Jed Brandt from Nepal: Talking to the Workers
Posted by Mike E on April 28, 2010
by Jed Brandt
The workshops of Kathmandu’s broken-down trolley system are not far from the airport. The roar of jet engines flying low on approach contrasts with the strange silence of the idle repair barns.
Working men play cards beside the rusting hulks of street cars, partially dismantled, piles of machine parts laid along the zinc-sheet walls waiting for resurrection. Some street cars were torched during bandhs shutdowns. None have left the shop in years.
The only bustle is around the union office. Workers were fixing up the central room, while a few dozen machinists sat clustered in the building’s shade, eating lentils and rice. Electrical load-shedding blackouts have crippled the electrical system constantly for three years now, so the trolleys can’t leave their barn. Now the yards provide their sporadic electricity output to charge up battery-converted tuk-tuks – a fleet of three-wheel minivans that are now the scrappy backbone of the city’s chaotic mass transportation.
At the yard gates, and pasted across each of the workshops are Maoist posters calling for total mobilization on May First. The only words in English read “Workers of the World Unite!”
“The trolley needs constant electricity,” the shop steward told me. “They don’t fix the government. They can’t fix the load-shedding. The politicians do not change. They do not care that nothing works.”
He was excited when I mentioned I had worked for a transportation union in the United States.
“Are they Maoist” he asked.
“Not exactly,” I laughed. “That’s not how our unions work in America. They only bargain for wages.”
He looked confused. When I mentioned the 2005 transit workers strike that shut New York City down for a couple days, he grew animated.
“We will strike until the government falls. You will see.”
Workers and students set the stage
After I flagged a cab to go to a northern industrial district, my taxi driver showed me his Maoist union card. He was curious why I had been visiting the transport union. He mentioned that cabbies, too, were preparing for the shutdowns.
In the twenty-minute trip through the center of the city, a half dozen sound trucks passed us, all blaring rousing music with men and women exhorting attendance for the rallies and throwing leaflets from the windows like confetti.
“Our union told us to prepare for a final struggle,” the cabbie told me. “We don’t know what to expect. But it is time for the government to change.”
He told me in his limited English how he had expected things to change through the Constituent Assembly, but it delivered nothing. “Prime Minister [M.K. Nepal] doesn’t see us. He will see us when everything stops.”
Increasingly I have noticed posters being ripped down and a kind of flag wars: One day a street will be lined with red flags, then all will have been taken down in the morning and replaced by the evening.
I talked to workers at the gates of a large compound that hosts a dozen assorted assembly-and-fabrication plants – plus a factory farm for chickens. Workers told me they have stockpiled rice for a prolonged shut-down.
Several asked about the communist movement in America. I answered, “It’s going well in India.” That got a laugh.
Their shops were running full-steam to deliver last-minute orders before all hell breaks loose. Only media, hotels and restaurants that serve tourists will be exempt from the strike. Vegetable stands on the street are having their entire stock purchased to feel the thousands of villagers from across the country already arrived in the city. Buses are coming in, from the west and the east, the aisles filled with men and women, and as many as can fit riding in the “butterfly seat” on top.
Revolutionary students already shut down 8,000 private schools, ostensibly over fee increases. But as the 500,000 expected villagers arrive in the city, a dozen boarding schools have already been occupied by the Maoists for make-shift housing. Lean-to tents are filling up the center of the city where the action is set to go down.