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Unionized by phone ─ circumventing the male gatekeepers

[By Chinar Mehta]

Clashes between corporations and union representatives, where pro-corporate forces indiscriminately arrest members to bust the union, are common, as was the case with the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union in 2017. Management used various tactics to suppress the demands according to the workers, including slapping conspiracy charges on many union leaders and firing numerous workers. In a similar and noteworthy incident, Honda employees from Tapukara in Rajasthan came to Delhi in September 2016 to protest the exploitative working conditions of the contract labourers at the factory. Vijender Kumar, who was a permanent worker at the same plant, ‘liked’ some photos of the protest on Facebook without being a part of it. For expressing support for the hunger strike, Kumar was indefinitely suspended by the Honda management at the plant.

MSWU protests; Image credit: MSWU Facebook group

I had a conversation with Faiz Ullah, an expert on communication and labour movements at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai. We spoke about the impact of laborers using digital media to mobilize for their cause and the risks. In his work, he found that workers leveraged social media platforms to consolidate evidence and tackle obstacles without waiting for mainstream media to act on their behalf. He has been documenting how, during the MSIL (Maruti Suzuki India Limited) workers movement, text, photo, and video channels were used to bring alive the workers’ version of the events at the factory, all of which pointed to management excesses and state complicity.


CM: What’s your understanding of how digital communication can be used for workers’ movements and their collectivization?

FU: There has always been the need for simple and engaging communication resources, available in different languages, that could orient the workers. Depending on what kind of workers are being collectivised, the choice of medium will vary. From SMSs to robocalls, to existing mobile communication apps and social media platforms. Tech could provide really accessible solutions to this problem essential to the collectivisation process. Also, some other strategies that have worked very well in other contexts, like daily savings schemes, initiatives linked to health and recreation, could be used to form a bedrock for collectivising work. Collectivisation may be broken into two parts; organisational and campaign work. While tech works well, and under the radar, in the former – especially group chats and group pages – campaign work by its very nature is vulnerable to all kinds of surveillance. A couple of groups have tried to deal with the second problem in various ways. One, by fronting up as women workers and confounding the line managers, workplace security, law enforcement, etc who are never quite sure how to deal with them. This was one of the incidents that took place when I was doing my fieldwork, and such incidents are quite commonplace. But it really all depends upon what kind of worker and what kind of work one is concerned with. It might play out very differently in unorganised, home-based, and in even more fragmented nature of work/workplaces. Second is to avoid creating a leadership structure; tech allows for horizontal participation and that should be leveraged. Again, there’ve been a lot of cases where workers as a group have shielded each other instead of sacrificing/making vulnerable the visible and vocal leadership.

CM: Can you throw light on the incident you referred to regarding the harassment of a woman worker and the centrality of women’s issues in labour union demands?

FU: I think, unions are not the be-all and end-all of workers’ politics. In fact, there’s not a great deal of space for women’s issues in labour politics. One of the key things that came up in my research is that there’s an urgent need to address casual sexism and tolerance for misogyny in the wider workers’ movement. Most of the time women workers themselves take matters in their hands and initiate various kinds of actions. What I meant was that the ‘worker’ is a complex identity and most don’t take it seriously – managements, labour departments, government, police, courts. But when women workers assert themselves more fully, not only as workers, they begin to matter. Media may still not take working-class issues seriously but one of the big wins of the feminist movement is that they have begun to take women’s issues/gender issues seriously. So, it matters how one articulates one’s issues. Managements can spin workers’ assertions any way they like, and the media will help them, but it’s not so simple when it comes to gender issues.

CM: In your research, what have been the tools that workers are most comfortable with?

FU: Most of the workers I met were quite young – 22 to 30 years old – and had a great deal of comfort with tech. Certain people among the younger cohort either volunteer themselves or are tasked with visually documenting and general online coordination/communication work. As for Twitter, very few people used it then, mostly because it was thought as complicated – extremely textual, character limits, etc. But at the same time, there was the realisation that it was more useful than Facebook in reaching politicians, journalists, etc.


Faiz Ullah’s insights clarify that users have become more sophisticated with digital media and have used them strategically for their “leaderless movements,” a tactical way to diffuse and decenter the focus on any specific individuals or “leaders”, so nobody can be held accountable by the corporation or the state. We see this used time and again in the recent uprising in Hong Kong. Applications like Telegram, Whatsapp, or Signal allow for communication within the group that may otherwise be impeded by physical restrictions of space, location, and hierarchy.

Secondly, it opens up the question of the dearth of participation of women in union politics, which has long been dominated by men. It is not because women are less activist-oriented or concerned about workplace injustice. This is due to several reasons; union decisions such as where and when meetings take place are often based on the preferences of men without taking into account women’s domestic responsibilities and safety issues. Unions that provide women the autonomy over collective choices have shown progress in raising consciousness regarding workplace issues.

Lastly, a question is also raised about the possibilities of surveillance over labour activities due to participation on social media. There are discussions among some unions about the potential of corporates undertaking union-busting activities by monitoring and targeting employees on social media. Facebook may even be floating a tool marketed to employers which might enable them to censor employees’ discussions about organising and unions. More recently, it was alleged that Amazon was spying on its drivers’ to intercept plans to protest or strike. The risk here is not simply that social media corporations might hand over user information to law enforcement to curb dissent under the guise of terrorism, but also how a user is identified and made visible by being active on social media. However, even though there remains a high risk for workers to organize themselves online, these tools are often the only choices for them to mobilize, showing us these trade-offs come at a significant price, a price they are willing to pay for a little more justice.