Delhi The ACORN India staff in Delhi, Dharmendra Kumar, Om Prakash, and Animesh Halder and me sat around the table at Tej Abode or XY Lodging for almost 6 hours wrestling with organizing plans for the coming months. We framed the demands on a potential Commonwealth Games Campaign including a list of supporters in Delhi we needed to agree to join with us, calling a meeting soon, getting the website up, writing the on-line petition, sorting out the need for an International Day of Action, and the rest of what is entailed in getting a campaign up and running. We figured out what was needed to link the staff and some leadership into the ACORN International meetings in May in Lima, Peru, so that the connections would be made, reports given, and information exchanged. All of that, even in translation and caucuses in English and Hindi, was easy enough.
The hardest lift, not surprisingly, was wrestling with “organizing math,” as we tried to make a real and sustainable self-sufficiency plan for organizing the hundreds of thousands of bicycle rickshaw pullers into a union. There are huge mountains to climb, but the biggest rock on the road starts with the experience of all types of workers in paying totally unrealistic dues levels in unions. I was impressed with this problem from my first trip to India with the Organizers’ Forum ten years ago when the leaders of one major central federation after another explained that they were receiving only one rupee per month, when they could get it. Formal workers were doing better, but still, often not too well. Looking at what our rickshaw pullers were making, we knew we had the problem of hand collection which is always daunting, but when we looked at the basic math on dues models, we knew we had real problems on sustainability to get to scale. Our dues were ten rupees, but even at a low rate of 1% of gross pay, dues would have been forty-five rupees per month. We had a thirty-five rupee gap, and no easy way to imagine how to suddenly move the rate up without the organizational record to justify it.
The organizer brainstorming began by looking at what the drivers were paying to the owners and whether or not there was some play there. We looked at the problem of parking and guarding the rickshaws which was often daunting to drivers that owned their own rickshaw. We went over and over the cost of rickshaws for drivers who wanted to become independent through the union. Out of all of this started to develop the notion of building some driver cooperatives parallel to the union organizing, which if successful could help finance increased organizing, if we could figure out the costs well enough and come up with cheap or free money to do the initial rickshaw purchases. Dharmendra knew of a pilot some years before the America India Foundation had done with a “rickshaw bank,” which helped fuel the discussion as well. It was a great organizing discussion with everyone totally engaged. As we walked to lunch, Om Prakash wanted to make sure we were including the mandatory bribes to the police in the “business” plan of the co-op expenses. No stone left unturned.
Will it work? It should work. Can we put it together? A harder question given even the modest sum of $25000 USD that would be needed to purchase 100 rickshaws for the first group. There’s a lot to be done to see if this could be real in the coming months.
But, for now, when we had the final cups of chai for the day and then shook hands to end the meeting that evening, all of us as organizers in Delhi had smiles on our faces that recognized that this is how organizations are built and if we had the will and moxy to struggle through the pain and the plans, we could do this thing.