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Ahmedabad textile laborers win strike for economic justice, 1918
A heavy monsoon season had destroyed agricultural crops and led to a plague epidemic claiming nearly 10 percent of the population of Ahmedabad in 1917. During the period of intense plague outbreak from August 1917 to January 1918, the workers of the textile mills in Ahmedabad were given ‘plague bonuses’ (some of which were as much as 80 percent of the workers’ wage) in an attempt to dissuade the workers from fleeing during an outbreak of a plague. However, when the employers announced their intent to discontinue the ‘plague bonuses’ as the plague epidemic subsided in January 1918, workers demanded “dearness” (cost of living) allowances of 50 percent of their wages on the July salaries in order to sustain their livelihood during the times of wartime inflation (which doubled the prices of food-grains, cloth, and other necessities) caused by Britain’s involvement in World War I. The relations between the workers and the mill owners soured as the striking workers were arbitrarily dismissed and the mill owners resolved to start recruiting weavers from Bombay.
The frustrated workers of the mill turned to Anusuyya Sarabhai, a social worker who was also the sister of the president of the Ahmedabad Mill Owner’s Association (founded 1891 to develop the textile industry in Ahmedabad), for help in fighting for economic justice. Anusuyya soon urged Mohandas Gandhi, who was respected by the mill owners and workers, to intervene and help resolve the impasse between the workers and the employers. Gandhi proposed an arbitration board comprised of three representatives from each side to engage in dialogues to resolve the issue. Though both sides had agreed to this arbitration and chosen their representatives, the mill owners refused to partake in the first meeting when the laborers struck work. The strike had been prompted by the laborers’ anticipation of a lock-out in all the mills, but nonetheless, Gandhi apologized to the mill owners for the ill timing of the strike.
Despite Gandhi’s readiness to correct the mistakes of his side and urge for the mill owners to return to the arbitration process, the first attempt to use arbitration failed because of the distrust between the sides of the conflict. On February 22, 1918, the mill owners staged a lock-out of the mills and announced that they would only invite back the workers who accepted the 20 percent increase in wages. Some of the workers accepted this offer, but Gandhi urged the workers to stay firm in demanding economic justice. After analyzing the conditions of the textile industry, comparing the wages in Bombay, analyzing the economic effects of Britain’s war, and observing the living conditions of the workers, Gandhi calculated a 35 percent increase in wages to be a just demand that the industry could also economically support. Before proposing the new demand to the laborers, Gandhi asked the mill owners about their opinions to no avail.
Though the workers were persuaded to accept the new, moderated demand of 35 percent increase in wages, the employers did not make any concessions. Gandhi and the workers pledged to God to behave peacefully and to not return to work until their demand was met. Daily public meetings and instructive leaflets reminded and educated the workers about the principles and significance of their struggle. In response, the mill owners issued counter-propaganda leaflets in order to try to diminish the workers’ morale in the strike. Gandhi shared stories of the Indian’s struggles against discrimination in South Africa to inspire the laborers in India. Songs and verses were composed daily by the workers (many of whom were illiterate) and attracted the attention of the local population. Gandhi along with other leaders like Anusuyya offered continued assistance to the workers in advising and training the laborers. Various welfare activities such as lessons on sanitation and medical assistance provided during the campaign influenced the creation of the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association later in 1920. The workers also were employed in building a weaving school at the Gandhi ashram so that they could be self-sufficient during the strike. Some of the workers found the work such as carrying bricks to be demeaning and were beginning to lose patience and confidence.
Sensing the weakening morale of the laborers based on the growing number of workers returning to the mills, Gandhi staged the first of his seventeen ‘fasts unto death’ on March 15, 1918. On the third day of the fast, Ambalal Sarabhai, the president of the Ahmedabad Mill Owner’s Association, offered to meet the worker’s demands as long as Gandhi agreed to keep away from the laborers “for all time in future.” Gandhi rejected this offer wanting to uphold the integrity of the struggle for economic justice. Instead, he offered a new settlement which proposed to settle the dispute by an impartial arbitrator, Professor Anandshanker Dhruva, and to make compromises on the details of the settlement. This proposal was accepted by the mill-owners on March 18, 1918, with mutual satisfaction and Gandhi broke his fast. The mill owners even offered sweets to their workers as a gesture of appreciation and leaders from different sections of labor delivered speeches of gratitude.
The workers returned to work the following day, receiving 35 percent increase in wage on the first day, 20 percent the second day, and 27.5 percent (median percentage) for the remaining time until the arbitrator decided upon the fair amount of increase in wages. The settlement also stated that if the arbitrator decided upon 20 percent, the amount that had been paid prior to this decision exceeding that amount of increase in wages would be refunded to the mill owners. The arbitrator finally decided upon 35 percent seeing the mill factories’ increase (double to triple) in their profits. This campaign for economic justice in the textile mills of Ahmedabad lasted 25 days adhering to Gandhi’s nonviolent satyagraha principles. The establishment of the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association had long term effects in improving working conditions and leading labor union organization in India.