Playing Lions and Tigers

Linked with Rohini Hensman – Sri Lanka.

Published on Lines Magazine, by Rohini Hensman, November 2003.

Excerpt from a short story: … Sarath slipped into his new job like a duckling into water. Having spent so much time first observing and then assisting his father, there was not much he could learn from anyone else. He was based at the main union office in Colombo, but soon started being sent out to set up a new office in the fledgling industrial area north of the capital. This was a different type of industry, with a large proportion of women workers and fierce opposition to trade unions from employers. He had only one colleague to help him, a young woman called Ranmali who was even newer than he was. Together they struggled to make inroads in this tough and unfamiliar territory.

All Sarath’s skills were called into play soon after he started work, when the union was rocked by an earthquake that split it down the middle. Sarath merely saw this as a challenge, but his father, who had nursed the union from its infancy, was shattered. ‘It’s not the end of the world, Thaththa,’ Sarath tried to comfort him.

‘Nearly half the workers have come with us, and maybe we’re better off without those rotten Sinhala chauvinist elements. I don’t agree that there shouldn’t have been a split over this issue. After all, the whole rationale of a union is to build workers’ unity; how can we compromise with people who want to divide workers along ethnic and linguistic lines?’

‘If that was the reason why the union split, I would agree with you,’ his father replied. ‘But you know as well as I do that the workers who went along with them are not necessarily all anti-Tamil, nor did all those who came with us do so for the right reasons. Most of them just followed the leader they had always followed. For them it was a matter of loyalty, not ideology.’

‘Well, then, that suggests a failure of education in the old union, doesn’t it? We must make sure that our members are aware of all these issues now, so that they can’t be so easily misled in future. And in some cases, the workers’ own prejudices are to blame. We need to tackle those, and it won’t be easy.’

‘That’s very true.’

‘But on one point I do agree with you, Thaththa,’ continued Sarath. ‘I think it’s neither necessary nor healthy for unions to be linked to political parties. Parties have a different agenda from the rights and welfare of workers, and I feel that workers often get used for a cause which is not their own. But I don’t need to tell you this – you know it already. Look at the plantations!’

His father nodded gloomily. Despite his years of devoted work, the majority of plantation workers belonged to the CWC, which was based on a communal rather than working-class identity. Seeing their former left-wing champions join a coalition that so shamelessly betrayed them could only have confirmed their suspicion that the Sinhalese could not be trusted. What was the point of telling them to unite with Sinhalese workers, when the hard fact remained that Sinhalese workers had citizenship and votes while most of them had not? Who could blame them for not wanting a unity based on inequality? Not Sarath’s father, who had pledged himself to fight for their rights as citizens as well as workers, and found himself stranded when his party abandoned that basic principle. He clung to the principle, along with the rest of the breakaway group, only at the cost of a disastrous split in the union.

If Sarath stayed on in the union despite its links with the party – and, moreover, persuaded his father to do likewise – it was for one reason and one reason only: to retain contact with the trade union movement nationally. He could see no other way to do this. It was different in the public sector. Bank unions, for example, had an Annual General Meeting where you could meet delegates from the North, the East, the far South, the hill-country, and find out what was happening to fellow-workers in other parts of the island. But he would have no such opportunity if he resigned from the party-affiliated union.

Agnes, Paul and Shameem were unable to understand his dilemma. But some years later, Leelawathie, a young garment worker whom Shameem had brought home when she was sacked, could sympathise with it. ‘I know what you’re saying, Sarath Aiya,’ she said. ‘I was working in the same industrial area where you have an office, but we couldn’t take your help because the union people at our factory were connected to another party. We didn’t even know you had organised so many factories! If we had been together instead of being divided by the parties, we might have been able to unionise much more quickly and easily. On the other hand, if we had a union only in that industrial area, we wouldn’t know what was happening in the rest of the country. That doesn’t matter to me, but I can see why it would bother you.’

Most of the time, however, Sarath was too preoccupied with other matters to give much thought to such problems. At the head office in Colombo, he had to do things in a more or less traditional way, although he did manage to introduce a few changes.

But in the new office he was free to innovate – and, indeed, forced to do so, since the workers’ fear of victimisation made it imperative to work in a semi-clandestine manner in the early stages of organising. Ranmali’s role was crucial here. Keeping a low profile at the office, she did her main work in the field, contacting girls in their crowded boarding houses, finding out their grievances, assessing which workers and which factories were ripe for unionisation … (full long text).

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