Game changer and war of attrition- Story of textile mill strike of 1982

“The problem with workers in our country is that they are selfish. They are only concerned with their family. They are not interested in spreading the movement. I tell all my workers to spread the movement. But they are only interested in making more money, drinking all night, and enjoying themselves.”

Datta Samant in an interview to Rediff

“Lakhs of families suffered as a consequence of the strike and Mumbai was never the same for us, the workers lost and the managements won. Many workers committed suicide. Many went to their native places and never returned. Many children went hungry for days and God didn’t do anything. God was on the management side that day and even today he is on their side.”

Pandurang Laxman Salvi, a worker in China Mills, who participated in 1982 strike to Rediff

On 1st of May 1960, state of Bombay was split and two new states emerged- Maharashtra and Gujarat, but even after split they shared legacy, a law called Bombay Industrial Relations Act 1946.

This act gives a representative union sole power to negotiate on behalf of all workers belonging to that industry, which meant that workers belonging to other unions had to comply with terms negotiated by representative union.

Two big textile hubs were Mumbai in Maharashtra and Ahmedabad in Gujarat. In Mumbai, Rashtirya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS) was representative union, while Textile Labour Association (TLA) enjoyed that status in Ahmedabad. Both owed their birth to Congress Party. TLA was based on Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals and for many years a model trade union, visited by labour welfare officers all over India and invariably finds mention on textbooks for industrial relations. Unfortunately, same could not be said about RMMS.

textile mill

Normally in Industrial Disputes three players are involved- government, management and labour.

But usually it is game of two players- workers and management, with government intervening only if dispute gets violent. Each player has an objective, for workers it is wage hike and job security, for management it is revenue and profits and for government it is industrial peace.

In 1982, Maharashtra was ruled by Congress Party, party to which RMMS was affiliated. In textile industry the relations between workers and management were anything but cordial. Cartoon in Shiv Sena mouthpiece “Marmik”, highlights the plight of textile workers. It shows mill owner closing down the mill and using fibre from worker’s dress for spinning.

plight of mill workers

Workers did not have much faith in RMMS and they were looking for a strong union leader who will take on management and give them huge pay hike. They found such leader in Dr. Datta Samant. On January 18th 1982, he gave call for strike, more than 2, 50,000 workers from 50+ textile mills in Bombay went on strike. Main demands were wage hike for workers and scrapping of BIR Act (which also meant end of RMMS monopoly, in fact threat to its very existence).  It was now contest between two players…

Player 1– Management i.e. mill owners of Bombay (who also had support of RMMS and top leaders of ruling Congress party)

Player 2– Dr. Datta Samant and workers of various textile mills of Mumbai.

samant

Two games are normally used in economics to study labour disputes- Hawk and Doves and War of attrition.

Game of Hawk and Dove

In game theory, each player can take role of either hawk or dove. Hawks are aggressive and will always fight for resource; Dove on the other hand avoids fight. So there are two strategies- ‘Hawk’ always contests the resource; ‘Dove’ shares with another Dove but concedes to a Hawk.

When Hawk meets other Hawk they engage in costly contests. If value of resource is V and damage incurred due to fight (in terms of injuries) is D, then payoff is (V-D)/2, since chances of winning are 50% , Doves do better by avoiding costly fights, they avoid cost D, but incur cost T due to delay reaching agreement and sharing resources equally so payoff is (V/2)-T.

hawk and dove

Earlier between, RMMS and Management, it used to be game of Dove-Dove, payoff was less than what it would have been had RMMS adopted hawkish approach and forcing management to play dove. This strategy meant little pay rise for labour. Workers were looking for a game changer who will take hawkish approach and pass on entire value V to them. Game changer came in form of Dr. Datta Samant who had reputation of forcing management to give big wage hikes to workers; secondly he always kept interests of workers in his mind during negotiations, so workers had tremendous faith in him.

But this time management was equally determined in not conceding to demands of Datta Samant, they also had support of ruling party and representative union. They decided to play another game- War of attrition

Game of War of attrition

In game theory, the war of attrition is a model of aggression in which two contestants compete for a resource of value V by persisting while constantly accumulating costs over the time t that the contest lasts. Both players start out competing and can drop out at any time. The game ends when one of the players drops out.

War of attrition, if neither backs out, entails loss with passage of time. Losses for workers are in terms of loss of pay, poverty, debt etc., while for management it is loss of revenue. A player who can sustain losses till other player is forced to back out (as he cannot bear losses anymore) emerges winner.

Initially, neither player wanted to quit, as each felt that ultimately they would win, so were ready to bear the losses in hope of win.

While management could sustain losses, the workers could not. Most of the workers could hardly sustain themselves beyond 2-3 months. Poverty, hunger, debt etc. forced them to give up the fight.  After 6 months some started returning back to work. Within 18 months of announcing strike it was over.

Game ended with management emerging as winner. They allowed workers to rejoin, but without any hike, most were taken as temporary workers, they were made to sign bond that they will behave well during employment.

Over following years owners closed down the mills, retrenched workers and sold mill land to real estate developers at a very high price.

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