Building a Union of Street Vendors in Bengaluru

1149163_743188589067481_1407106341_oBengaluru   I had a long list of things I needed to get done on this trip to India, catch up with Dharmendra Kumar in Delhi on our progress at blocking multi-brand retail in Delhi and stopping foreign direct investment, state by state, and evaluate our growing, alliance with hawkers, and my coming visit with Vinod Shetty in Mumbai will focus on our progress in Dharavi and see the developments in the sorting system for our wastepickers were vital.  But, none ranked higher than visiting with Suresh Kadashan and seeing if we had finally succeeded in forming official, registered unions for the informal workers we were organizing in Bengaluru.

            The organizing was certainly not new.  We had been plugging away at it for about five years with wastepickers, hawkers, domestic workers, and others, but eighteen months ago our decision had been to bite the bullet and register formally as an independent trade union under the laws of the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru with about 5 million people is the capital and largest city.  The rest of the world may know Bangalore by its old name and its reputation as India’s tech center or as “silicon” city, as some of the boosters are saying now, but that’s another world from our organizing with slum dwellers and informal workers.  1614525_743188425734164_1782074469_o

            But every month we would try to register and could get no decision, and this went on, frustratingly, for over a year until this last December, when finally a deputy labor commissioner agreed to a path forward.  Winning the registration was a matter of signatures from members and producing a minimum number (150) at a meeting of the street vendors.  We now have organized the vendors in 25 different street markets throughout the city and once the process is finalized in coming months Suresh expects we will find ourselves with 6000 new dues-paying members.  I was with Suresh yesterday as we bussed and auto-rickshawed to various street markets to meet with the officers of local branches of our new union in several places.  1782537_743188469067493_1394852361_o

I also got to watch him have an impromptu noon meeting with 35 vendors on a side street market that needed to come into the union in order to fight for space under the Metro since a bridge was about to displace them once construction began.  It was exciting to watch a small plastic tarp spread over nearby dirt transformed into an organizing meeting!  Already our fledgling union has successfully filed cases against police harassment of vendors based on protections for sellers that are included in the state constitution, giving hard pressed hawkers some spring in their step.  In the meeting as well, Suresh dramatically pulled out the application papers for a national pension scheme that could provide small retirements for our members after 60 based on a 2:1 match annually that, importantly, has to be certified by the official seal of our union.1956692_743188309067509_1196393137_o

Registrations for a wastepickers union floundered, when the city privatized wet and dry garbage pickup, but we’re watching that situation closely.  We’ve also now filed for a local union of street food preparers which could yield another 2000 members, once approved, and, yes, India is the home of the craft union, more than the industrial model, as you can see. 

Opportunity within the informal sector abounds.  Leaders estimated 130000 street vendors ply their wares in Bengaluru and perhaps a million-and-a-half are vendors among all of Karnataka 61 million people, but in this huge state, that’s still a bridge too far perhaps since 10 of the 15 districts would have to organize in order to win a statewide union charter.

            Big dreams and hard work, yield big dividends, and finally our new union is alive and growing in Bengaluru, but that also means even bigger dreams and harder work lie ahead of us in the future.  It was thrilling to be a part of it all!

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The Mixed Blessings of Globalization

_68305314_india_middle_classDelhi    When I first flew into Delhi, it was a wild experience.  Three or four long lines of people in dilapidated, entry hall waiting forever on hard concrete floors.  My first trip was with a delegation of organizers and many of the women regaled us with stories of coming off of a 14 hour flight and not knowing what to make of the squat toilet as an only option.  Now only a dozen years later there’s a gleaming airport here with newly carpeted concourses, a bank of twenty or more customs agents, speeding everyone through.  Well, maybe not exactly speeding since there was a computer breakdown, but what’s a five minute delay, when from touchdown to home base was hardly an hour-and-a-half, when that used to be just the time through Customs. 

Part of the difference is the huge, and controversial, expenditure and graft of India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games two years ago in Delhi, but the other part is reflected in the chock full nonstop plane from Newark to Delhi.  Sure there were the usual tribe of businessmen in first class, but compared to the past, it was a mixed crowd with the majority Indian, and in the other seats a milk run for Indians visiting relatives and children in the United States or vice versa to India.  This was the great, emerging middle class of India on the move.  In a country with over a billion people, an emerging middle class of 150 million and growing is an economic power.  And, with the impending elections and the rise the Common Man Party and the newly found concerns about public corruption, they are force to be reckoned with, even if they are still a long way from power.

Eduardo Porter of the Times reported on studies of the last twenty years of globalization and the good and bad news.  The good news is that globalization has reduced inequality worldwide by creating a middle class in China and India, and that’s what I can see in the airports in India, and in neighbors like Greater Kalish II, where I have now stayed in a rooming house off and on over the last decade as I visit.  A traditional sweets shop in the marketplace is now a Benetton clothing store for example.  Two convenience stores are now one as prices have risen.  

            The other side of globalization though is the increased inequality in the United States and some other developed nations.  Porter quotes Damon Silver of the AFL-CIO though saying,

If there are hundreds of millions of people that were in abject poverty one generation ago and are not anymore, that is an important and positive thing.  But I don’t think we should accept radical inequality as a necessary corollary of equal development.

            But, it’s not just the United States, because as easy as it is to notice the emerging middle class here, it is also impossible not to also notice how little the areas where we organize in Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai have materially changed.  When I get to Mumbai at the end of this visit, undoubtedly in Dharavi I will see some improvements in our organization, but in the slum itself, I will also see the continuing encroachment of development moving to eliminate the jobs and homes altogether as the clock keeps ticking.  Here in Delhi over the next couple of days, I’ll hear about the progress of the shelters we assist in running for the city for migrant workers, and their miserable existence, helping fuel this growing middle class will perhaps feel a bit better, but be fundamentally little different over the last decade.

            Porter also mentions the fact that even as some level of global inequality is being relieved by globalization the American problem of increased efficiency of production with a decreased worker share is also being exported to China and elsewhere exacerbating inequality between the rich and workers even as a middle class is built.  Whether the issue is globalization or not, development without equitable distribution is not only unacceptable, but a tinderbox for the future on a worldwide basis as well.

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