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Home > South Asia Labour Activists Library > India: When working class ruled Coimbatore | Binoy Valsan

India: When working class ruled Coimbatore | Binoy Valsan

13 August 2014

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The Times of India

When working class ruled Coimbatore

Binoy Valsan, TNN | May 2, 2012, 04.55AM IST

COIMBATORE: Their memory is a bit hazy as they go back in time to reflect on the days when Coimbatore was synonymous with workers’ movements and struggles for securing the rights of the men and women, who made the spindles spin and earn the city its title of the Manchester of South India.

Disappointment is evident in the tone and body language of the trade union leaders of the past as they admit to the decline of the workers movements over the years. They concede that the working class itself has undergone drastic transformation post-1990s, and that the trade union movements have either reached a point of stagnation or have slowly dissolved in a market-dominated system that offers minimum space for dissent or activism from the workers. "Very few leaders from those days are alive today. We all shared a common dream of strengthening the working class and their basic rights,’ says 72-year-old UK Vellingiri, CPM leader and a former MLA.

Working class politics emerged in Coimbatore in 1930s and ’40s, when the workers of textile mills in the city began to demand better wages and working conditions. The first trade union in the city, Coimbatore Mill Workers Union, was formed in 1937. "Those days, special overseers armed with whips were posted in mills to ensure that employees work for at least 16 hours daily without rest," says M Arumugam, CPI MLA from Valparai.

Naturally, mill workers formed the fulcrum of trade unions in the city followed by employees of garment units and mechanical manufacturing units that were booming sectors. The city’s trade union leaders and activists like Jeevanandam, K N Sinnayan, N K Krishnan, Parvathy Krishnan, A Subramaniam, U K Vellingiri and P S Chinnadurai were nationally known. INTUC, AITUC and HMS dominated unions until the DMK came into the picture in the 1960s.

A turning point in the trade union history of Coimbatore was when 15 mills including Kaleeswara mills, Pankaja Mills and Cambodia Mills were declared sick units in 1967. The workers protested the mismanagement of the mills that led to their decline. Over 5,000 workers were imprisoned and the strike led to the formation of the Tamil Nadu Textile Corporation, which took over the mills. "The movement in Coimbatore was spearheaded by Parvathy Krishnan and other leaders, which laid the foundation for the central government to draft a bill in 1974 and form the National Textile Corporation," says Arumugam.

Vellingiri recollects the five-and-half month-long strike at the Lakshmi Machine Works Unit in Coimbatore when 400 workers were imprisoned for 22 days in 1977. The agitation was triggered when the management decided to terminate two permanent employees. "MGR intervened to resolve the crisis. His labour minister S Raghavanandam personally asked us to withdraw the strike. We carried on till the workers were reinstated," says Vellingiri.

The gradual closure of the mills in the 1980s adversely impacted the unions. The classification and separation of the mills into four categories based on the spindle capacity in 1987 further affected the sector as more and more private mills reduced their spindle capacity and started to shift units to rural areas, where cheap labour could be employed on temporary contracts.

"The sumangali scheme and the deployment of temporary workers adversely affected the sector as managements could easily keep them under check and even gag them if they dared to raise their voice," says A Subramaniam, four-time president, Hind Mazdoor Sabha.

The 1990s saw a major shift in the economy that led to the growth of the service sector. Industrial employment declined and so did the industrial working class. The entry of new forms of contractual employment demolished old notions of working class solidarity and consciousness. The new corporate culture hardly offered space for socialisation centred on trade unions and the lower orders of labour were increasingly constituted of migrant workers drawn from even northern states, who were put up in camps.

"Coimbatore used to be an active sphere for workers movements and protests. A few decades back even the normal kitchen talk in households would be about the textile mills and the problems of the workers. There was a high level of awareness in the society especially among the middle class," said CR Bijoy, city-based social activist.

The recent nurses’ strike in a city hospital was almost a throwback to the past. However, that the strike was limited to one hospital and that major trade unions were not involved in it itself revealed how much the city’s political culture had changed.

P.S.

The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use