Wildcat Bombay strike tests union and management

As Bombay's 60 textile mills sit eerily silent, nearly one-quarter of a million striking workers are challenging both their employers and their official union in the city's longest-running textile industry outage.

So far three persons have been killed and about 1,000 injured in clashes between textile strike supporters and opponents. Many Bombayites fear greater violence as the strike drags on.

Led by a firebrand independent labor organizer whose string of victories has alarmed both industrialists and old-line unions, the five-month-old strike has severely strained the economy of India's richest city. The Bombay mills, about one-third of India's total, have lost an estimated half billion dollars in production while the workers have foregone nearly $80 million in wages.

The textile workers, whose pay packets range from $75 to $115 a month, have astonished much of India by staying away from work so long without any strike benefits. A majority have retreated from their Bombay slum homes to their villages to sit out the strike, subsisting on their own or relatives' land and on whatever daily odd jobs they can pick up.

Workers still in the city are scrounging odd jobs or living off loans. Some say they are paying 6.25 to 10 percent per month to moneylenders for loans to keep their families fed, clothed, and sheltered.

Besides wage hikes averaging $55 a month, the textile workers are demanding the ouster of their officially recognized union, the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS). That demand is key to the intense national interest in the strike, because it sets their maverick labor leader, Dr. Datta Samant, on a direct collision course with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's ruling Congress -- I (for Indira) Party.

Most Indian labor unions are affiliated with political parties, and the RMMS is no exception. Since its founding in the late 1940s, it has been tied to the Congress Party. Dr. Samant, a physician, and militant textile workers charge that the RMMS is a sweetheart union that settles for low pay and poor working conditions to stay in the good graces of government and management.

The RMMS, however, holds government recognition as the textile workers' sole representative. The Bombay Mill Owners' Association has an ongoing five-year contract with RMMS, valid to 1984. Hence, with both the official union and the employers calling the strike illegal, no negotiations are taking place. Independent observers see no end in sight to the stalemate.

India's central government, which has broad strike-breaking authority, has yet to use it in the Bombay textile strike even though one-third of the mills say they may go under without government intervention.

Outside analysts say the government does not want to bestow legitimacy or more limelight on Dr. Samant, whose wild-card organizing drives over the past decade have acquired a reputation for violence and for unusually high - by Indian standards - wage settlements.

Samant is considered a threat, explains one labor analyst, because ''he's not under anybody's control. He's his own man. He's not beholden to any of the political parties.''

Opponents frequently denounce Samant as a demagogue and blame his firebreathing rhetoric for the violence that has accompanied many Samant-led strikes. A chief concern in government and management quarters, however, is that further Samant successes will radicalize India's generally tame labor movement.

Although strikes and lockouts are a common feature of the Indian industrial scene, accounting for 22.56 million lost man-days in 1981, most result in only minuscule wage increases for workers.

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