The 1941 Yangon Sawmill Workers’ Strike: Part 3

In my last post, we left the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’s Dunneedaw Sawmill after a week of strike action. By this time the mill was under the control of the newly formed trade union, with red flags flying from the entrance. By 22 March, a week later, the mill’s manager still had no positive news to report to London. He was forced to admit that the workers were, “wholly under the influence of their Union”.

During the previous week some of the workers on the cargo boats that transported the timber from the mill refused to load and unload their vessels. This led to a tense stand off. The Corporation’s response was to have them arrested by the police. However, once they had been arrested, the legality of this order was questioned and they had to be released since no charges could be brought against them. Meanwhile, in their correspondence with government officials, the Corporation obstinately refused to acknowledge that the union’s demands had any validity. On their demand for education, the management commented, dismissively, that, “This seems hardly a matter for a strike ‘demand'”.

Meanwhile, the strike strengthened and spread. The mill’s manager received further communications from the union, which now claimed to represent 99% of the sawmill’s workers. The Corporation’s own internal correspondence suggests that there was overwhelming support for the strike. This ran against their earlier confidence that the action would remain confined to the Indian workers. In the event, the smaller number of Burmese workers employed in the mill also appear to have supported the strike. To make matters worse, the workers at the Corporation’s other sawmill at Dallah, also on Yangon docks, also formed a union and began to strike, making the same demands for better pay and conditions.

The Corporation’s continued intransigence towards the strikers appears to have had the effect of galvanizing the workers in another mill. However, after two weeks foregoing pay and, for some workers, being mostly confined to the mill—the living conditions in which were a central source of grievance—the pressure must have been ratcheting up.

***

Last week members of the University and College Union (UCU) struck for the full working week. On Tuesday evening a proposal emerged out of the negotiations between the UCU and the employers’ representative, Universities UK (UUK). On social media, on the picket lines, and in members’ meetings up and down the country, union members roundly condemned the proposal. It was tense. Some people were angry. Some felt betrayed. But, faced with a groundswell of opinion against the proposal, and after a meeting of local representatives in London, the UCU rejected the offer. The strike continued and, at least at my local branch, Wednesday saw even larger pickets than the previous days.

The ups and downs of the week have been exhausting, but the overriding feeling that I have come away with is of empowerment. In spite of frustration at the obfuscations and evasions of UUK, and in spite of the rain, the cold and the unseasonable snow, it felt by the end of the week that our collective action had generated greater resolve. Returning to work (albeit taking action short of strike action and working to contract) has been a bumpy landing. The prospect of further strike action affecting examinations raises the stakes in the dispute. Lasting damage could be done to institutions and to the sector as a whole. At the same time, the strike has opened up space to rethink what public universities could be. For the first time it feels like there is the real prospect of a sustained fight against the pernicious audit culture and myopic market-orientated managerialism that have taken hold of our universities.

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