Women agricultural labourers win the battle for equal wages

(An experience of women workers’ wage struggle in Tanjavur-Nagapattinam districts. This report, by Balasundaram ,is a sequel to the report which appeared in October issue of Liberation.)

The Sooriyanarkoil workers were jubilant over reaping the fruits of their struggle, conducted over many months, for statutory minimum wage Rs. 45. They fought and won against haughtiest landowners. The women workers of Thugili, Kadiramangalam, Kodialam, Araloor, Koothanoor and Ukkadai were got elated over their wage raise. The landlords of Thiurvidaimarudur and Tiruppananthal blocks of Tanjore district realised that their supremacy has been undermined by united workers and their Tamizhaga Vivasaya Thozhilar Sangam. And the revenue administration and Police officials heaved a sigh of relief as the struggle came to a successful end.

As a last step before the strike, the Sangham held a mass meeting at Tiruppananthal town on 15 Sept., from where an ultimatum was issued to the district authorities on implementing the new wage rates announced eleven months earlier by the government. In the meeting, the Sangham also declared its resolve to go for a strike if the government failed. Bowing to our sustained agitational activities and pressure, the district collector called for a meeting of Tahsildars and RDOs and instructed them to notify the order. To everybody’s shock and surprise, till the date the Sangham’s deputation met the Collector and showed him a copy of the G.O., the Collectorate had no copy of the said order. Only then the collector sent a special messenger to the State Secretariat to get a copy of the order 12 months after it was issued (even now no other Collectorate in the State has received the copy of the order!). This single lapse on the part of the govt. clearly exposes the utter callousness of the govt. which loudly proclaims that Tamil Nadu is the first state to enact the ‘Right to Information Act’. Probably Mr. M.Karunanidhi, who is proclaiming with fanfare his government’s intention of e-governance and paperless system, might have forgotten to send the papers relating to the order!

Due to our pressure, the Tahsildar of Tiruvidaimarudur taluk asked his subordinates, Village Administrative Officers (VAOs) and village workers to announce the G.O. through tom-tom. Even then these staff, known to their web of connections with landowners, had failed to do so. Infuriated by the dilly-dallying of the wavering staff, the woman labourers of Sooriyanarkoil, Thugili and Araloor got hold of their respective VAOs, charged at them for not complying with the order so far. Ultimately, these revenue staff yielded to pressure from the labourers. In some places the Sangham leaders had organised this event.
These public announcements stunned the wealthy mirasdars (landlowners) who had conducted false propaganda that there was no such order and it was all a creation of the Sangham people. Even a DMK block secretary, who was an advocate, was at the forefront of the campaign. Hence the announcement instantly evoked tremendous enthusiasm among labourers and provoked the landowners too. One kulak-landlord, Murugan of Kanjannor village, owning 182 acres, threatened the revenue staff and stopped the beating of tom-tom. The situation rapidly changed. Then onwards the focus and theatre of activities shifted to the villages. In every village there were debates, a sharp divide and hectic activities. “In times of strikes he states his demands in a loud voice, he reminds the employers of all their abuses, he claims his rights...” said Comrade Lenin on the striking worker (On Strikes). And this is precisely what happened in every village. The wage issue had become the talk of the villages. It had echoed everywhere, in tea-shops, bus stands, tiny bazaars, grama sabha meetings and even in cinema halls. The workers engaged in heated debates with the landowners and their supporters of all hues. While the landowners were pointing out the escalating input costs, the farm workers countered that the prices of kerosene and other essential items too had shot up. How such a steep wage hike at a single go was possible, the landowners resisted. All these years you have deprived us of our wages, why not pay us legal wages at least now, the workers persisted. You find our labour sweet, does our wage demand taste bitter? (Uzhaippu Mattum Inikkutha; Coolie ketta kasakkutha?). This was the common refrain and slogan everywhere. One officer who came for a grama sabha meeting argued in favour of farmers; a woman activist of the Sangham countered the officer with heated arguments. Sharp exchanges ensued between striking workers and various political party functionaries. Some DMK supporters claimed credit for their leader ‘Kalaingar’ (Karunanidhi) for issuing the wage order. But the women labourers rightly and swiftly countered them: “Where your party people had gone hitherto? The Sangham and communist party (read CPI-ML) alone opened the lock and brought the order out,” asserted a 50-year-old Valli of Thugili Village. Some questioned them as to why wage hike had not been effected even after 12 months while the kerosene price raise had come into force within a few days? “This is the government of the rich not of poor”, they told them. To sum up the whole situation in Lenin’s words, “.... when those propertyless workers unite, the situation changes.”

The landowners, who adopted a “nothing-to-worry” attitude in the first phase, now realised that things were going out of hand. One neo-rich mirasdar of Kadiramangalam village owning 1474 acres of land pooh-poohed the workers saying that, “this is not new, every year officials issue notice to us, but we only pay what we could”. But this year things turned upside down. As the strike spread to newer and newer villages, and workers rallied behind the Sangham, the mirasdars couldn’t be idle. The mirasdars of all the 43 villages facing strike, covering 10,000 acres, worked out plan to break the strike in each and every village. They resorted to two-pronged tactics, one at the village level and the other at the political level. In individual villages they pitted petty dalit landholders against the workers, small hamlets against big villages, nattamais (traditional village headman) against the village community, outside workers against natives, backward sections against active sections, Vanniar women workers against dalit women labourers and so on and so forth. Due to various reasons, especially in villages where we didn’t have village-level organisations, the workers were in motion but remained disorganised. Using this unfavourable condition, the mirasdar were able to break the strike in some villages. In these villages the strike lasted only 4 to 5 days.

This kind of spontaneous activities and fragile organisational network had given upper hand to the mirasdars. Hence this underlined the need for providing conscious local-level leadership. Accordingly, leading members of the Party taluk committee, including the district. Party secretary, took up responsibility for different localities covering a cluster of villages. In villages where we have vibrant Party and Sangham units the entire activities were being directed and conducted from below at the village level. Where we have relatively weaker units, particularly in new villages, our efforts were primarily from above. In all the villages, the big mirasdars desperately mobilised the small dalit owners (as the 90% of the workers were dalits) saying that the wage rise would badly affect the small land-holding sections. Due to the strong familial and community bonds this halted the workers’ dynamism considerable extent.

By securing some progressive and near-to-party people to pay the new wage rate, transplantation work was undertaken in their fields alone. This way we could drive a wedge in their bloc. One more tactics the mirasdars adopted was to raise the wages of men by Rs. 5, thereby pitting them against the women workers. Here too we were able to cool down an angry group of Thugili village and a possible internal feud had been averted. Here familial ties were turned into our favour. Every women worker was motivated to persuade her husband and family members not to turn against women. Here, though the wage hike was Rs. 25 to 35, they mirasdars had to shell out Rs.5 more to men workers!

The experience of Sooriyanarkoil village is worth noting. In this village the Party and Sangham units are quite strong. The entire village has been mobilised in full strength. As this village is stronger and workers are 98% organised, a possible defeat of this village was considered by the mirasdars as a big victory. Hence they mobilised the nattamais in full strength under the guidance of mirasdars of Manaloor and Kanjanoor to break the strike. They organised secret meetings of Sooriyanarkoil nattamais and succeeded in pressurising them to break the strike by raising the wage only by Rs. 5, i.e. to Rs. 30. To counter this move, we identified street-level vanguards, and through them active workers were mobilised in small groups. Here while we were thus preparing activists, the nattamais called for a village meeting as a parallel move. This move was aimed at frustrating our moves. Contrary to their expectations, the women workers stood solid, backed by majority of men. With this basic strength, we were able to demoralise the nattamais by pointing out the manoeuvres and manipulations of the head nattamai against the workers. A well-meaning nattamai, though belonging to DMK, shouted down the head nattamai for his bureaucratic manoeuvres.

Ultimately, the village meeting abruptly ended and women workers scored a major victory. Thus the mirasdars’ move turned counter-productive. In yet another attempt, the mirasdars of Thirumangalakudi tried to engage workers of Manikudi village to work in the fields of Sooriyanarkoil. The Manikudi workers themselves hesitated to oblige and the Sooriyanarkoil workers, without antagonising them, were able to persuade them to disperse. In another incident, one mirasdar from the above village, started transplantation work with a posse of Vanniar thugs with heavy arms. The angry men and women workers led by Mallika, Samiyamma and Bharadithasan marched en mass with brooms, winnowers and other traditional weapons. Sensing the anger of the workers and fearing its consequences the thugs withdrew swiftly without any retaliation. The police rushed to the spot but before that the thugs had left.

In some places, in order to keep off outside workers from the fields a section of workers went for transplantation. Here we took the stand that instead of keeping them away from work we had to convince them not to accept the old wage rate. This had, to some extent, eased the mounting pressure in the backdrop of a prolonged strike. This had some demoralising effect on the mirasdars too. They conducted a hectic disinformation campaign throughout the strike period so as to bring down the morale of the striking workers. The mirasdars, with their well-knitted local network, carried on a dirty campaign of disinformation. In order to confuse and dissuade the striking workers, they had told them that the “strike had been withdrawnas leaders had agreed to a rate of Rs.30.” This worked negatively where we lacked strong local network. And it made us to run from pillar to post to keep the falling morale high. But in villages where we had strong local network, it had no impact at all.
Ultimately, the new wage rate of Rs.45 was implemented in Sooriyanarkoil. The whole village was in a Jubilant mood. This also greatly enthused the striking workers of the other villages. They were galvanised for a second round of heightened action. In Kadiramangalam, Araloor, Koothanoor and Kodialam Villages, where our Sangham units are very new and relatively weak, the mirasdars desperately tried to break the strike from the beginning. Here they consciously avoided any negotiations with Sangham members, particularly with women members, even after the Thasildar instructed them to go for negotiations directly with the Sangham. Our persistent efforts, mainly from above, brought the workers unity. The wage here could be increased to Rs. 35. The activists had to face personal hardships. For example, in Kodialan village, a women activist, Thamizharasi, had to face the anger of her husband for actively participating in the strike. The unending quarrel came to a halt when Thamizharasi came out of her home. For a few days she stayed in Sangham office and was actively involved in strike activities.

In Manaloor and Kanjanoor, the situation was altogether different. Here the strike prolonged up to 15 days. The adamant mirasdars here resorted to aggressive methods and dirty tricks to break the strike. Manalur was the centre of activity of the Sangham. It was also the centre of activity for mirasdars and their leadership hailed from this village. All political parties ganged up and rallied behind DMK, AIADMK, and PMK leaders. The local leaders of these three parties planned and consciously guided the activities against the strike. They conducted poster campaigns, disinformation campaign and built up pressure through their political connections. They sent deputations to RDO and Collector. Irritated by the press coverage our strike activities were getting, they too issued press statements. The statement said a wage agreement had been reached at Rs. 30 and workers have resumed work and had appealed to the Collector for enforcing the same wage throughout the district. This rightly provoked the workers, men and women alike, and large no of workers from these two villages along with Tirumandurai, began to converge in the main street of the bazaar. The angry workers encircled the panchayat president in whose name the press statement appeared and criticised him severely. Instantly the situation almost developed into a clash. The mirasdars imposed community ban (social boycott) on dalit localities. Here men too struck work. Consequently, all the farming activities came to a grinding halt. Sensing the tactics of the mirasdars to create a clash to shift the focus from the strike itself, we mobilised all our ranks with much care and our approach was “be prepared, but don’t be the first to touch”. We rightly decided to mobilise the workers to protest against the Tahsildar so as to pressurise him to prevail upon the mirasdars. At a short notice, more than 500 workers rallied in front of the Taluk Office and the traffic was blocked for three hours. The office immediately called for a tri-partite meeting. This time the meeting hall was jam-packed. More than 60 mirasdars attended the meeting. The workers’ side outnumbered the mirasdars. All were in restive mood. The landowners tried to prevail upon the Thasildar to arrive at a settlement for Rs.30.

The Tahsildar promptly turned down their request and explained to them that refusing to implement the Govt. Order was an offence and mirasdars should negotiate with village units and arrive an amicable agreement. This implied that depending on the strength of the both parties some agreement could be arrived at locally. Some of them staged a walkout. Mirasdars of Manaloor and Kanjanoor boycotted the meeting itself. As the situation was getting tense and the mirasdars couldn’t break the unity of the village (workers) they sought other routes to wriggle out of the situation. They went to the Local Administration Minister Ko.Si. Mani who was also the local DMK MLA. Meanwhile, the owners forcibly engaged their womenfolk to do the transplantation. We mobilised the workers for a road blockade. And we exerted pressure on higher police and revenue officials to avert a possible clash. The police rushed to the site in big number and prevailed upon them not to proceed with the transplantation work. To avert ‘law and order’ problem, the RDO convened an urgent meeting at Kumbakonam. These moves on our part brought the mirasdars to the negotiating table. As both the side were in an agitated mood, the RDO had separate meetings with workers and mirasdars. The meeting which had started by 7 p.m. extended up to 2 a.m. Finally they agreed to rise the wage to Rs. 35. Though we did not formally agree to the settlement, the strike was withdrawn the next day since prolonging the strike, that too after 15 days, would bring negative effects.

Throughout the strike period, the Local Administration Minister, himself a kulak and a political representative of the Kulaks, did not openly come into the scene but made behind-the-scene moves. He couldn’t come out openly against the workers since it would have costed him dearly in electoral terms. So he and his local MLA tried to pose as if they were keeping their distance from the mirasdars. When one group approached him with the issue he shouted at them saying why they were bringing the matter to him. It implied that the matter should be settled at local level and he wouldn’t directly intervene in the matter. But, at the same time, he was constantly in touch with concerned officials. There was a concerted propaganda from DMK side that the minister had refused to intervene in favour of mirasdars.

As the Minimum Wage G.O. was issued by the DMK govt. why the DMK minister did not come in support of the order and implement it in his own fields? This argument kept the DMK propaganda mill at bay, it was well received by the labourers. All other political parties were either silent or were in active connivance with the mirasdars.

The effects of the strike could be seen in areas where we didn’t have our presence. In the adjacent Kuttalam block, after seeing the strike news in newspapers, workers of two villages raised the issue and got Rs.10 more than the previous year. In Pandanallur area, people owing allegiance to Pudiya Thamizhagam raised the issue on their own and achieved a wage rate Rs. 45. In some villages of Kumbakonam block and distant villages of Tiruvidaimarudur block, where we couldn’t extend our links, the mirasdars, on their own, raised the wage by Rs.5. In some villages of our working area, a voluntary organisation, KISAT, is working. As the strikes were proceeding from one village to another, the workers of Manikudi Village offered voluntary support to the strike and also came forward to join it. The leadership of that organisation stoutly resisted the move and invoked ‘Naxal’ bogey to dissuade the workers. The workers argued why not their organisation too take up the wage struggle. But they answered that they, being a peaceful movement, could not take up such struggle. As a result the organisation had to wind up its unit there. In most of the areas of the taluk, the average wage rate rose to Rs.35 after the struggle. At the end of the strike, summing up the experience, one Murugamma joyfully declared: “All these years mirasdars decided the wage rate. This year we decided!”

In Sirkazhi block of Nagappattinam district the experiences were altogether different. In this block agricultural laboures are large in number. According to an information, in the whole of India this is the block with highest number of agricultural labourers. Here too the plan was along the same lines as in Tiruvidaimarudhur taluk. Village meetings were held in the course of 15-day village campaign. Through these meetings the wage question was discussed by women labourers and women workers came closer to our organisation. On Sep.15, a procession and protest demonstration were held in which 600 workers participated, majority being women labourers. This had a good impact. Prior to this programme, the CPI-affiliated agricultural labourers association took out a procession in which only around 200 participated, very few of them being women. This block once was a stronghold of CPI and even now they have a reasonable presence. They are wielding panchayat power in various villages. As the village environment was changing in favour of higher wage, the CPI people convened village meetings along with mirasdars and fixed the wage at Rs. 30. This was also a move to counter us. Without any hesitation the Sangham activists proceeded with our plan. They were able to organise the workers even where wages increased to Rs. 30. If Rs. 5 could be realised even without a strike why couldn’t we get the new wage rate of Rs. 45? This way the workers, both women and men, were organised. The CPI couldn’t come in the way of the workers’ move for fear of earning workers’ wrath. In these places the wages were further raised from Rs. 30 to 40. In some villages, gauging the resentment of the workers, the CPI, on their own, made efforts to raise the wages further. Unlike Thiruvidaimarudur, here a tradition of wage struggle is present. But, for the past several years, the CPI-led agricultural labourers association didn’t take up wage struggle with the argument that this was a tail-end, water-straved area where the agriculture itself was beset with crisis and hence there was not much scope for wage struggle. Moreover considerable sections of dalits possess lands here. But, as a routine, men’s wages were being raised every year, of course, by a negligible Rs. 2-5.

In Perunthottam, having a agricultural labourer population of 5,000, we organised the strike. The strike lasted for one week. In a peace meeting, organised by the Tahsildar, wage settlement was arrived at for Rs.43 with a tea and bun as ‘inam’ or incentive. Here the CPI pleaded for their inclusion in the peace meeting. But the striking workers stoutly said ‘no’ because in the past they got annoyed with CPI’s attitude of always taking side with mirasdars. The workers were however pacified and the CPI representatives were also been included in the meetings. In Punganoor panchayat, we initiated the move and the CPI later joined us. In this village, we and the CPI people were locked in continuing acrimony and clashes. Unlike in the past, the CPI had to beat a retreat and come forward for a joint move. On earlier occasions, they put spokes in the wheel whenever we initiated a wage struggle. They openly sided with mirasdars and farmers and argued their case. The CPI local leaders themselves belong to farmers category. But this time, due to our growing profile and the spontaneous response the issue was getting among the women workers, they couldn’t turn around the table against us. In the negotiation, a wage of Rs.40 was accepted. Here no officials were present. Men took the initiative to organise the strike and made it successful. The strike continued for 4 days. In Sirkazhi block, due to our lack of organistional initiatives and absence of deep going methods of organising, especially at grassroots level, the momentum generated was not to the extent as witnessed in Thiruvidaimarudur. The moves were predominantly from above. But one significant development was that we were able to push back the CPI and rapidly gained influence among there own base.

In Myladuthurai block of Nagapattinam district, we organised the strike in two panchayats of Manippallam and Sethur. These villages came to our fold during parliamentary elections. The women here withstood all sorts of patriarchal pressures and provocations, came out in large numbers and struck work for 8 days. As the strike prolonged, the husbands and parents mounted pressure on striking workers at the insistence of mirasdars. A Sangham activist who was been beaten by her husband fought back and threatened him that she would complain to the Sangham, and if necessary even go beyond, meaning she would even walk out. on him. One Shanti, got into a quarrel with her husband who was a DMK man: “You believe in DMK and just because as I am your wife I can’t support your party and I believe in Sangham and Communist Party, and you shouldn’t come in my way”. She was active in mobilising the workers during the entire strike period.

The upper caste Pillai landowners had to do the daily routine, such as cleaning cattle shelter, brooming and cleaning of houses etc., on their own. This had a telling effect on the mirasdars. On the ninth day they agreed for a wage rise of Rs. 35 from Rs. 25. Similar effect could be seen in surrounding villages as well. Earlier this wage rate used to be called as ‘Kanniyakudi coolie’ (Rs.25). Even this was achieved due to the efforts of CPI(M)-led wage struggle some years ago. Now women workers of the neighbouring villages are demanding ‘Manippallam Coolie’ (Rs. 35). Though our attempts succeeded only in a few villages its impact was significant and much wider.

To Sum up:

1.    A set of factors like the strength of the workers, their homogeneity, the level of motivating organs and workers’ consciousness, the balance of forces etc. are the basic factors determining the level of movement and degree of success of the strike struggle.

2.    Strong local party organisations — village level Party units and vibrant Sangam units — are the key to success.

3.    Grassroots political work is of paramount importance in achieving workers’ unity and frustrating the mirasdars’ tactics. Organised units of Sangham and its day-to-day functioning are the key to vibrant village mass work. And effecting a tilt in the social balance in our favour and cutting down the mirasdars’ social influence is the key to effective bargaining.

4.    Even though opportunities come our way to conduct the movement in a border area, success in one or two panchayats is the key to a bigger achievement.

5.    The decisive role of men is essential for victory of women workers.

6.    Instead of directing our ire against local dalit nattamai and petty landowners, conscious attempt should be me made to target big mirasdars. Otherwise, there is the danger of degenerating into village-level feuds leading to disunity of workers.

7.    Pressurising the administration has a positive effect in our favour but the temptation and tendency of depending on the administration has to be consciously fought. And sustained mass activity is the key to tilt the administration to a pro-worker or neutral position.

8.    The nexus of mirasdars, local officials, police, and leaders of mainstream political parties, including local MLA and minister, operates as a system in a sophisticated manner. The approach to this nexus should be devised cautiously so that we could effectively utilise their internal contradictions without falling prey to any illusions towards any of them.

9.    Broader participation of workers and broader area of activities also means an element of spontaneity. So conscious element of leadership at every level must be ensured. Strikes of agricultural labourers, unlike trade union strikes, are basically political in nature, orientation and in organisation.

10.    Patriarchal value system and traditional beliefs are stumbling blocks to the initiatives and organisation of the women workers. Familial bonds have both negative and positive effects. Symptoms of assertion for equality, rifts and democratic readjustment could be seen in many cases.

11.    Wage struggle is an effective tool to expose Kulak political parties and win over the base of left parties, and also for politicisation of the workers in big way.

12.    Immense scope for grassroots political work has unfolded. Training of new activists, recruiting new Party members, regularising grassroots Party system are key to consolidation.

It was consciously decided not to press for implementation of the statutory work duration norm (5 hours of work for Rs.45) and it was left for future struggle. The women workers won the first round of the battle. The struggles for higher benefits and for better working conditions and against repressive agrarian system itself will go on. The women agricultural laboures have won the battle, but the long-term struggle goes on.
As a concluding remark, we would like to say that the strike experience reminded us of the celebrated words of Comrade Lenin on strikes: “... strikes can only be successful where workers are sufficiently class-conscious, where they are able to select an opportune moment for striking, where they know how to put forward their demands, and where they have connections with socialists...”