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I'm a stranger in a strange land of collective action.
February 27, 2012 5:39 AM   Subscribe

I'm an American in Bangalore. Tomorrow, major unions have called for a nationwide bandh (strike). I'm having a major personal crisis about what to do. Listen, I know this isn't my country. And it's not my strike. But I'm very, very, very uneasy about what role I should be playing.

My company provides a driver to shuttle me from my five-star hotel to our cushy offices about 5 miles away. I've asked my driver whether he intends to participate in the strike called by the auto drivers' union (amongst many others), and he told me that he did not. He then told me that he would simply not wear his (distinctive) uniform and would change the color of his car's plates, and voilĂ  there wouldn't be a problem. He then told me that the last time there was a strike, people threw rocks at his car and broke his windshield.

I care about his safety. I care about my safety! But more than that, I feel like by asking him if he was doing to participate, I'm obliquely encouraging him to scab. I don't want him to scab. I don't particularly want a scab for a driver, either. This is a country where two people were beaten to death by the authorities for trying to build support for this bandh.

But I'm 28 and from the southern USA. Unions are things I've only read about. I believe, deep in my heart, in collective action. I have no idea what to do when strikes are called.

I could walk; it'd be about 40 minutes along major roads and I'm not that worried about safety. I don't think I could rent my own car or a motorcycle/scooter and drive. I could also risk the significant ire of my boss and refuse to be driven to the office tomorrow along with my coworkers. He knows I'm a lefty, but I've never pulled (what feels like) a stunt like this before.

What the hell do I do?
posted by TheNewWazoo to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh hell; I missed a number. The walk would be 1 hour and 40 minutes. Goddamnit.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 5:48 AM on February 27, 2012


Go about your business and wait for him in the morning. If he doesn't show, call your bosses and ask them how you should get to work. It's not your country and you don't understand that the driver may have perfectly logical/defensible reasons for breaking the picket lines.

Oh, and your asking him questions about his plans for the day won't "obliquely encourage" him to scab. Workers don't ask permission to go on strike, and a boss asking an employee about his plans is extremely tame on the whole "intimidation" scale.
posted by BobbyVan at 5:48 AM on February 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


He's making his own decision about what he thinks is best for him, his family and his future. You looking at him as a scab is stamping your world view on something you probably know little about, even if you think you do*. Your values are not really in play here, and the variables are theoretical for you even though you're on the ground there. All you can do is make decisions based on your own safety, and leave his moral math to his own reckoning. Go, call in sick, see if you can work from home - you have options for making your own decision for yourself here.

(*I thought I understood Northern Ireland. Then I moved to the UK, and realised I knew nothing. Then I moved to Ireland, and realised the situation remains infinitely more nuanced and complex than I've ever imagined and that really, a situation I thought was clear years ago is anything but.)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:49 AM on February 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


DarlingBri and BobbyVan: What cultural subtleties could there be to participation in a strike?
posted by phrontist at 5:59 AM on February 27, 2012


DarlingBri and BobbyVan: What cultural subtleties could there be to participation in a strike?

The nature of the relationship between employer and employee, for instance, varies differently across cultures and indeed even in the United States.

Or, you know, maybe he doesn't support the strike. Or maybe the leaders of the strike are from a rival ethnic group and the unions are fronts for that group's interests. I mean, there are an infinite number of ways that the US model of strikers vs. scabs might not apply here.
posted by downing street memo at 6:07 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Let the driver make his own decisions about what he is going to do. I support labor unions, too, but I have no idea how things work in India and clearly you don't either. He has a more complete picture of the situation and he's clearly come down on the side of working. That's his call.

Now if you don't feel safe in a car during a strike (especially after being told that the car was attacked during a previous strike), that's a different story. Address those concerns with your superiors.

But if the driver is going to drive anyway with your co-workers, then your presence is immaterial and you're not convincing him to do anything.
posted by inturnaround at 6:13 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm also an American in Bangalore and I'm lucky that our walk to the office is 15 minutes door to door. But if it weren't, my Indian colleagues would be falling over themselves to come and pick me up --- can you get in touch with one of them and ask for a ride? (Although given the choice of a 2-hour walk early in the morning or 30 minutes of riding pillion on a motorbike at peak time, I'm not entirely sure I wouldn't choose the former...)
posted by slenderloris at 6:16 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


downing street memo: Sorry, poor phrasing. I was asking about the specific situation in Bangalore.
posted by phrontist at 6:16 AM on February 27, 2012


Or, you know, maybe he doesn't support the strike. Or maybe the leaders of the strike are from a rival ethnic group and the unions are fronts for that group's interests. I mean, there are an infinite number of ways that the US model of strikers vs. scabs might not apply here.

Or, alternatively, he could be under more pressure to work than a US worker would be. I'm union; I don't lose my job if I strike. But he could. Or he could be desperate for the money - when you strike, you don't get paid! The "but maybe it's not like the US" argument cuts both ways - maybe it's not like the US because he's afraid his employer's family will retaliate if he strikes. Maybe he's afraid of getting beaten if he strikes.

I have been on strike. It wasn't very fun. We lost. We lost primarily because the union was weak to begin with and the bosses applied a LOT of pressure. And our primarily female membership wasn't financially prepared to stay out long enough to win. So we lost, and we've had a wage freeze for literally about five years while management gets substantial increases, and our insurance is getting wrecked, and a bunch of other screwed up stuff is happening.

Whether you cross a picket line is up to you. Find out more about the strike, for pete's sake, and decide that way. It can't be about the driver. A strike is a collective action. That means that individuals get dinged up for the collective good - it means that you lose pay and have to picket and it's no fun at best and dangerous at worst. You can't let it be about the driver.

I appreciate that not everyone can strike. But unions and strikes generate a lot of free riders - people who choose not to participate (as opposed to being bullied into not participating, or being too sick, or having some other heavy responsibility) but who are glad enough of the benefits.

If you support the strike, give him what he'd get driving you and then walk.

As a foreigner with relatively more money, you probably have a disproportionate amount of media/political power. You could always, for example, write a letter or send an email urging that the strike be settled in the workers' favor.
posted by Frowner at 6:19 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Or, alternatively, he could be under more pressure to work than a US worker would be. I'm union; I don't lose my job if I strike. But he could. Or he could be desperate for the money - when you strike, you don't get paid! The "but maybe it's not like the US" argument cuts both ways - maybe it's not like the US because he's afraid his employer's family will retaliate if he strikes. Maybe he's afraid of getting beaten if he strikes.

It could be that way, too. But neither you nor the OP know that, and it's very likely that given his limited knowledge of the country and culture in which he lives, the OP can't possibly understand all the nuances involved.

Given this imperfect knowledge, it's probably best to listen to the driver and honor his stated preferences.
posted by downing street memo at 6:27 AM on February 27, 2012


It's worth noting that I explicitly did not ask about his feelings about the bandh, since our relationship is highly unequal. I asked if he was planning to participate. He responded in the negative and offered the rest. I remained silent except to say "okay."
posted by TheNewWazoo at 6:34 AM on February 27, 2012


There are plenty of transportation services all over the country that will stay running tomorrow. All of BEST (the mumbai transport system) will still be operational, for example. I have a little sympathy for the unions, but they really really like striking and in this case it's for a fairly tenuous reason too ("rising prices" is not a terribly good reason for a general strike, for example). I wouldn't worry too much about it personally - if the guy showed up to pick me up I'd go to work without a second thought - but then I'm a jaded Indian so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
posted by vanar sena at 6:48 AM on February 27, 2012


I have spent some time in India with a large corporation similar to what you describe, and I think the most important fact here for the driver is that being a driver is a really good job, and you do not want to mess that up for him. So while your sentiment in asking this question is admirable, let him drive you to work as normal.
posted by StephenF at 6:53 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


(I am answering this assuming the driver is a member of the driver's union, which is unclear to me. If he is not a member of the driver's union and is continuing to fill a job that he filled before the strike, he may be the target of anti-scab violence but I would not consider him to be a scab)

I think there are two separate questions here:

(1) What are the ethics of hiring a particular driver during a general strike? In this situation, the driver has indicated that they intend to scab, and that they have scabbed in the past. It is ethical to respect that decision no matter what the reasons are that he chooses to scab.

(2) For a person who is leftists and supports workers rights, what are the ethics of hiring any scab during a general strike? This is a much more interesting and complex question IMO. This situation is also made more complex because you are a guest of your host country and could face consequences for participating in the strike or if you are seen as encouraging the strike. You also have an obligation to your employer.

I can't know what I would do in this situation, but my guess is that I would defer to the judgement of my employer with regards to the propriety and safety of being driven by a scab. That probably makes me a coward in the face of my principles.
posted by muddgirl at 6:59 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


If he is working for a multinational, it is highly unlikely that he is part of a union. This strike is almost entirely about public sector (government-owned businesses and services) employees. I did a bit of searching at it seems that only the autorickshaw union is likely to go on strike tomorrow, and he won't be a part of that. His unwillingness to wear a uniform is probably just so he doesn't get in trouble with roving striker mobs, who - and I don't mean to frighten you here, but - are not going to check his union credentials if they decide to rough him up.
posted by vanar sena at 7:06 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I speak with extensive experience as an American having been in foreign lands that served mass protests, riots, and lawlessness.

Main guidance ... Respect the Host-Guest dynamic. You are the guest; let the host manage the navigation of country/events/locals for you.

It's when you attempt to do things "on your own" do problems arise, as that will interfere with your host's responsibilities, and, potentially ... force them to abandon their obligations to you (unlikely in India with your scenario).

Rely on your host until they begin to prove otherwise.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:30 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Kruger5, is the driver, in this case, my host? As best I can figure, he is in my indirect employ, as I've hired his employer to do a job for me: namely, drive me places, at my direction. His job is presumably incumbent upon my happiness, such is the unequal nature of our relationship.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:42 AM on February 27, 2012


Unfortunately, your host is your employer and the government which allows them to operate in their country. This already sets up a problematic relationship where you are colluding with the government and with multinationals against citizens and workers.

Your relationship with your driver is emblematic of that. It seems to me like forgoing a driver, given the context of your relationship, would be an appearance of solidarity without any substance.
posted by muddgirl at 7:54 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes - your driver is very much your host, as is your primary Indian business contact. The 1st indication of this is he had already thought of the way he was going to drive you (replacing his uniform..) - he is doing what it takes to keep his guest happy.

Drivers in many parts of the world put life & limb on the line for their guests. We may not be initially aware of it, but I've experienced it first hand in a moment of crisis. On that final ride back to the airport, often it was the driver I knew I was going to remember the most, and it clearly seemed like the feeling was mutual.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:08 AM on February 27, 2012


muddgirl, you've made some really illuminating points here that are extraordinarily insightful to me. Thank you. I would be especially grateful to hear your reasoning, as above, if the driver is not part of a union that is striking. Does it matter that there has been a call for a national general strike?

I do not know whether the driver is a member of a union that has been called to strike, or even a member of a union at all. I did not ask. I don't even know if it would have been polite or proper for me to do so.

I'm not particularly asking if I should join the strike - that's a much bigger question that is outside the scope of this post, except, I suppose, insofar as it applies to whether any sympathetic person should join such a strike.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:19 AM on February 27, 2012


I am not familiar with the economic organization of India, so I can only speak from the perspective of a similar situation in the US.

Does it matter that there has been a call for a national general strike?

I think the key point is that your driver has already indicated his personal decision to not participate in the general strike. In essence, it seems like you are trying to make him part of the strike against his avowed separation from it. If he had said that he was sympathetic to the general strike, but felt a personal obligation to you, then this would be a different matter.

A 'call' for a national general strike is not the same thing as an actual national, general strike. If your driver's coworkers or competitors are on strike, then that is one thing. But if the majority of your driver's coworkers and competitors are going to be at work doing their normal job during the strike (which is what the situation sounds like), then, while we could call every person going to work at their normal job a 'scab', it seems like at that point a term that can apply to everyone.
posted by muddgirl at 8:46 AM on February 27, 2012


Here is how I see your situation: You work for a big company that hires another company to transport some of its employees. This is a private company, with private taxis and non-unionized labour. Being private taxis, they can't generally be flagged down because they need to be booked in advance. In fact, most likely, the company only does corporate transport. This is a fairly common model in India.

Now, the strike is for unionized public transport vehicles with the idea of increasing minimum fares. This doesn't even apply to your driver and his company, who probably have an annual contract with your employer. Sure, this being India, there could be people who would look at his number plates and assume that he was breaking the strike, but your driver is taking care of that already.

Incidentally, this being India, someone somewhere is always calling for a nationwide strike. I can't recall there being anything effective ones in the last decade at least. In Delhi, a similar call for auto/taxi strike failed miserably a couple of years ago.

Let your driver make the call, and just go by his advice.
posted by vidur at 9:31 AM on February 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Keep out of it, yoiu have no idea of the politics that is involved in that country. Also dont be on the road since as an American you would be a prime target for media attention.
posted by pakora1 at 9:39 AM on February 27, 2012


I travel to India regularly for work, many of my colleagues do and some have been caught up in strikes.

I think aside from your political view on how you want to handle the situation you are not really addressing your own safety concerns. Did you read the local papers yet?

I would just Call your boss and tell him you will be working from your hotel at least on the first day to gauge how serious it is. If he argues otherwise then so be it. Maybe check with your hotel about the proposed areas or if it's 'widespread'

Expect serious roadblocks. I also wouldn't walk 40 mins.

Strikes in India can get out of hand very quickly. At best if you drive to work you'll be sitting in a jam both there and back possibly for hours eitherway. At worst you'll be sitting in a jam, in a car, a sitting duck, in the wrong area, and who knows what might happen. I've heard bad stories f rom colleagues.

Just as your concerned for your driver so to should your boss be for you.
posted by Under the Sea at 3:52 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


By the way, banks and institutions are closing for the day, student exams are being postponed. If I were you I'd avoid the mayhem outside and just stay / work / rest in your hotel.
posted by Under the Sea at 3:58 PM on February 27, 2012


The driver is absolutely not your host, because he works for you. (I realise you don't pay him, but he is serving you.) Your employer is your host. Consult your employer, or (again) suggest working from home for the day. It sounds like getting in will be difficult and lengthy anyway.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:26 PM on February 27, 2012


I think that what is really relevant is that he mentions that last time there was a strike, people threw rocks at his car. He scabbed last time too. He is not just doing it for you. In fact, his decision has nothing to do with you. I'd let him drive you.
posted by lollusc at 5:54 PM on February 27, 2012


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