Kolkata: There used to be a t-shirt some years ago that was popular among unionists. In big block letters it read, “Union Rights are Human Rights.” Straight forward, simple and to the point, but it was dramatic in its own way. And, true!
The slogan came to mind as I listened to INTUC’s Ramen Pandey recently talk about the big project that he and his organizers were focusing on now in Kolkata. They wanted to organize manual rickshaw pullers. They believed — I really have no idea — that Kolkata was the last place on the globe where men still manually transported men, virtually on their backs, but more accurately with their backs — and legs — in constant motion as someone else sat perched over the two large wheels balanced and pulled by the rickshaw runners.
Certainly in downtown Kolkata, even if there are fewer men employed in this occupation (some estimate 1500, while others guess at 5000), they are still much in evidence in the downtown area near the Maiden and around the New Market area, where they are standing in front of their rickshaws and leaning on the handles, waiting for work. Pandey’s idea is to leverage the city and state, embarrass, and force the left-based government to have to provide re-training and either three-wheeled tri-shaws, bicycles, or motorized rickshaws for the men instead.
It is hard to judge the strategy from afar, but with the support of the Tides Foundation’s Paradox Fund, Pandey and his organizing staff, who were enthusiastic about the project when we visited with them, decided they had the opportunity and the mandate to try something different in organizing the informal sector by coupling human rights and workers rights. Kolkata is not normally a destination city for many people, but for organizers, union activists, and others, this may be an organizing drive worth watching, and noting in coming years whether or not one continues to see men carrying men on their backs through the hard streets of this great city. I know I will be listening for the reports of progress among the rickshaw drivers by Pandey and his team.