Wandering In Wilderness

Rise and Fall of Trade Union Movements

Asis Sengupta

The earliest Trade Union in India was formed in Bombay Textile Mills, as early as 1851. Shorabji Shapuri Bengali and C P Mazumdar were the pioneers of labour organising in India. Saroyan Meghaji Lokhande formed ‘Bombay Millhands Association’, and with a membership strength of 5300 workers, submitted a memorandum to the ‘ Factory Commission ‘ in 1884, and Lokhande emerged as the first Union leader in India, who organised a mass rally of 10000 workers, where two women workers demanded Sunday as weekly off, and the Mill Owners’ Association, accepted the demand. That was recognised as the first Trade Union victory in the country.

Encouraged by this instance, some other organisations like Ahmedabad Weavers (1895), Jute mill Workers, Calcutta (1896), Bombay Mill Workers (1897) got unionised. Notable strikes that took place were, Madras Press Workers (1903), Printers Union, Calcutta (1905), Bombay Postal Union (1907) .Though the Madras Labour Union was formed by B P Wadia in 1918, the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills Strike (1921), under the leadership of V K Mudaliar, was considered at par with the ‘Great Steel Workers’ strike ‘in the same year in US. At this point, T U movements in India gained momentum, following the growth of unions in time of First World War, and the success of Russian revolution, 1000 Industrial strikes were recorded between 1920 and 1924. The waves of strikes boiled over with the arrest of prominent leaders and Trade Unionists who were accused of attempting communist revolution to overthrow the British Government. Another important figure inTU movement was N M Joshi, who persuaded the government in 1921 for the registration and protection of Unions. Thus the Trade Union Act was enacted in 1926.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) was formed in 1919, after the first world war, and that was instrumental in formation of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)in 1920, in which nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai, was the first President, who also attended the first ILO conference in Geneva in 1926. Thus in 1947, there were 2766 unions registered, with a combined membership strength of 1.66 million. Prior to that, M K Gandhi started his political career in India, after coming back from South Africa, with TU movement in Surat. It was estimated that in 1924, there were 167 unions under the leadership of Gandhi. The ‘‘Spinners and Weavers Union ‘was established in Ahmedabad under his leadership. Several important labour laws were passed during this time, following multiple court cases fought by T U bodies in different parts of the country. Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, Trade Union Act 1926, Trade Disputes Act 1929, Payment of Wages Act 1936 were passed.

AITUC split up many a time, and such organisations as National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), All India Red Trade Union Congress (AIRTUC) were formed, but those later merged with AITUC, for the purpose of unity. N M Joshi, B T Randive, M N Roy parted with AITUC at different points of time, and again federated with AITUC later. As AITUC came to be dominated by communists since1935, Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) was formed by Sardar Ballav Bhai Patel in 1947 and Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS)was formed under the banner of Praja Socialist Party in 1948, and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) was formed by Jana Sangh (now BJP) in 1955, thus paving the way for the disunity and weakness of workers under different banners on the basis of political affiliations. India also witnessed different Trade Unions coming together for a common cause, burying political identities, these include the crippling and historic Railway strike in 1974, and Great Bombay textile workers’ strike in 1982.

In independent India the Constitution guaranteed the right to form associations under Article 19 C. After the passing of Industrial Disputes Act Dec 1947, the TU movements gained strength, and at this point, some Congress leaders fed up with communist ways, formed a new Trade Union INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress). Further, the left wing socialists who were dissatisfied with socialist policies, parted with HMS and formed UTUC (United Trade Union Congress)in 1949, some members of AITUC also joined this platform. In 1970, AITUC, which was the biggest organisation along with INTUC divided themselves, in line with division of party between CPI and CPI (M), and CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) was born. INTUC also suffered a rift when Indira Congress retained INTUC, and Organisation Congress formed National Labour Organisation (NLO), the parent INTUC again split when INTUF (Indian National Trade Union Federation)was formed later.

During the transition period of independence, transfer of power, and adoption of new Constitution, many movements were going on. Among them, the Bank Employees struggle (Lloyds Bank agitation), and Textile workers ‘ agitations in Calcutta and Mumbai, were important, Bank Employees movement became stronger, and in the process of multiple court cases, several Dispute settlement commissions and Tribunals were instituted, and Awards meted out by those, marked the victory and improvement of working conditions. In all these struggles, Communist leadership played a guiding role.

In Calcutta and Mumbai, as well as in other Industrial centers like, Kanpur, Madras or Mysore and Andhra, Unions inspired by communist ideology were in the lead, and the leadership set the inspiring examples of integrity, sacrifice and militancy. In the Public Sector Undertakings created by Govt of India --- Steel Plants, Coal Mining, Power Generation and Distribution, and traditional Govt sectors like, Postal, Telecom and Railways ---- Leftist Unions were major players, though there were presence of govt backed Unions like INTUC ; Left Unions, in many cases could form a united forum to fight the causes of workers. With the spurt of Nationalisation under the Congress regime since 1969, when all the major Banks, Insurance Companies came under govt ownership, and expanded like anything, the leftist unions grew in leaps and bounds in a short period of a couple of decades.

Despite the historic uprising of Naxalbari, and in following years, the true radicals, failed to utilise the opportunity, as the leadership strongly opposed the participation in mass movements and formation of mass organisations. This self-imposed isolation, resulted in the detachment from true Trade Union Movement, which is essentially a mass movement. In the first place, the division of AITUC by creation of CITU, and the following rivalry for capture of space, and in the second place, the abstention of communist revolutionaries from mass movement, substantially weakened the radical Trade Union agitation in India. Naxalbari was a mass upheaval, but option for secret organisation and shunning the path of mass movement, as a whole, was against the very spirit of Trade Unionism.

A section of revolutionaries, who were originally inspired by Naxalbari ideology, but chose to part ways with the practice of secret violence, tactics of sudden actions, and moving away in the name of Guerilla warfare, tasted success in proper TU activity. Among such experiments, the Calcutta Electric Supply Contract Workers Union (CESC Contractors’ Mazdoor Samity)led by Timir Basu, the Editor, Frontier, was acclaimed all over India. But the most glaring Example was that of Dalhi Rajhara Mining Workers’ organisation, under the able leadership of Late Shankar Guha Neogi. In 1977 Late Neogi formed “Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangha” and that movement proved immensely successful. It brought under one umbrella all the labourers working in different mines, launched militant mass movements and wrested democratic rights from the Mine owners ensuring improvement of working conditions of working community, across the castes and tribals as well as non-tribals. Not stopping there he formed Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, to espouse the cause of working class in various platforms. A Sramajivi Hospital was also founded to take care of health hazards of workers and their families. This was a unique example of institutionalising collective bargaining power graduating into political power, uplift of life quality, and democratisation of work space as well as society. This classic experiment, unfortunately suffered setback as a result of assassination of Guha Neogi by Mining Mafias and Liquor Barons, whose spines were broken by his anti-liquor consumption drives, that gained popularity. There were / are still in existence such fruitful experiments, in pockets and belts, but those suffer and fail to last and mature into considerable factor, for the want of central and coordinating leadership.

From the ’70s to the ’90s, the left TU leadership kept themselves confined to the comfort zone of Public sectors and other organised white or blue collar jobs sectors. But from 2000 onwards, the paradigm shift in economy from welfare to market economy, and gradual dilution of traditional domestic sectors in manufacturing or ancillary units, made the situation difficult for workers. The introduction of Computers, Mechanisation, Automation etc, and the opening of market for foreign players in consumer goods sectors, posed threat to Production and marketing. With that the law for Special Economic Zone (SEZ), helped corporate sectors to shift to particular Zones where no Labour Law was/ is valid. The huge outsourcing of software jobs to India by US and Europe, and establishments of SEZs, posed existential threat to TUs. The new flourishing sector of Software services, created a new generation of slaves, at times highly paid, though not always, but without any security, and falling victims of whimsical hire and fire policy, being ever at the mercy of blood sucking employers.

Not only that, with the target of profit maximisation in the pretext of competitiveness and reduction in cost, more and more emphasis was on outsourcing and contractual labour forces, who were without any job security and adequate wages, and that made the task of unionisation, really difficult. To make the situation worse, draconian repressive measures were / are being adopted by employers to scare the workers away from unionisation. Example is the notorious incident in Maruti, Manesar, Gurgaonplant. In 2012, a bloody clash between the ill-paid factory workers and the shop floor Managers broke out, in which one executive lost is life, and left 100 injured. Nearly 200 were arrested and put behind bars. In 2017, 31 of the accused were convicted, and 117 acquitted .Such is the picture of strained industrial relations situation in India today. In a very recent case study, one independent reporter Rupesh Singh was arrested by police on 17th July 2022, for reporting the abysmal working conditions of villagers and workers in Sponge and Iron Factories situated in Giridih, Jharkhand. In fact, the pollution emitted has made the life of villagers miserable, and the labourers, brought from outside, are kept in Ghettos, under sub human living conditions, without nutrition, health care and at minimal wages. This is comparable to the state of labour force in Jute Mill or Tea Plantation sectors in W Bengal and Assam. So this is the horrendous situation of cheap labour force squeezed by the so-called development demons of new emerging India.

With the advent of Neo liberal economics, the traditional work place set up and concept of Factory or office, underwent sea changes, with that the ideology of trade unionism needed change. Change means, not only in organisation and structure, but also in modes of struggle and agitation. But unfortunately, world -wide trade union movement has failed to rise to the occasion, and stuck in conventionality. In Britain, the birthplace of TUs, in 1984-85, the famous Coal Mines strike, was shattered by the atrocious methods adopted by Margaret Thatcher, the notorious Conservative PM, which the miners could not resist. And that was a big set- back for worldwide Trade Union movements. In India too, the famous Bombay Textile workers strike in 1982, that continued for a year, finally succumbed to the negative tactics of Mill owners who never reopened the mills. The influence of left trade unions had already slipped into decay, as the leadership no longer enjoyed trust of the workers. Late Datta Samanta who was originally a Congress man, but a popular organiser, led the movement, that ended up in despair and fruitlessness. Despite such odds, the trade union activity remained alive for one decade, but finally died down with the assassination of Datta Samanta in 1997. The historic Railway strike in 1974, that shook the nation and world, failed to reap the gains and leave a lasting impact, due to leadership shortcomings. Finally the heroic organisation was captured by Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which is the satellite of Jana Sangh, that later became present day BJP. Such awkward degenerations marked the end of the era of glorious Trade Union movements in India.

Taking advantage of this situation of depressed economy, uncertain labour market, acute unemployment among educated youth, absence of proper mass leadership, the far right ideology of replacing class struggle with communal conflicts, has been successfully crafted by Hindutwa Fascists .As such, the enactment of Labour Code 2022, dealt a big blow to the formation and registration of unions which are rendered next to impossible, let alone conducting of activities.

Taking for granted all these turn of the grave situation and bleak prospects, it is time for introspection, self-assessment and pin- point the drawbacks and shortcomings responsible for this decay and decadence, in order to overcome those.

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022