The Saturday 13 September Mauritius Telecom demonstration will be remembered for three very different things: the strong mobilization of workers of the sector from all over the country, the unfortunate presence of an organized communalist group at a trade union demonstration, and the senseless raging at the microphone by one of the orators, Jack Bizlall.
Telecom workers mobilize
Firstly, the mobilization for the protest meeting was a great success. A delegation of LALIT's leading members present at the demonstration in solidarity with sacked Mauritius Telecom trade unionists, Ambiga Curpanen and Raj Raghoonath, congratulated the organizers on the mobilization of workers in their sector. There were over a thousand people present, most of them MT workers. The main demand behind the mobilization is for the immediate re-instatement of the two sacked MT workers.
The active participation of workers was particularly remarkable as workers in this sector did not manage to put up a very strong fight against its gradual privatization from being a Government department to its gradual take-over by the French France Telecom with its Orange brand. At the time, LALIT member, Ram Seegobin put in a Constitutional Case against the Privatization Fund, a case which he lost, but which contributed to the demise of the Fund. The two MT unions gave active support to our case in the Supreme Court. However, the process of privatization had gone forward another step by then, without too much resistance. Most workers, wearing orange T-shirts, had recently even been tricked into participating in a "boss's party" organized by Orange, as they imposed their trade-mark. But when Orange is now trying to force workers to sign "Option Forms" which, if signed, convert employees to contractuals on 5-year stints in exchange for a 40% wage hike, workers have put their feet down, and are refusing to sign. In fact, it is as part of the boss's pressure to sign that the two unionists have been sacked. Thus the importance of the protest movement. The vast majority of workers enthusiastically raised their hands at the public meeting to show that they do not intend to sign. There seems to be a relatively high level of understanding amongst workers of the implications of their present struggle.
The meeting was presided over ably by Vishnu Jugdharry, who spoke in measured, firm, inspiring language. Two suspended Air Mauritius workers, Narvada Beenessreesing and Moteelall Manic, intervened in solidarity, about the difficulties trade unionists face in their sector, and announcing the meeting of their sector later that day (LALIT member, Rajni Lallah, represented LALIT there).
During the Telecom demonstration other trade unionists representing all the fragmented sections of the trade union bureaucracy spoke, one after the other, bringing messages of support, and thus making an example of unity (at the top) after the recent virulent splits at the levels of the leaderships. Some of these splits have also opened up possible communal weaknesses, like the separation of SILU and UASI, and PWU and AGWU, on the one hand, which had held together all the sugar industry workers despite boss's discriminatory employment policies, and the separation of the Port and transport workers drawn traditionally from different communities, on the other, an important unification from 1970-71 onwards after Port Louis was rent assunder by the "race war" of 1968.
Then there was the second remarkable thing, a negative one. As soon as LALIT members noticed the presence of a group of organized young men in "Tamil Force" T-shirts, one of us mentioned this formally to Ambiga Curpanen before the meeting started. He agreed that this was not appropriate ("pa korek") at a workers' assembly, and said that he had asked them to keep a low profile ("res par deryer"). The increasing inroads of communalist groups first into the intelligentsia of the country, and now even into working class groups, is cause for extreme concern, amongst all thinking people. Fortunately, there are some people who do oppose communalism. Ms Mala Ramyead, for example, physically stopped a communalist group from removing a painting from the Mahatma Gandhi Institute exhibition two or three years ago. LALIT member, Lindsey Collen, was supported by literally all thinking people when she opposed the communalists who attacked her over her novel. But much of the intelligentsia of the country has fallen into the hideous logic of communalist demands, in particular for further "communities" to be defined by the Constitution, instead of doing away with the communalist addendum to the Constitution altogether. Times are much too dark for any kind of acquiescing in communalism.
The third remarkable thing about the demonstration of the 13 September, was the raging Jack Bizlall speech, amplified by very loud loudspeakers far beyond the protest gathering itself. He was, curiously but typically, not introduced as speaking for any particular organization or in any particular role. So, no-one could, we suppose, control him. The chair left him to rant away. No-one else went up to stand next to him, to hint that what he was doing at the microphone was unacceptable. Jack Bizlall is the uncontested leader of his newish party, Muvman Premye Me, as he was, incidentally, of the previous one, Parti Militan Travayer, and before that of "Force Militante Progressiste". But at the demonstration, no parties were speaking, so it was not in the name of the MPM. He often speaks in the name of various unions and of the Federation of Progressive Unions, although on First May he announced he was withdrawing from all trade union activities and structures. He came back, of course, as if he had never ever made this public announcement. As usual he was given a "press pardon". It will be a rare day when any journalist asks him to explain anything he says or does. He has announced his definitive retirement from the trade union movement about five times. Each time, he just pops back up without a word of explanation. Each time he does whole-page interviews in the bourgeois press without having to explain this turn-about. Why do the Unions put up with this? How much do they depend on him to have to accept this?
Anyway, he began his speech on Saturday, curiously, as we all stood at the foot of the Telecom Tower in support of Telecom workers, with a long and virulent attack against another boss altogether, the Bank of Mauritius Governor, Randeersingh Bheenick. At first, it seemed as if he was making some kind of mistake. He then, in an echo of his Labour Day speech in Beau Bassin where he told those present at his meeting to "al f.. f..", said that if those present in front of the Telecom Towers don't support the Bank of Mauritius workers (though no-one said they wouldn't), we were all "p.l.. and p.t..". This kind of attack on the workers who have come to attend a public rally was shocking, to say the least. It is also very rough language to resort to in any company, abusive to women as well as being homophobic. In fact, the whole of his speech was delivered as if he was taken over by feelings of uncontrollable rage. Foaming at the mouth, he said "Mo p.s ar mo patri", in an attempt to shock, one can only presume, during his argumentation that he is not known for his patriotism. Only to follow this violence by border-line xenophobic language against the French in Orange, an imperialist company that's for sure. He on more than one occasion said people should not let bosses "fer mal.. ar zot". This again is sexual imagery of a harsh nature. What is it supposed to mean? And he even said, in an unveiled threat of rape that "If he were a pretty boy, I'd do it to him" ("Si li ti zoli garson, mo ti pu pran li kont"). A threat of rape by sodomy is not a pretty thing to hear in a workers' meeting. It reflects rather more on the orator than on his subject. This is alarming. On numerous occasions he said "they" (various theys) are "LZM's" using initials to mask notorious misogynist swearing. Someone in Muvman Premye Me must speak to the man. He can't go on like this. Or the party must publicly dissociate itself from his stands and the vile language in which they are couched. It is hard to discern whether he is in control of himself or not when he rages this way.
It should be mentioned that the vast majority of those present remained icily cold in their response to his raging. It is to the credit of the MT workers that only literally a handful of people clapped, shrieked or whistled, and later, when other orators were at the microphone, these same individuals began to heckle in this same foul language, themselves, crying "p.l.n!" and "p.t.n!". When people do this at meetings (it happens by itself, of course), it is usually the bread-and-butter role of ordinary thinking cadres of a union or a left party to approach the person or little group and strike up a conversation with them, so as to gently reproach them for the uselessness (and possible negative effects) of their language. Anyone interested can look up a classic essay by Leon Trotsky in which he analyses swearing, "The Struggle for Cultured Speech" (1923). In it he argues that "Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity - one's own and that of other people." That is true until today. And later in the essay, "As a rule - which has exceptions, of course - men who use bad language scorn women, and have no regard for children." That is true until today, and perhaps if Trotsky was alive today he would have referred to homophobia, too.
What passersby must have made of an important working class struggle from what they heard as they went about their business makes the mind boggle.
And perhaps more importantly workers in this sector who have been so reluctant to mobilize, when they have finally taken the courage and decided to act in so bold and brave a way, may well be quite alarmed by this abhorrent speech.
Lalit, 14 September, 2008