Frankfurt ACORN affiliates in both Delhi and Mumbai are among the 70 organizations in the Working Peoples’ Coalition, so on our weekly calls, I’ve often heard them mentioned and was curious about their work, so I’d lobbied for a meeting with them to be put on our schedule for Mumbai before I left. I had met our team in East Delhi on the WPC Labourline, so was curious how it worked at the main source of the calls to the 800 numbers in Mumbai and Bengaluru. I wanted to know if we are a model and could be replicated. We had tried something similar with our Workers’ Organizing Support Center website, but didn’t have the resources to do the kind of outreach that they seemed to be putting into a call center operation, so it was intriguing and might be something we could expand in other countries. I also wanted to just understand WPC better, what else was “under their roof”, and where they thought all of this was going. Not a short list.
Dharmendra Kumar, our Delhi head organizer, agreed to reach out for them, since he was staying over for a leadership meeting of the WPC after our India head organizers sessions over the weekend. The start time was delayed. I knew it was a last-minute thing, so my expectations weren’t too high. Nonetheless, you never know what’s going to happen when you knock on a door, and the meeting turned out to be a convening of kindred spirits that went on for hours as we shared information on the various efforts, we had both tried in these years of declining labor union strength. The general secretary was there, as was the national director. The woman who was driving the workaround rental housing was a live wire at the table. The head of the call center operation walked me through their phone operation and explained how they handled the calls. All of us on both sides of the table were grappling with how to build worker power for informal workers, which we all deeply shared.
There was mourning for the declining strength and resources of institutional labor. I started, as I usually do, citing the decline in density of private sector unionization in the US and elsewhere in the west. The director countered, saying the latest figures in India put density at only 1.75% and falling. He had spent years with tea workers in the north before being drafted to direct the WPC program. Others shared similar stories.
They struggled with the questions I asked about the sum of all of these parts and, other than the Labourline offering a service, how it could build power. Was there a number of calls that would trigger organizing? We went back and forth, and finally it turned out that they did have a procedure for taking next steps with their staff with 10 calls from the same area or company came in. Then they ran into the next series of obstacles. The central federations saw the WPC as competition, so there was no easy referral system to organized labor. Furthermore, few unions had organizing staff that could help build local unions, and their own staff, though trained in handling the calls and the cases, didn’t have the experience to take the workers to organization, and even if they did, they would run out of capacity quickly.
We found so much common ground. Organizing workers by industry rather than company, we agreed, made more sense. Organizing workers geographically to get traction and density we thought was correct. We met and kept talking even as the biryani came in for lunch. We agreed to share working papers. I picked up their work on new rental housing schemes and minimum wages in Delhi. I promised to send them work we had done. There are few meetings anywhere when you are really sorry when you have to go to the next one, but meeting with the crew and leaders with the WPC in India was definitely one. It felt like we had truly found brothers and sisters in the same struggle.