ACORN’s Indian Hawkers’ Union Tries Video Recruitment

Suresh organizing hawkers.

Suresh organizing hawkers.

New Orleans    In organizing you never know what might work, and every once in a while we get the opportunity to try something new, and it’s exciting to hold our breath to see what might happen next. This minute the back story is the whole story, but soon a special video recruitment tool will be debuting throughout Bengaluru and the south Indian state of Karnataka for ACORN’s hawkers and street vendors union, and we can hardly wait to see whether it will work.

Certainly we’re not alone in trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

A Washington Post article forwarded to me by a colleague was an “oh, wow!” piece about Indian university students who were arrested for giving seditious speeches that have gained new life and a huge audience once repurposed as “foot-tapping musical numbers” that have become “a surprise online hit with the Indian youth.” On a small scale we want to see if we can create a recruitment vehicle for ACORN with enough pizzazz that hawkers will pass it back and forth in the same way, and flock to the union. Our normal recruitment method is going market by market, stall by stall, and organizing meetings for workers sitting on pieces of tarps on dusty roadways to talk about organizing when there is a lull in business. But, what the heck, let’s try this, too.

The idea developed after several large doses of serendipity.

I stumbled onto a brilliant book called Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology by Kentaro Tomayo that I encouraged everyone everywhere to read. I tracked down Tomayo, currently a professor in Michigan, and interviewed him on Wade’s World (www.kabf.org) which went spectacularly. We both agreed we should continue the conversation and did so the following Monday before the podcast was even up on the KABF website. As we talked about his work and ours, there was an intersection in the time we had both spent in Bengaluru, where he had helped set up a Microsoft lab and we had organized communities and lower waged workers for years. He asked if I was familiar with the Indian phenomenon of sharing videos from mobile phone to mobile phone with or without internet and smartphone capability. Of course I was clueless, but I knew change was coming because our Bengaluru organizer, Suresh Kadashan, finally had a smartphone during my visit with him last year. When Kentaro asked if we would be interested in trying to see if we could create a video recruitment tool to see what impact it might have on enrolling new members for our hawkers’ union, he had me from hello.

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One thing led to another and with Kentaro we linked up with another professor, Jay Chen, at NYU’s outpost in Abu Dhabi on skype, and he recruited a student, Koh Terai, with film experience who was game to make it happen, who also recruited another student to help who had ties to India, and then with Suresh’s help the pieces were falling together. Skype calls between New Orleans, Michigan, Abu Dhabi, Berlin where Koh was studying temporarily, and Bengaluru were – to my mind – a technical miracle as well!

Through four drafts of a script by Koh and three days on the ground in the markets of Bengaluru with Suresh which included recruiting some of our members to dance, Bollywood style, in the video, the rough cuts were made and the “stills” alone made me ready to join yesterday. It’ll be another couple of weeks until we have the video ready for prime time in the markets of Bengaluru, but 21st century organizing, thanks to our new friends, Kentaro, Jay, and Koh, here we come!

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Dub Sharma – Azadi [Audio] | Featuring Kanhaiya and Friends– One of the remixes of the student’s speech to music.

Visit ACORN International for more video stills of our hawkers film.

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The Law of the Streets

talking to a police harassing us that is in Chennai in the Mint Road market

talking to a police harassing us that is in Chennai in the Mint Road market

Bengaluru       In Chennai and Bengaluru, the issue we continued to hear in every market where we visited with our members was the police.  Every day was a continual battle for space and the streets.   We may have gotten a law passed in Delhi, but without power, literally in the streets, it wouldn’t matter to our members.

Part of the problem is the push-and-shove between the hawkers and the police over every foot in the sidewalk and every inch into the street.  Some of this we can see in the streets of every major city even in the United States where people are rolling out their wares on street corners and bundling them up quickly when they see a cop car on the street in a continual cat-and-mouse game.  The law in India makes this different, because now there are some rights, but a street seller needs to get as close to the crowd of pedestrians as possible, and that’s part of the rub.

And, the reason why the police in India continue to want their palms greased, sometimes up to 100 rupees per day, which many of our hawkers continue to begrudgingly be forced to pay.  For the members, even when they join together and win as a union, if they were forced from their space even for a couple of days, as any small businessperson would realize, that means that they have to rebuild their regular customer base.   A food vendor in Bengaluru who was our leader in the area had worked his particular corner for 20 years, complained to us about having been pushed out for three days by the police, and now, weeks later, was still trying to reconnect to his customers.  He asked Suresh if it would have been easier to keep paying the bribe.  The question wasn’t rhetorical.

In Chennai, we walked a long way up and down the Mint Road Market.  The market runs almost four kilometers.  Some shops and sellers can date their business 80 years.  Under the new Act, any market over fifty years is a “heritage” market and has even more protection from dislocation.  Yet, as we walked towards the end of one terminus of the market with our leaders there, two policemen still, noticing the crowd around us, thought it was worth their time to come over and hassle us about what we were doing and try to edge their way into some semblance of control of the streets, claiming we were blocking traffic.  On Mint Road the streets truly belong to the people, but the display by the police made a point nonetheless.

Suresh’s phone kept ringing as we visited markets in Bengaluru with calls from Mangalore and Mysore, where city officials and police where threatening to bulldoze markets.  We watched a documentary one evening that Dharmendra Kumar had brought down from Delhi over the weekend.  Both he and Suresh had helped explain the situation with foreign direct investment and the hawkers to the Indian-Canadian filmmaker, and were credited with help and translation in the film, but it had taken Dharmendra four years to finally get a copy.  We relished the part that focused on the fight we had waged to protect a 350 year old market in Bengaluru and interviews with one of our main leaders there and the “happy” ending as the film’s postscript when the market was saved.

Like all organizing though, winning a victory one day doesn’t change the fight the next day for other members and other campaigns and other places and spaces.   We may have won a law, but it is enforced in the streets in the constant battle between organized sellers and police pushing the other way for control of the streets and some of the old ways.  This is a battle our union has to fight every day where we have members.   There is no end in sight.

bus transfer station market in Chennai

bus transfer station market in Chennai

 

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Green Street Elite – Stand your ground

 

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