A day before 150 million workers in India went on a nationwide strike demanding higher wages and better working conditions, Mumbai one of the last of its prominent trade union leaders. Sharad Rao breathed his last on Thursday at the age of 76, while on his way to Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital, where he was being treated for cancer.

In a city that has transitioned over seven decades from a industrial hub to a financial centre, the struggles of the working class that still inhabit a substantial part of it are all but forgotten. But in Mumbai’s working-class history, there were many names that stood out.

Today, a mention labour and trade unionism in the context of Mumbai will largely evoke memories of the 1982 textile strike and the leader of the mill workers, Datta Samant. Yet, before Samant, there were many others who played an important part in asserting the rights of the working classes.

Leader and protege

Rao’s passing, for instance, is a reminder of the larger-than-life presence of George Fernandes.

Fernandes, whom millenials will remember as defence minister in AB Vajpayee’s Cabinet from 1998 to 2004, had his beginnings as a prominent and vociferous trade unionist and socialist leader. He was nicknamed "George, the giant killer" when he defeated SK Patil of the Congress in the 1967 Parliamentary elections from the south Mumbai constituency (then known as Bombay South) – one that the Congress had never before lost.

Rao was a protégé of Fernandes and cut his teeth in collective bargaining and trade unionism under his tutelage.

Fernandes' claim to fame was the all-India railway strike of 1974, when lakhs of railway workers across the country struck work for 20 days and which was brutally suppressed by Indira Gandhi’s government at the Centre. This added to the growing ill-will against Gandhi and led her to declare a state of Emergency in 1975, when Fernandes went underground. While Fernandes began his career in politics once the Emergency was lifted, Rao continued to work as a trade unionist in Mumbai.

Power of the collective

As part of the socialist Hind Mazdoor Sabha, under Fernandes' leadership, Rao and others organised the transport workers, especially the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport workers, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, and successfully negotiated substantial wage rises for them.

Hind Mazdoor Sabha also had a strong presence amongst railway workers and in later years, Rao formed the Mumbai Autorickshawmen’s Union that is now run by his son Shashank.

Rao’s hold on transport workers, in particular, earned him the reputation of someone who could bring the city to a halt – quite literally.

Apart from his work for the organised sector, Rao is remembered for his recognition of the existence of millions of workers in the informal sector.

In Mumbai alone, there are more than three lakh street vendors. They had no formal recognition, no rights and were unable to negotiate with the BMC. It was Rao's union that successfully negotiated on their behalf for designated areas where they could ply their trade. His intervention also contributed to the enactment of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act in 2014, which protects the rights of street vendors and regulates their trade.

At a time when the term "collective bargaining" still held some meaning, men like Rao were able to use the strength of their membership by employing a variety of tactics, including strikes, to gain better working conditions and wages for workers.

For instance, he is credited with having ensured that sanitation workers in the BMC got a substantial wage rise. It goes without saying that without that kind of organising, individual workers were simply not in a position to negotiate for better wages.

Muffled voices

The main union activity that most Mumbaiites are aware of today is that of taxi and auto unions regularly threatening strikes demanding a level-playing field, with the app-based taxi aggregators like Ola and Uber having threatening their livelihood. City residents today do not have much knowledge of the history of trade unionism in Mumbai and the integral part that the industry and the working classes played in the city.

Indeed, most people would not be aware that in the 1970s and 1980s, every major newspaper had a labour beat, with a journalist assigned to cover the labour unions. Today, you have to look long and hard to find such news.

Even Friday’s trade union strike has been reported about mostly in the context of the inconvenience caused to people rather than the demands that workers have put forward. Such superficial reporting has also detracted from any comprehension of why, in a time of globalisation and pro-employer policies pursued by successive governments, the only hope for workers to draw attention to their conditions is through effective trade union activity.

It is interesting that Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis used the word "aggressive" while describing Rao and paying him a tribute. Yet, those who have worked with him concur that while all union activity by definition has to be aggressive, Rao, in fact, illustrated the meaning of collective bargaining in the way he successfully managed to get incremental benefits for his constituents.

This is evident, for instance, in the tribute to him by the current chairperson of the BEST, Mohan Mithbavkar, who told the Indian Express: "While managing to place his views, he also maintained cordial relations with everybody. We have lost a great leader".

Writing affectionately about Rao in Mumbai Mirror, AL Quadros of the Mumbai Taximen's Union, the oldest taxi drivers’ union in the city, said: "Another quality that Sharad had, and that's a great quality to have, is to know when to strike and the right time to call it off". Quadros had also worked with Fernandes and Rao.

In his last years, Rao had lost some of his stature, particularly when he joined the Nationalist Congress Party in 2004. Also the multiplicity of unions that were affiliated to different political parties – for instance, there are many taxi and auto drivers' unions in Mumbai, divided along these lines – over the last three decades negated the strength of the larger national unions like the Hind Mazdoor Sabha and others.

Nevertheless, the death of a man like Sharad Rao, as well as Friday’s general strike, ought to remind us of the essential role that trade unions play in a neo-liberal economy where increasingly, the rights of workers to secure jobs, fair wages and legitimate benefits are threatened.