Datta Sonawane, 57, who was the President of the Indian Airports Employees Union expired on 13th June 2020 of COVID 19 at the ESI Hospital at Kandivli, Mumbai.
Datta was a contract worker at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport at Mumbai in its trolley department. He joined work at the airport in 1993 and by 1994 he along with his unit of over 100 workers joined the union. The union was then at the peak of its activities of organising contract workers at the airports in Mumbai. Workers from the Airports Authority of India, Air India, Indian Airlines, and Pawan Hans were being organised in thousands back in those years.
Datta joined the union in the heat of these struggles, with the demand to stop paying “hafta” or extortion money to the contractors from the workers’ wages on a daily basis. This was a widespread practice those days in the AAI and used to be carried out openly. To stop this practice was the main struggle of the union then and no amount of petitioning the authorities had the slightest of effects. It was the workers’ unity and numbers across airport terminal buildings, ancillary buildings, workshops, plants, runways, roads, and also in workers colonies spread over hundreds of acres of contiguous airport lands that could achieve it. These workers included loaders, sweepers, canteen workers, malis, security guards, bird chasers on the runways, carpenters, masons, plumbers, pump operators, electricians, mechanics, helpers, storekeepers, clerks and others who were variously termed contract, casual and temporary workers. They were all doing work of a permanent nature. Of course, they received nothing but a part of their wage and were dressed in ragged coats or dungarees of bright colours so they could be spotted easily anywhere. Removing them from the job just meant grabbing away their airport pass. Beatings were a regular phenomenon then. All this stopped once the workers united and started to fight back. The airport was pockmarked with contractors. The contractor had anywhere between a single worker to almost a hundred workers working for him. Once the workers started organizing themselves and the momentum was built, workers from everywhere came forward to take charge not just for their own units but also strived for across units and companies. Workers who had been working alongside each other for years but did not know each other as they were under different contractors, now became comrades-in-arms for the struggle.
While the workers organized themselves and worked for long in order to secure their rights, the majority became permanent workers over the years by court orders and also through settlements, but always by undertaking staunch struggles. These managements did not implement Supreme Court orders till they were gheraoed at the headquarters at Delhi where the workers refused to leave till they got it in writing right there. However, some like Datta still remained so-called contract workers but could retain their jobs for the past 25 years through the union.
Later, the Mumbai Airport was privatised and the majority of those who were permanent workers refused the option of joining the private company MIAL and remained with AAI. The private company which took over the airports filled all these posts once more with new contract workers.
Datta was active from the day he joined the union. He was a son of a mill worker, who worked in Kohinoor Mills. Datta grew up studying in his village school as a boarder. He pursued his 11th and 12th in Dadar Ambedkar college. After the mill was shut-down, his family of 6 members was entirely dependent on his salary as he took a job as a press worker in Dadar. In the press too, he formed a union and fought for securing the rights of the workers.
Datta, who was called Dada or elder brother by all the workers, didn’t just work for workers in his own Union. Wherever he went he would be involved in solving the problems of the workers, be they of another union or the unorganised workers. For him, it was the working class and the poor and injustices against them that mattered. He was short-tempered and would often fight with the ones he was closest to, but not a single worker minded it because they knew he was worried about them. He would work long hours at the union office and in organising at the airport or elsewhere, including travel out of town for union work if necessary. Whatever the work, be it sweeping the office and filling water or writing a letter, leaflet or poster, addressing the workers, encouraging others to participate in all the work of the unions, carrying out agitations, extending solidarity to others, he understood the position of the Red Flag. In unorganised workers unions, hardly a day passes without problems. Wherever there was any injustice by the management or the contractors he would fight militantly and principally carrying the workers with him. He hardly cared about himself, while always thinking about others.
He felt a deep solidarity with the workers and the poor everywhere. He was a true proletarian. Datta cannot be replaced in the union. He will be missed everyday and we will remember his contribution to the union and our lives forever. He left an example to follow.
In these Corona days when the governments are shamelessly using the opportunity of the lockdown and the pandemic to attack the workers, peasants and all working people, by stripping them of all their legal rights, even their right to form a union, more than ever, it is time to push unions with leaders from rank and file of the masses. Many Dattas will continue to be born from the working class. The working class will hold aloft it’s Red flag and it will strike back!
Deepthi Gopinathis the senior union organiser at Mumbai Airport