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!

1925999_743188619067478_1497413840_o

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Indian Wastepickers Ready to Train New Yorkers!

Los Angeles  Mayor Bloomberg is now adding composting as another key ingredient of his urban-futures program in New York City joining his other major campaigns around smoking in private establishments, too much sugar in sodas, and gun control, and I’m all for it!  The case he has laid out is impeccable. There are savings in landfill capacity that come from sorting out the organic waste.  There is the potential to convert biomass into energy, and they are talking to various folks about building a plant or contracting to have it done. They are joining the in-crowd cities of San Francisco and Seattle, and this in the Mayor’s words is truly one of the last new “frontiers of recycling.”

            Reading comments in the Times from some New York residents indicates that there is not the kind of applause in the streets and the high rises of condos in the big city greeting this news, and even though voluntary now with more than 100,000 signed up, the news from major candidates that the program should be mandatory by 2016 is getting a bit of the Bronx cheer rather than Broadway ovations.   I think we can help though from our experience at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and ACORN International’s in organizing wastepickers throughout India that specialize in recycling from soup to nuts to metal and plastic.

            At the coffeehouse, it is easy.  We keep all coffee grounds and organic waste for our own and other farming operations in huge, green plastic rolling cans.  Hollygrove Farmers’ market uses some and sells some to area farmers.  The ACORN Farm that is beginning this fall in the Lower 9th Ward of  New Orleans will use as much as we can produce.  All of that is well and good, but our real value added for New York City and elsewhere would be what major cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengalaru already do, which is have wastepickers pick up the trash and garbage in the apartment blocks daily, then sort, sell everything of value, and compost the rest in sorting areas right on the streets. 

            The system in India is obviously not a “last frontier” or very modern but could be adapted for the complaining New Yorkers who can’t be bothered putting one thing in one bag and something in another bag.  They could help create jobs and livelihoods by paying a “lazy, too old to change” premium, and have professional wastepickers come to the door, pick up their garbage, take it down, sort, sell, and so forth.  The wastepickers that we organize in India are only paid based on what they can sell of value, but in New York they should get a living wage paid by garbage fee assessments from the lazy and can keep whatever they can gain from recycling sales to brokers as lagniappe that greases the system.  In India virtually the entire middle class is the market, but given the widening equality gap in the United States and certainly in New York City, this could be a high-end service that professional wastepickers could provide, creating thousands of jobs. 

            Composting makes perfect sense obviously so most people will adapt and move forward because in every way it’s simply the right way to go, but for the rest, we would be glad to bring some of our wastepickers over here to the promised land to teach people exactly how it’s done!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail