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Management Panics as Unilever India Workers Learn the Truth about the Mumbai Closure

Posted to the IUF website 19-Nov-2007

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In a major escalation of the campaign against the illegal closure of the Sewri factory in Mumbai, the All India Council of Unilever Unions (AICUU) has deployed teams across India to raise awareness among workers at Unileverís newest factories producing its biggest-selling brands. With one team traveling 4,500 km by land in just 6 days, and another team harassed and pursued by the police, thousands of workers have learned the truth about the Mumbai closure, as Unilever management in India faces its biggest crisis in 75 years.

The IUF-affiliated AICUU has strategically targeted 10 of the newest factories of Hindustan Unilever Limited (Unileverís Indian subsidiary) bringing the Sewri struggle to more than 3,200 workers in the Northern and Eastern Zones. This is the where the company is reaping the greatest profits from its best-selling products which are sold to 700 million consumers nationwide.

A pamphlet telling the truth behind the Sewri struggle was printed in eight languages [English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada and Mallyalam] and distributed to workers at the targeted factories.

The fact is that while most workers at these newer factories have not yet experienced the brutal side of management, many of these factories exist and are so profitable because of union-busting and illegal closures in other parts of the country. As the teams deployed by AICUU to the Northern and Eastern Zones report: ďThese are all new factories where workers have a lot of trust in management. Now that trust is shattered.Ē

Everywhere factory management reacted aggressively, warning workers not to speak to "the men from Mumbai", calling on the police to stop meetings at the factory gates and hiring thugs to threaten workers and break up meetings. At Orai the police declared there was an injunction against any meeting within 200 metres of the factory gates and buses transporting workers into the factory were ordered not to stop. Despite this the AICUU team stopped the buses and met with workers and distributed the pamphlet.
At the Unilever factory in Baddi - where a fake union was created by management after a strike last year - management told workers that anyone who meets with the Hindustan Lever Employees Union (HLEU) from Mumbai will be fired. Despite this workers still met with HLEU. Further attempts by management to stop the meeting using hired thugs also failed.

As AICUU reports, the confused and desperate reaction of management "... made workers more curious and they wanted more information about our struggle and how we could stand alone and challenge this powerful management. The Mumbai factory workers where heroes in their eyes."

In Sumperpur the factory management filed a complaint with the police prior to the union delegation arriving, insisting that no meetings be permitted. As a result police threatened workers and harassed the AICUU delegation: "As we were proceeding to the meeting with the workers on the first shift, the police arrived and stopped us from getting out of the vehicle. The poice officer in charge said he is under pressure from his bosses and since one meeting was already held, he would lose his job if we held another meeting. He also threatened to arrest us by slapping a false charges against us. We had no option but to leave. The police were on our trail till we reached Hamirpur."

In spite of management threats and coercion, the AICUU teams met with hundreds of workers who showed a strong interest in the Sewri factory struggle, studying the pamphlet carefully and asking questions. In some cases management tried to stop workers reading the campaign pamphlet. At Unileverís Nashik ice cream factory the Personnel Manager grabbed the pamphlet from union membersí hands - an act of desperation that shows managementís fear of the campaign spreading.

The team sent to the Eastern Zone covered 4,500 km in just six days to meet with workers at the Garden Reach Factory, Kwality Walls Ice Cream Factory, the Lipton Factory, the Haldia Factory and the Brook Bond Factory. In response local unions declared their support for HLEU's struggle in Mumbai. At the Kwality Walls Ice Cream Factory in Kolkatta, the General Secretary of the union, Brother Premnath Roy, organized a mass meeting at the factory gates and called on union members to demonstrate their solidarity for the Sewri workers' struggle.

The first stage of this national outreach campaign coincided with managementís preparations for the celebration of 75 years of Unilever in India on 17 October 2007. Plans for large celebrations involving workers and their families were disrupted by the arrival of the teams from Mumbai. Company propaganda was undercut by the exposure of the illegal closure of the Sewri factory and workers everywhere declared their solidarity with the Mumbai struggle.