Management were caught out. They were confident that they could break the strike on its first day. An Indian student activist called B.K. Dey, who had drafted the newly-formed union’s resolution outlining the workers’ demands, was arrested as an “agitator” on the day that the strike had begun, 8 March. Soldiers and police were sent to break the picket. However, a week later they were reporting back to the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’s London office, that the situation had escalated. Far from breaking the strike, the sawmill at Dunneedaw had been taken over by the union and red flags bearing the hammer and sickle were now flying at its entrance.
Although the sacking of Madaya was the proximate cause for the walk out, the union’s demands were more extensive. They demanded an increase in pay, overtime to be made voluntary with higher pay, more sweepers for the on-site barracks where the workers lived, a housing allowance for workers’ families, sanitary latrines, sufficient drinking water, fourteen days’ annual leave, an end to the contract system through which they were bound to a particular employer, and, finally, a teacher with a dedicated space to educate the workers. This was a comprehensive set of reforms.
The demands also provide hints at the wider issues of everyday life in the sawmill. These were spaces not only where male employees worked, they were also the home for their families. While within the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’s archives, the mill is presented as a uniformly male space, there were women present, providing childcare and no doubt other forms of essential labour too. We can only speculate on how this gendered division of labour would have contributed to maintaining this strike during its first week, as the sawmill workers and their families weathered the Corporation’s deployment of state power.
We don’t know how the workers felt, but the flags suggest that there was some hope for radical change. The management had discovered to their cost that this was not just the work of Communist student agitators. The workers’ resolve was deeper.
Over the last nine days of the USS strike in UK universities, those of us on the picket lines have had an emotional journey. From the frustration of not being able to do our jobs, to the feverish excitement of collective action. We have had conversations with colleagues we had never before met. For many, these discussions have moved to re-imagining the public university, especially around the structural racial and gendered inequalities in the sector. But, as the historian Sumita Mukherjee has outlined in a moving blog post, this work is hard and falls disproportionately on academics of colour and women.
We have also come to better know our opponents in this dispute, Universities UK. As another blogging historian, Will Pooley, has shown in a fantastic blog post, they are a strange and opaque organisation. And it is clear that our strike was wildly underestimated by Universities UK, as well as by Vice Chancellors up and down the country. The momentum feels like it is with us.