally shaken off the shackles of insensitive, ideologically and financially sold- out TU leaders and are now taking the next logical step: formation of a new independent union. Will the split harm class struggle?

Not necessarily. There are instances galore all over the world where a real breakthrough in working class movement, a transition from class collaboration to class struggle, was achieved only through defiant, bold, autonomous initiatives of rank and file workers who fought, faced torture, broke free from the old TU hierarchy and eventually found a new union or joined some smaller but honest, militant union. That was exactly what happened in the wake of the Marikana massacre in South Africa (August 2012) with nearly 1 lakh workers quickly changing over from the official National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to its breakaway faction, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (ACMU). Since then the former, which once held a near- monopoly position in the country’s TU scene thanks to its militant past as well as the privilege of being affiliated to the COSATU, which is a partner of the ruling coalition, has been consistently losing ground to the latter in terms of both the number and intensity of struggles conducted and membership figures. The NMU, understandably, is fighting the emergent TU by invoking the old slogan “one industry, one union” – an ideal slogan in an imaginary ideal situation, which is being used here in narrow self-interest; even as COSATU vilifies independent TUs as “the biggest onslaught waged by the bourgeoisie”. In the given context, the ACMU slogan of “competitive coexistence” is attracting workers as a more realistic and meaningful proposition. Of course, the conditions of TU movement in South Africa and India are not exactly comparable, but the trend of the times presents itself quite clearly in both countries.

Was the Munnar agitation anti-union, as alleged in certain quarters? Was it directed against male workers?

An authentic answer to this question is to be found in an accompanying report, but perhaps a few words will be in order here in the context of the present discussion.

The tea plantation workers in Munnar, like the garment workers in New York in another era, fought for demands like wage rise, pay parity, better working conditions and so on. If in their struggle against owners/managements they also had to fight against scabs, betrayers, insensitive or bribed TU leaders, hated politicians etc., that was not because the latter were males but because they guarded/helped the class enemy or sought to tie the hands of the fighters in various ways. So it is absolutely wrong, if not politically motivated, to project this agitation as something opposed to, or isolated from, the mainstream of working class movement in India.

But it is also true that, barring exceptions, leading bodies of TUs have traditionally been mostly male preserves and the women workers in Munnar had to demolish that in order to launch their struggle. This brings us to the special significance of the Munnar upheaval.

The peaceful uprising was unique in India on many counts: scale of mobilisation, state of preparedness, rocklike determination, superb militancy, energetic outreach to the people at large – to mention only the most visible features; and as such it marks a new stage in the broad multi-class, multi-dimensional women’s awakening in India. In this wider and truer sense – not in the crooked and vulgar view of women workers fighting a competitive battle against their male counterparts and male leaders – the uprising subsequent developments are definitely a powerful blow to the systemic patriarchal power embedded in all material, political and ideological structures of society and state, including parties and TUs of the bourgeois mainstream. Class struggle in this case – in fact in all such cases – cannot but be a great vehicle of women’s empowerment.

The Munnar moment thus represents an assertive uprising of the exploited class and the repressed gender coalesced into one. It holds out a great promise for the democratic movement in India. Comrades out there are really breaking new grounds – let us all learn from them and stand up in solidarity.

(The author would like to thank Aswathy Senan for inputs regarding the Kalyan workers’ struggle).


Clara Lemlich

A Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, Lemlich found work in a clothing factory where she worked 7 days a week, from 60 to 80 hours, for less than a living wage. Yet she found time to read widely and organized a study group to discuss women’s problems. As an activist of ILGWU, she often had to fight against the skilled male workers who dominated the union and did not consider it necessary to take the unskilled, mostly immigrant women workers into confidence on union matters. Several times before the strike of 1909, she brought her women co-workers, despite men’s objections, out on strike in various garment shops. At the time of “the uprising of 20,000” she was already a veteran labour militant, having been arrested 17 times in a previous strike and just a few weeks earlier had several ribs broken by police batons. In more ways than one, she helped add a new dimension to the male-dominated world of socialism and labour organizing in the early twentieth century. She was elected to the executive board of the ILGWU.

Being blacklisted from New York garment shops, Clara turned her energies to the suffrage movement, helping to found the Wage Earners League for Woman Suffrage. In 1926, she joined the Communist Party and, along with other CP women, founded the United Council of Working-Class Housewives. The council helped the wives of striking workers raise funds, gather food, and set up community kitchens and cooperative child care. She always propagated that consumption was intimately linked to production, and that the working class housewife was as important a participant in the class struggle as her wage-earning husband, sisters, sons, and daughters.

In 1913, Clara married printer Joe Shavelson, who died in 1951. In 1951, the year her husband died, she was summoned to Washington to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1960, she married an old labour movement acquaintance, Abe Goldman. She remained an unapologetic communist (which is significant in the American context) and politically active in numerous fields till death in 1982.

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