Trade or Labour Union in India- History of Trade Unions Movement

Updated August 4, 2022

The trade union historically developed from the trade & labour movement of India. The labour union movement in India has a century-long history. The first quarter of the 20th century saw the birth of the trade union movement, but the seeds of movement were sown much earlier.

The earliest trade union was formed in Bombay when textile mills were established in 1851. Trade unions also emerged in Calcutta in 1854 with the establishment of jute mills there. Sorabji Shapuri Bengali and C.P. Mazumdar were among the pioneers of these early labour uprisings in the country.

After World War I, working-class in the country realised the importance of the strikes as a means of obtaining better working conditions, better wages, etc. Subsequently, many strikes and movement were declared and get success. This success led to the formation of labour unions or trade unions.

AITUC was the most notable organization established for the interests of the workers, to coordinate the activities of all labour organisations in the country, and to spread the message about the need for the union movement. After that, a landmark in the history of the labour movement was the enactment of the Trade Unions Act 1926.

Trade Union aka Labour Union in India: Attributes 

Trade unions or labour unions are an association of workers of the particular field who have come together to achieve the common interests. They have associated for the purpose of protecting the integrity of their trade, improving safety standards, and attaining better wages, working conditions etc.

These unions look into the grievances of the workers and raise collective voices in front of the management. Hence, it acts as a bridge between workers and management to transfer their interests and decision. In India, Trade or labour  Unions are registered under the Trade Union Act (1926). The Indian Trade Union Act, 1926 is the principal act which controls and regulates the mechanism of the trade unions.

The Emergence of the Labour Union in India

Growth of Trade unions in India was the natural outcome of the industrial systems. The evolution of trade unionism in India is traced back towards the latter half of the 19th century. It is the sine qua non with the growth of the industrialization.

The growth of the trade union movement can be distinctly separated into six phases-

(a) Pre- 1918 phase

The laying of railways line and Jute and textiles factory paved the way for the Industrial development and in parallel follows the labour movement in India. So, in India, trade unionism movement was traced back to mid of the 19th century. The earliest trade union was formed in Bombay when textiles were established in 1951. After that, trade unions also emerged in Calcutta in 1854 with the establishment of jute mills there. Shorabji Shapuri Bengali and C.P. Mazumdar were among the pioneers of these early labour movement in the country.

With well-known fact, the first uprising of labour was started in 1875 under the guidance and leadership of Mr S.S. Bangalee. He started the agitation to protect the atrocious conditions of the workers, especially women and children. He made the demand to introduce legislation for the amelioration of their working conditions.

Therefore, to study the conditions of the workers, a Factory Commission was established in 1879. After that in 1881- the first Factory Act was passed, but it remained ineffective. For that, the Second Factory Commission was set up in 1884 and a memorandum signed by the Narayan Meghji Lokhande along with 5,300 was submitted.

He led many rallies with the workers and founded the first trade union in the country, namely, the Bombay Mill Hands Association in 1890. So, it can be said that N.M. Lokhande is the founder of the organised labour movement in India.

This was followed by the formation of other trade union and organised strikes started taking place across the country for the amelioration of working conditions of the workers.  Trade unions like Ahmedabad Weavers (1895), Jute Mills, Calcutta (1896), Bombay Mill workers (1897) and the Social League (1910) were formed. Some of the notable strikes that took place around this time were by the Madras Press Workers (1903), Printers Union, Calcutta (1905) and the Bombay Postal Union (1907).

Features of the Labour movements in this Era

(a) Leadership was provided by social reformers and not by the workers themselves.
(b) The movements in this era mainly concentrated on the welfare of workers rather than asserting their rights.

(c) They were organised, but there was no pan India presence.
(d) A strong intellectual foundation or agenda was missing.
(e) Their demands revolved around issues like that of women and children workers.

(b) 1918- 1924 Phase

The trade union movement had gained momentum across the country. This period marked the birth of true trade union movement in India. It was taking place along with lines of unions in the industrialised world. The horrific conditions of the workers during the first world and exposure to the outside world resulted in gaining conscious of the workers. This provided fertile ground to the development of the movement. This period is known as the early trade union period.

All India Trade Union Congress, the oldest trade union federation in India was set up in 1920. It was founded by Lala Lajpat Rai, Joseph Baptista, N.M Joshi and Diwan Chaman Lal. In this period, one of the influential trade union leaders in India was B.P. Wadia. He quoted that the economic aim of the Indian Labour movement is not only to get higher wages and other benefits but to eradicate wage slavery. The Madras Labour Union was formed in 1918 with B.P. Wadia as the president. Not only that, he was the president of the other five trade unions in Madras.

Other important unions in this period were- Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association led by Smt. Anasuyaben Sarabhai, All India Postal and RMS Association etc.

Factors that Influenced Growth of Labour Movement in India

(a) Due to the continuous increase in the price of the essential commodities and horrible conditions of the workers during the first world war led the workers to form trade unionism. So, with the unionisation, they sought collective bargaining power to improve their living conditions.

(b) Emergence of Gandhian leadership, development of Home- Rule and the socio-political conditions led to the nationalist leadership taking interest in the worker’s plight. Workers, in turn, was looking for professional leadership and guidance.

(c) Russian revolution and other international developments (like setting up of International Labour Organisation in 1919) bolstered their morale.

(c) 1925-1934: The Period of Left-Wing Trade Unionism

This period marked the growth of militant influence in the trade union movement. The workers moved towards the militancy and a revolutionary approach. The All India Trade Union Congress split multiple times due to their widening differences with the left-wing unionists. It was separated and form organizations like the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and All India Red Trade Union Congress (AIRTUC). Leaders like N.M Joshi and V.V Giri was instrumental in moderating the movement and further integrating it with the nationalist mainstream.

N.M. Joshi, a prominent figure in India, persuaded the British Government of India to accept the resolution moved by him in the Central Legislative Assembly for the legislation for registration and protection of trade unions. It was after 5 years that the Trade Unions Act of 1926 was enacted. The Trade Union Act 1926, conferred certain rights and privileges upon registered unions in return for obligations.

Another important Act was the Trade Disputes Act 1929, provided for the settlement of trade unions. These two acts gave a fillip to the growth of trade unionism in India. During this period, a great rise in the membership of trade unions could be traced in India, where a paucity declined during the Great Depression of 1930. In 1934, the number of trade or labour union in India was 191. This period marked the dominance of the left-wing. Hence, it is right to say this period as the left-wing trade unionism.

(d) 1935-1938 Phase- Unite the Seceded Trade Unions

The great depression phase was the dull phase of the union movement. Retrenchment and strikes were common, the latter one is most ineffective. They were further split in the main organisation, but luckily just before World War II, mutual unity was achieved. In the period of 1935 to 1938, the separated trade union come together and merged into the AITUC. So, this period was seen to be greater unity between different unions.

INC (Indian National Congress) was in power in almost seven provinces by 1937. The INC ministries approached the unions to protect their interests while protecting industrial peace. This led to more and more unions coming forward and getting involved with the nationalist movement. In 1935, AIRTUC merged with AITUC. The provincial government passed many legislations to give more power to the trade unions and protect the workers’ interests.

One of the important features of this phase was the enactment of the Bombay Industrial Disputes Act, 1938. The provision of this Act gave compulsory recognition of unions by the employers which helped in the growth of trade unionism in India.

(e) 1939-1946: Period of labour activism

The Second World war was one of the disastrous events. It again shattered the unity because of ideological differences and other issues. Mass retrenchment witnessed during the post-World War II led to the problem of unemployment. Not only that, but it also lowered the standard of living for the workers. This increased the industrial unrest and rise in the movement. Indeed, the secession of organizations, workers realised the need for an organized movement to secure relief. This realisation led to an increase in the membership of registered trade unions from 667 in 1939-40 to 1087 in 1945-46.

The feature of this phase the enactment of two legislations, namely, Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946 and Bombay Industrial Relations Act, 1946. Provisions of both the Acts contributed to strengthening trade unionism in the country. In general, the movements got more vocal and involved in the national movement.

(f) 1947-Since: Post-Independence Trade Unionism

The most notable development of trade unions during this phase was Indian National Trade Unions Congress (INTUC) in 1947, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) in 1948 and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in 1970. It can be said that this period was marked by the proliferation of unions.

Indian National Trade Unions Congress was formed in May 1947 under the guidance of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It was controlled by the Congress party. Since by then, the AITUC was highly influenced and come in controlled by the communists. Later on, Hind Mazdoor Sabha was formed under the banner of Praja Socialist Party and it came under the influence of Socialists. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh was founded in 1955 and is currently affiliated to the BJP.

This phase showed that the labour unions in India were completely tied with party politics. Rise of regional parties has led to a proliferation in their numbers with each party opting to create its trade union. However, their influence has been somewhat reduced after the liberalisation post-1991. Issues like labour code reforms and minimum wage remains a political hot potato due to the opposition from the trade union leadership. Thus, we see that the labour movement in India has gone through a full evolutionary cycle.

Beyond Trade Movement in India Under G.S. Reads

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