The evolution of the trade union movement has been since the growth of industrialization. In the initial phase of industrialization, there was an exploitation of the working class. There were no fixed working hours, no minimum wages, and no right to collective bargaining. Workers had to work in unsanitary conditions like noise-filled industries, children had to run furnaces under high temperatures, and most of them had to suffer lung cancer, and asthma. But soon, the working class began organizing themselves to put an end to this inhumane exploitation.
History of Trade Union Movement in India
In India, the trade union movement started in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when industrial development took place. The earliest labour leaders like Sasipada Banerjee of Bengal and N. M. Lokhande of Mumbai led the labour movements to improve the socio-economic condition of the working class.
Pre phase-1918: Initial Stage of Labour Movement
In March 1862, the first-ever strike of Indian Industrial workers took place when 1200 Railway workers of Howrah Station demanded an eight-hour workday.
In 1870, the first labour organization Working Men’s Club was founded in Calcutta by Sasipada Banerjee. He also published in the journal ‘Bharat Sramajibi‘.
In 1875, Sorabjee Sharpoorji Bengalee of Mumbai organized the labour agitation in Bombay against the appalling conditions of workers, especially women and children. Thus, the first organized labour agitation was organised by S. S. Bengalee. It results in the formation of the first factory commission in the country in 1875.
In 1875, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande was the first to represent the grievances of the Indian working class before the Labour Commission of Bombay. From 1880 onwards, N. M. Lokhande also started the publication of Deenbandhu newspaper in Bombay.
In 1877, the first Industrial strike took place in the Nagpur Empress Mill, demanding a wage hike.
In 1878, S. S. Bengalee drafted a bill and tried to pass it in the Bombay legislative council to provide better working conditions to the labourers. In 1881, the first factory Act of 1881 was passed by the British government in India.
In 1890, N. M Lokhande set up the first association of Indian workers the ‘Bombay Mill-Hands Association‘ in Bombay. That’s why N. M. Lokhande was also known as the founding father of the Trade Union Movement in India.
In 1897, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of India was established. The first strike by the Great Indian Peninsula railways took place in 1899, which was also supported by Tilak’s newspaper, Kesari and Mahratta.
During the Swadeshi upsurge, the working classes in India came with wider political issues. Mass level strikes were organized by Apurba Kumar Ghosh, Ashwini Coomar Banerjea, Premtosh Bose, and Prabhat Kumar Roy Chaudhuri, mainly in government press, jute industry, and railways.
Following this, worker organizations were formed across the country. Important workers’ organizations include Calcutta’s Printer Union (1905), Bombay Postal Union (1907), and Kamgar Hitwardhak Sabha (1910). All of these labour unions aimed to promote the welfare of workers and spread literacy among them.
Coral Mill Strike (1908)
On 23 February 1908, Chidambaram Pillai gave a speech at Thoothukudi, encouraging the workers at Coral Mill (now part of Madura Coats) to protest against their low wages and harsh working conditions. Four days later, the workers of the Coral Mill went on strike, led by Subramaniya Siva and Chidambaram himself. The outcome of the Coral Mill strike encouraged the workers of other European companies, who also gained increased wages and better treatment. Chidambaram’s political involvement drew the attention of the British, and they soon arrested both Chidambaram and Subramaniya.
In 1908, the biggest strike took place when Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested on charges of sedition. It was a week-long protest held by Mumbai Mill workers.
In 1911, the National Social Service league in Bombay was established by N. M. Joshi (the greatest exponent of the labour movement in India).
1918-1924: Early Trade Union Period
After World War I, the trade union movement got organized in the truly modern sense of the term. The War and its aftermath bought a rise in exports, soaring prices, and massive benefit opportunities for the industrialists but very-low wages for workers, which led to discontent among workers.
The deteriorated living conditions, and dislocation of trade & industries, caused by World War I, contributed to the new awakening of consciousness among the working class. Labour movements began consolidating themselves and start demanding high wages.
In 1918, Madras Labour Union led by B. P. Wadia was established. It was the first clearly registered trade union. It unites the members from the textile mills of Madras and Mysore.
The formation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1919 also strengthens the labour movements. For the first time, N. M. Joshi was deputed to the International Labour conferences & sessions as a representative from India.
Formation of All Indian Trade Union Congress (AITUC)
On 31 October 1920, the All Indian Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the first trade union on an All-Indian basis, was formed. The four founder fathers of AITUC were Lala Lajpat Rai, N. M. Joshi, Joseph Baptista, and Diwan Chaman Lal.
The first session of AITUC was presided by Lala Lajpat Rai in Bombay (1920), and Diwan Chaman Lal was the first General Secretary of AITUC. It was attended by Jawaharlal Nehru, C. R Das, V. V. Giri, S. C. Bose, Sarojini Naidu, C. F. Andrew, J. M. Andrews, and Satyamurty. Lala Lajpat Rai was the first in India to link capitalism with imperialism – “imperialism and militarism are twin children of capitalism”.
In 1920, as a result of Gandhi Ji’s efforts, the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (Majoor Mahajan Sabha), led by Shrimati Ansuyaben Sarabhai, was formed.
In 1922, organizations such as Central Labour Board in Bombay, Bengal Trade Union Federation, and the All India Railway men’s Federation (AIRF) were formed.
The Major strikes during the 1920s included those in Kharagpur Railway Workshops, Tata Iron and Steel Works in Jamshedpur, Bombay Textile Mills and Buckingham Carnatic Mills.
The Gaya Session of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1922 welcomed the formation of AITUC and formed a committee to assist it. The prominent Congress and Swarajist leader C. R. Das presided over the third and the fourth sessions of the AITUC. C. R. Das advocated that INC should take up the workers’ and peasants’ cause and incorporate them in the struggle for ‘Swaraj’, or else they would get isolated from the Movement.
Other prominent leaders who kept close contact with the AITUC included S. C. Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, V. V. Giri, C. F. Andrews, J. M. Sengupta, Satyamurthy, and Sarojini Naidu.
In the beginning, the AITUC got influenced by the social democratic ideas of the British Labour Party. The Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, trusteeship and class collaboration also significantly influenced the Movement.
In 1923, the First-Ever May Day (Labour day) in India was launched by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan in Madras on 1 May 1923.
1925-1934: Period of Left Wing Trade Unionism
Trade Union Act 1926
In 1926, British Government in India passed the Trade Union Act of 1926, which was the first labour enactment to legalize the formation of the Labour Union in India. Thus, trade unions were recognized as legal associations. Trade unions were required to be registered with the labour commission in every province of the government. This Act laid out rules for the regulation of trade unions and imposed restrictions on their political activities.
Bombay Textile Mills Strike (1928)
In 1928, Girni Kamgar Union organized the Bombay Textile Mills strike under the communists. The Bombay Textile Mills went on for five months and involved around 1,50,000 workers. With the emergence of communists, trade union politics got changed. The famous trade union leaders of that time were S A Dange, P C Joshi, Muzaffar Ahmed, and Sohan Singh Joshi. The year 1928, is also known as “the year of Industrial unrest in India” because of this strike in Bombay textile mills, along with strikes of Railway workers of Bengal and Nagpur on Railway tracks.
Trade Disputes Act (TDA) 1929
Due to the increasing strength of Labour movements under the extremist influence, the British government passed the Public Safety Ordinance (1929) and the Trade Disputes Act (TDA) of 1929. These Acts made it compulsory to appoint the Court of inquiry and Consultation Boards to settle industrial disputes. Strikes in the public utility services like railways, post, water, and electricity were banned and made illegal unless the working class union gave advanced notice to the administration a month before.
Meerut Conspiracy Case (1929)
In March 1929, the Government arrested several trade unionists, including three Englishmen, for organising an Indian Railway Strike. The British Government convicted 27 trade union leaders under a lawsuit. The main charge was that in 1921, S. A. Dange, Muzaffar Ahmed, and Shaukat Usmani, joined a conspiracy to establish a branch of the Communist International (Comintern) in India and were assisted by several persons, including the accused Phillip Spratt and Benjamin Francis Bradley, as both were sent to India by the Communist International.
The Sessions Court in Meerut awarded stringent sentences to the accused in January 1933. Three- and-a-half-year trial resulted in the conviction of S. A. Dange, Muzaffar Ahmed, Joglekar, Bradley, Philip Spratt, Shaukat Usmani and others. This case got worldwide publicity but weakened the Working Class Movement.
First split-up of AITUC
In 1929, the first split-up of AITUC took place in Nagpur on the issue of the boycott of India’s royal labour commission. The Socialists and members of the Indian National Congress (INC) wanted to boycott the royal commission, but moderates wanted to support it. In protest, N. M. Joshi, V. V. Giri, and other moderates left the AITUC.
In 1930, the moderate section set up the All India Trade Union Federation (ITUF) under the leadership of N. M. Joshi. Its first president was V. V. Giri.
In 1931, Another split-up in AITUC took place in its Calcutta Session, in which extreme left-wing broke away and formed Red Trade Union Congress (RTUC).
In 1933, Indian Trade Union Federation (ITUF) merged with the National Federation of Labour (NFL) under a new name, National Trade Union Federation (NTUF).
In 1934, Red Trade Union Congress (RTUC) remerged with the All Indian Trade Union Congress (AITUC). As of 1934, there were two central federations AITUC and NTUF.
1935-1938: The Congress Interregnum
In this phase, there was greater unity between different trade unions. After the 1937 elections, Indian National Congress (INC) came into power in most provinces. More and more unions got involved in the nationalist movements. Provincial governments passed different legislation to give more recognition to trade unions.
In 1938, V. V. Giri proposed to bring unity between AITUC and NTUF. Thus, NTUC was affiliated with the AITUC.
In 1940, the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) merged with the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in Nagpur, and a united body of trade unions was formed.
1939-1946: Period of Labour Activism
Like the first World War, the Second World War also impact the working class in the country. World War II further lowered the living standard of workers and caused the problem of unemployment. This compelled the workers to join trade unions. However, the question of supporting the war once again created a rift between Congress and the Communists.
Initially, the working class opposed the war, but when Russia joined the war in 1941, the Communists start supporting it. Thus, in 1941, AITUC again split up, and the Indian Federation of Labour (IFL) was formed (by M. N. Roy).
1947-Onwards: Post-independence trade unionism
After the independence of India, Labour movements got polarised based on political ideologies.
In 1947, Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) was formed as the labour wing of the Indian National Congress (INC) with the efforts of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and Gulzarilal Nanda.
In 1948, the Socialist Party of India founded its labour wing known as Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) in Howrah, West Bengal. Its founder includes Ashok Mehta, V. S. Mathur, Basawon Singh Sinha, R. S. Ruikar, Maniben Kara, Shibnath Banerjee, T. S. Ramanujam, R. A. Khedgikar, G. G. Mehta. R. S. Ruikar became its president while Ashok Mehta was general secretary.
In December 1948, the Indian Federation of Labour (IFL) merged with Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) and formed United Trade Union Congress (UTUC).
In 1955, Jan Sangh (now Bhartiya Janta Party) also established its labour wing known as Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), founded by Dattopanti Thengdi.
In 1970, the Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU), affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was formed with B. T. Ranadive as its first president.