Bhopal Trade Unionists Take On Dow Chemical

A little over 19 years ago, a chemical leak from the Union Carbide pesticide factory left over 8,000 people dead. The struggle of Bhopali workers for a just resolution, however, is far from over.

Union members from several local unions in Southeast Michigan gathered at the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 22 hall in Southfield, Michigan in late April, to learn about the ongoing campaign.

Rashida Bee, a member of the Bhopal Gas Affected Women Stationery Employees Union (BGPMSKS) explained that while Union Carbide paid a pittance in human damages ($500 for lifetime injuries and $2,000 for a death in the family), the company fled India without dealing with the huge environmental damage done.

Bee and her co-worker Champa Devi were in Michigan to seek union support as they go up against Dow Chemical, who bought Union Carbide in 2001. A group of activists from the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, sponsors of Bee and Devi’s visit, planned to protest at a shareholders meeting at Dow’s international headquarters in Midland, Michigan.

The ICJB is demanding that Dow Chemical take on the liabilities of the company it purchased, just as it has acquired its assets. This includes facing a criminal trial in India, providing medical and economic rehabilitation for the survivors and their children, cleaning up the factory site, and releasing thus far concealed medical information about the gases that poisoned Bhopal.


Several people at the meeting pledged to contact their internationals in Washington D.C to make sure they met with the Bhopal tour when it arrived there for an action at the Indian embassy.

Dan Basham, Midwest field representative for the AFL-CIO, said, “this is about the workers who have been affected for generations. It’s time that other workers came to their aid to rectify this wrong.”

Nityanand Jayaraman, one of ICJB’s organizers, proposed that unions and social justice groups around the world declare December 3, the anniversary of the Union Carbide disaster, “International Day of Action Against Corporate Crime,” and asked those present to encourage their unions to join the declaration.

The upcoming Labor Notes Conference will include a strategy meeting to plan for this worldwide day of action against Dow and other corporations who ignore their responsibility to the workers and communities they affect.


In an interview before the April meeting, Bee said, “this is an issue of occupational safety. In Bhopal, workers were not told about the hazards they faced. It was not just an accident but deliberate negligence.”

As part of a cost cutting drive begun in 1980, she noted, Union Carbide cut the number of workers in the Bhopal plant from 1,200 to 632. Workers who used to receive six months of safety training had to make do with 15 days.

A 1982 safety audit showed 30 spots where disaster could happen. Eleven employees were in the methyl isocyanide plant when the 1984 leak occurred.

In order to save $70 a day, the unit used to refrigerate the deadly gas was shut off. Workers at the plant wrote to Union Carbide’s Danbury, Connecticut headquarters warning of the dangers, but the company took no action.


Over fifteen years before setting foot in the U.S. to speak out about DOW, Bee, Devi, and 50 co-workers fought to form a union and use it to fight the Indian government for the employment and compensation that is their due. Listening to Bee tell the story of their union, BGPMSKS, one appreciates the organizing work that preceded the launch of the much larger ICJB.



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After the 1984 disaster, the Indian government undertook various half-hearted economic rehabilitation schemes. Through one such effort, 50 gas affected women received three months of training in the production of office stationery. There were no efforts to employ the women after the training. The women objected and insisted that the government start a stationery production center, which started operation in November of 1985.

They were paid a piece rate but were only given two days of work in one month, which meant they earned six rupees for the month. According to Bee, the agitated women said, “Take the money back. We can’t care for our children with that.” They worked for three more months while refusing wages. The government relented and increased their salary to five to seven rupees a day.


Established unions and other organizations courted the women, offering support in exchange for joining their groups. The women refused because, as Bee put it, “We had more faith in ourselves than in other unions and leaders. We were sure that if we women stuck together, we’d win our battle.”

The women formed the BGPMSKS, only to have other unions tell them that the government had halted registrations of unions. The solution, they were told, was to join an established union. Again they refused and, after discovering that the registration never had been halted, they registered their union in May of 1987.

Many members of the BGPMSKS lost their husbands in the gas leak and became sole wage earners for their families. Nonetheless, Bee noted proudly, members would sometimes contribute to a fund so the fight could go on.


Upon discovering that the stationery production center made 250,000 rupees profit while continuing to pay them a piece rate, the BGPMSKS argued that the center should be regulated under the “factories act,” a move that would mandate wage increases. After a 27-day sit-in and relay hunger strike in April of 1988, the government agreed. The minimum wage at the production center rose to 535 rupees a month.

Some months later, the women were amazed to learn that the government paid workers in its own stationery press 2,400 rupees a month for exactly the same work. Bee said officials told union members they were considered “irregular” workers, essentially saying, “We can’t pay you the same wages. You are gas affected women and so you can’t do as much work.”

A campaign demanding equal pay for equal work culminated in a 750 kilometer march from Bhopal to Delhi “to tell the people how the government was discriminating against us.” 100 women, ten men, and 25 children undertook the journey and presented a petition to the Indian Prime Minister demanding regularization of the women’s jobs and economic rehabilitation for people who could not work because of the 1984 accident.

After being shuttled from court to court for seven years, Bee said, the BGPMSKS finally got a favorable decision in December of 2002: Their jobs were to be regularized, with wages equal to those of other stationery workers, and they would receive four years in back pay. The Indian government appealed this decision and then missed subsequent scheduled court dates. They set May 12 for a final hearing. That hearing has been postponed.


After our interview, Bee and Devi eagerly showed me a photo album documenting their larger campaign against DOW. To represent the need to clean up the more than 5,000 tons of chemicals Union Carbide left leaking into the ground, the BGPMSKS has adopted a traditional, handmade straw broom as their symbol.

In one picture, a DOW official in the Netherlands smiles as he receives one of the brooms. During the same visit, members of the ICJB also presented DOW’s Netherlands office with contaminated dirt and water from the Bhopal site. When 200 BGPMSKS women carried out a similar action at DOW’s Indian headquarters four months ago, the company filed a criminal complaint against the women, asking the judge to issue a punitive fine of 74,000 rupees.

After hearing the women tell their story, Al Cholger, an international representative for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union, commented: “We should never lose sight of the fact that Bhopal can happen in the United States. In July of 2001, there was a leak and fire at the ATOFINA Chemical Company plant in Riverview, Michigan. Two PACE members and a supervisor died, and thousands of area residents were evacuated.”

“We must build global solidarity, to make sure that all chemical workers have the highest levels of workplace health and safety,” Cholger added.

For more information on the Bhopal campaign, visit or call Krishnaveni Gundu at 832/444-1731.