Our Hawkers Union Organizing Comittee

ACORN Ideas and Issues International Personal Writings

Mumbai     The missing ingredient in all of the pieces of the India FDI Watch Campaign has been having an independent mass base that we could bring to the table to augment the strength of our alliance partners. We needed our own strike force for actions, and, just as in Delhi with the work among the waste pickers, we needed a way to link our development of both the classic ACORN work and issues of living conditions in the community with livelihood based issues and interests of our constituents. Over the last month our team in Bombay has been moving forward to fill that gap.

Vinod Shetty, ACORN India Director, and Dilip Mahdo, our organizer, with a lot of help from Cheryl Deutsch, volunteering at night over the last month, took the structure of a largely defunct pre-existing trade union registration, and began to build new life in that old charter by organizing a union of hawkers. In that month the first 100 members had jointed this new and fledgling union, and on Saturday night at close to 10:00 PM in the open room of a community temple, I was fortunate enough to be at the convening of the first meeting of our new hawkers union as 40 hawkers, most of them already members, came together to take the steps to map out a strategy for growth.

By and large hawkers are the huge, largely mobile infrastructure of small retail in India. They are working the streets and corners, where location is critical to income and opportunity, and therefore worth the fight and often constant harassment from the City and the police. For Indian urban families the hawkers are the source of fruit and vegetables. But that only scratches the surface since there is not much that they to not sell somewhere or somehow on their flat carts or sidewalk spaces from all manner of sundries, sweets, treats and juices, small appliances and personal items, nuts, sandals and shoes, and everything imaginable. The most informal worker among them usually bests the $2 per day that defines poverty in this country and some can do $20 a day with helpers depending on product and location.

There are approximately 350,000 hawkers in Mumbai. There are some independent unions of hawkers representing perhaps 50,000 of them, but the lines have often become confused in determine whether or not these are “unions” or “commercial” associations. Additionally as we heard some of members saying at the meeting, too often these groups have been vehicles for enriching the leaders and allowing the police to more easily negotiate efficient payment of bribes. Regardless, there is a place and space for our organization to grow along with many others in globally ignored and organizational deprived informal workforce. If we can sustain and grow the organization on 10 rupees per month in dues, then we have a huge future among hawkers.

The meeting was like so many first, organizing meetings among workers that I have seen. Some of the organizing committee members were at the front and others were ready to speak from the seats. There were 30 when the meeting started and more than 40 as others managed to finish work and make their way at great distances across the clogged streets of the city to the meeting. There may not have been a printed agenda but there was time to talk about the issues and the constant bribes and harassment of the police were high on the list as a pressing day to day concern along with their larger concerns that the federal policy guaranteeing hawkers the right to work in the streets of India was not being implemented and enforced and now with the encroachment of corporate retail and large scale mall construction the future was uncertain.

These would be worries again on the next working day, but here on this Saturday night the hawkers liked seeing each other and feeling the solidarity of building something important. They liked being reminded that Gandhi’s first fight was in South Africa to protect the rights of Indian hawkers working in Durban. They smiled and nodded at the exhortation of the speakers.

They were here to organize their union! It was a gift to be there with them and to have helped in a small way to see this first day of a hopeful future.

Vinod speaking to the group
group shot

hawkers discussing the issues

organizers passing our more membership cards at the end of the meeting
Dilip, the lead organizer, and one of the leaders of our committee