Updated: April 12, 2021 9:35:03 pm
Written by Meena Menon
When union leader Datta Iswalkar breathed his last in Mumbai’s JJ hospital on the evening of April 7 due to a brain hemorrhage, he was not only mourned by his immediate family. The textile mill workers of Mumbai lost a part of their family too. A large section of Mumbaikars also reacted with a genuine outpouring of grief.
Iswalkar was an extraordinary man. He was a trade union leader, a textile worker’s son, and a textile employee himself. He was not just a committed activist, but a visionary with the capacity to realise his vision. He had the courage and humility to bring people together, to organise them. He negotiated and fought to win. Not to prove anything to anyone, least of all to the media. He was fired with the need to make sure mill workers were not denied their rights and place in the city.
Iswalkar led the last big battle of the textile workers of Mumbai, one which is still in progress. During the 1982 textile strike led by the redoubtable trade union leader Datta Samant, Iswalkar was a worker at Modern Mills. The strike fizzled out and striking mill workers like him had to go back to work without achieving anything except the destruction of their ability to organise and fight for their rights. This was his first lesson in trade union organising.
He remained convinced that compromise and negotiation was part of any struggle, however militant. Therefore, even with over 35 criminal cases against him and other activists, Iswalkar and the mill workers always kept the door open for negotiation — with mill owners, the government, banks or government agencies. When 10 mills, including Modern Mills, were shut after the strike, Iswalkar brought together the workers to start Bandh Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti. After an intense agitation, the mills opened, and workers received their long overdue wages and benefits. The Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (GKSS) was born with Iswalkar as its general secretary.
Soon, sickness and closure affected the sector again. The mill owners were adamant in their refusal to run sick mills and forego the profits from real estate development on prime lands that mills occupied in Central Mumbai.
Datta saw the writing on the wall. He did not want mill workers to end up in the failure they had suffered after the 1982 strike. He was brave enough to change tack and demand that if mill land was sold, a share must go to mill workers. They must have housing in place of the jobs they were losing. Despite criticism, he focused on what could be achieved.
This resulted in winning a part of mill land and a right to housing for the out-of-work workers. The united platform of mill unions is still working, and the struggle to make sure that the decision to provide all mill workers with homes is ongoing. To date, 15,000 apartments have been built and distributed through lots, and for residents of mill chawls which were demolished due to closure, 8,000 flats were given. Many workers might have passed on in this period, but they dreamt of leaving something for their children, and this is no small achievement.
Iswalkar’s integrity, warmth and kindness won him a place in the hearts of everyone who knew him. He believed in socialism, but he had no prejudice against those who disagreed with his thinking. His gentleness, tolerance and deeply democratic spirit inspired everyone who worked with him or even met him.
With his death, the labour movement in general and mill workers in particular has lost a great leader; one who lived and breathed for the textile workers of Mumbai and for their right to live and work in the city of Mumbai.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 12, 2021 under the title ‘Labour’s last stand’. The writer was founding vice-president of GKSS