In 2007, employees of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) announced a 72-hour strike over revision of salary scales and dearness allowance. Led by the late Sharad Rao, the workers’ union negotiated with the BEST administration, and the strike was called off.
Throughout his career, Rao managed to glean benefits for workers through negotiations, which ensured that over a million workers remained loyal to him. His control over unions in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), BEST, Autos, taxi operations, shop workers (gumasta), hotel workers and aviation made him only the second union leader after former Defence minister George Fernandes to earn the reputation of a man who could bring Mumbai to a halt.
Rao died in 2016, and his son Shashank Rao, the current leader of the BEST Workers’ Union, is taking forward his father’s legacy through the ongoing strike.
Fernandes as mentor
In 1967, Mr. Fernandes made Rao join the Bombay Labour Organisation and encouraged him to start building a gumasta workers’ union. As Fernandes started taking an interest in national politics in the late ’80s, Rao steadily took over the control of the unions here.
In over 46 years spent in the labour sector, Rao led numerous unions covering the organised and unorganised sectors, including the Municipal Majdoor Union, Mumbai; BEST Workers’ Union; Mumbai Autorikshaw-Taximen’s Union; Mumbai Labour Union; Mumbai Hawkers’ Union; Mumbai Gumasta Union; Cambata Aviation Employees’ Union; municipal labour unions for Thane-Navi Mumbai ; and Mumbai Fire Services Union.
After his release from Nashik Central Jail following the emergency, Rao contested and won the municipal election in 1978 from Thakurdvar in south Mumbai. He was also the president of the Maharashtra unit of Samata Party formed by Mr. Fernandes and later joined the Nationalist Congress Party in 2004.
While his attempts to join the Assembly or Lok Sabha did not succeed, his firm grip on unions and ability to negotiate with the administration made him one of the biggest leaders of Mumbai’s working class.
Always criticised by the middle-class Mumbaikar for his threats to call strikes before festivals, Rao had said the people should blame those who were forcing workers to go on strike and should refuse to be used as a shield by the administrators who force such strikes.
Under the leadership of Mr. Fernandes, he successfully brought about an increase in wages of BEST and BMC employees. One of his major victories was a substantial rise in remuneration for the BMC’s sanitation workers. Designated areas being created for hawkers was also the result of efforts by the hawker’s union working under Rao, who managed bring together around three lakh hawkers operating in the city, a large part of the unorganised sector.
Rao, who learned the ropes of activism from Mr. Fernandes, cut off ties with him once the latter started growing closer to the Bharatiya Janata Party. In a decisive election for the BEST Workers’ Union in 2005, Rao’s panel triumphed, making him the undisputed trade union leader across Mumbai.
His relationship with Shiv Sena, which was the ruling party in the BMC, was volatile and his electoral defeats at the hands of Sena candidates — first in the Assembly by Subhash Desai and later in Lok Sabha by Mohan Rawle — ensured it always remained so. Rao even snatched control of the union of Thane Municipal Corporation from the Sena.
Active into his 70s, Rao had called for a strike in the BMC in 2010, demanding the payment of the pending fifth instalment of payments as per the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations. Successful negotiations with the administration resulted in the strike being called off.
After his death, Rao’s long-time associate A.L. Quadros of the Mumbai Taximen’s Union described him as the person who knew when to go on strike and when to call it off.