Jobless Unionists Fight Unemployment
A MISTY tea garden in a remote, sub-Himalayan region of North India is the unlikely scene of a bitter struggle for workers’ control Pitted against each other for ownership of the Sonali Tea Garden are a group of 500 impoverished workers and two powerful Stock Exchange speculators. With the cards stacked in favour of the well-connected speculators, it hardly looks like a contest of equals. Yet so great is the workers’ determination to win through that, even after a four year struggle, the outcome still hangs in the balance.
A British company started the Sonali Tea Garden in 1875, importing workers from Bihar 1000 kilometres to the south — to clear the dense jungle from the hillsides. The immigrants stayed on and cultivated the tea garden successfully for the next 85 years. In 1960 the British sold out to a Bengali planter and the garden steadily declined.
Then in 1972 the Khemka brothers, who speculate on the Calcutta Stock Exchange, bought the garden And after doing a swift job of asset-stripping. they handed over the rundown garden — with its liabilities to the workers in September 1973. With no capital, no management experience and saddled with debts, the workers were in a desperate position They had not even received their wages for over a year. The garden was in shambles and winter — when no leaves could be picked was almost upon them. First they sought a solution through their union the Cha Bagan Workers’ Union, affiliated to the Communist-Controlled All India Trades Union Congress. They marched 85 kilometres to the district capital of Jalpaiguri and consulted with government officials, but reached no solution Disillusioned, they weighed up their options — either abandon the garden as the former owners had done or stay on and try to save it from complete ruin They decided to stay on. Despite hunger and bitter cold, the workers began pnaning the tea bushes. They were determined their garden would not die.
For eight bitter months the workers cultivated the garden without pay. Some died and others left in despair but most survived by eating the roots of trees and wild animals they killed in the dense forests. Finally, in March 1974, they began plucking the tender tea leaves and selling them to nearby factories. Since the former owners had taken the jeep, they transported the green leaves by bicycle and bullock cart.
In September 1974 the workers formed their own cooperative. Named after the village where most of the workers live, the’ Saongaon Tea and Allied Plantation Workers’ Cooperative Limited’ was the first of its kind in the long history of tea plantations in India Half the members of the Cooperative were women The cooperative’s first act was to abolish wage discrimination between men and women the first time women had ever been awarded the same wages as men on an Indian tea garden.
The garden made rapid progress over the next three years as the workers nursed it back to health through sheer hard work and the judicious application of fertilisers and pesticides. Ten more acres were planted with young tea bushes. A diesel jeep was bought in 1975. Two years later, with production reaching a record level of 1043 tons, the co-op raised wages by a hefty 30%, purchased a tractor, built a new storage shed and even provided workers with sturdy umbrellas very useful in torrential downpours. Workers’ living conditions improved out of sight. The cooperative paid for house repairs, established a dispensary and school and installed a pure water supply.
These impressive gains were made without the help of a professional manager. Supervision and administration have been carried out by an elected nine person management committee of seven ordinary workers (including at least three women) and two clerical staff, reelected every 15 months. Most committee members are illiterate.
Initially many workers regarded the committee as a sort of paternalistic company which would guide and look after them. It would have been easy to retain the old pattern of management- worker relations, issuing orders and disciplining workers who refused to conform. Instead, the committee consciously tried to involve all workers in confronting and overcoming managerial problems. For example, the committee abandoned old management techniques of issuing chargesheets, show-cause notices and other cumbersome procedures. If a worker was slack or disobeyed orders, the committee tried to persuade him or her to change. This usually worked, but if the worker still refused to comply the case was brought before a meeting of the whole workforce, which decided on a suitable form of punishment This procedure was very effective in maintaining work discipline and increasing production At the same time, workers felt a real involvement in running the cooperative.
Remarkably, the cooperative received no financial assistance from banks or any other source, all its expenditure being met through the sale of green tea leaves. By the end of 1977 it was even able to build up a contingency of $20,000 through workers’ own contributions.
At this point the former owners decided the time was ripe to stage a comeback. They challenged the registration of the cooperative by filling a suit in Calcutta High Court and in July 1978 a receiver was appointed to manage the garden Despite subsequent decisions by both the High Court and the Supreme Court in favour of the cooperative, the case is still in a legal tangle. For four years the workers have been unable to cultivate their tea garden, which again is in a run-down state.
Meanwhile the workers have been harassed by police and arrested on trumped-up charges ranging from stealing milk to attempted murder. Currently more than 40 workers are awaiting trial on criminal charges.
The Saongaon co-op workers know they have three options. Either they grit their teeth and continue the struggle through yet another cold winter, hoping that the Courts and the State government will work out a solution in their favour; or they can ditch their cooperative’s ownership claims and go back to work for the Khemka brothers; or they can abandon the tea garden completely and look for work elsewhere. So far the overwhelming majority has opted to stay and fight.
Most workers and their families survive by roaming the district looking for casual work, picking up a few days wages each month. The more fortunate families own small plots of land on which they grow a few crops. Most have only one meal a day. Houses have fallen into disrepair and children’s emaciated faces tell a story of struggle and suffering. At night the whole settlement is plunged into total darkness because people cannot afford to buy kerosene for their lamps. Some men have begun to lose heart at times but women have taken more leadership roles and stiffened the resolve of everyone.
Significantly, the workers’ own trade union withdrew its support when the workers decided to form a cooperative. Local Communist trade union leaders seemed to fear a threat to their own leadership if the idea of cooperative management took hold in the tea gardens. Neither has the avowedly marxist State government shown much concern for the fate of workers struggling to make a dent in the existing capitalist mode of tea production.
The Saongaon Workers’ Cooperative has proven that illiterate tea garden workers even after a century of exploitation by their employers — are capable of managing their own affairs in an efficient, democratic manner. This experience of workers’ control offers both the State government and the trade union movement in India a refreshingly different view of worker-management relations.