Evolution of Trade Unions in India

11th July 2021 1 By indiafreenotes

Trade Unions in India are registered and file annual returns under the Trade Union Act (1926). Statistics on Trade Unions are collected annually by the Labour Bureau of the Ministry of Labour, Government of India. As per the latest data, released for 2012, there were 16,154 trade unions which had a combined membership of 9.18 million (based on returns from 15 States out of a total of 28 States and 9 Union Territories). The Trade Union movement in India is largely divided along political lines and follows a pre-Independence pattern of overlapping interactions between political parties and unions. The net result of this type of system is debated as it has both advantages and disadvantages. AITUC is the Largest Trade union of India.

The firm or industry level trade unions are often affiliated to larger Federations. The largest Federations in the country represent labour at the National level and are known as Central Trade Union Organisations (CTUO). As of 2002, when the last Trade Union verification was carried out, there are 12 CTUOs recognised by the Ministry of Labour.

The first phase falls between 1850 and 1900 during which the inception of trade unions took place. During this period of the growth of Indian Capitalist enterprises, the working and living conditions of the labor were poor and their working hours were long. Capitalists were only interested in their productivity and profitability. In addition to long working hours, their wages were low and general economic conditions were poor in industries. In order to regulate the working hours and other service conditions of the Indian textile labourers,the Indian Factories Act was enacted in 1881. As a result, employment of child labor was prohibited. Mr. N M Lokhande organized people like Rickshaw walas etc., prepared a study report on their working conditions and submitted it to the Factory Labor Commission. The Indian Factory Act of 1881was amended in 1891 due to his efforts. Guided by educated philanthropists and social workers like Mr. Lokhande, the growth of trade union movement was slow in this phase. Many strikes took place in the two decades following 1880 in all industrial cities.These strikes taught workers to understand the power of united action even though there was no union in real terms. Small associations like Bombay Mill-Hands Association came up.

The second phase of The Indian trade union movement falls between 1900 and 1947. This phase was characterized by the development of organized trade unions and political movements of the working class. It also witnessed the emergence of militant trade unionism. The First World War (1914-1918) and the Russian revolution of 1917 gave a new turn to the Indian trade union movement and organized efforts on part of the workers to form trade unions. In 1918, B P Wadia organized trade union movements with Textile mills in Madras. He served strike notice to them and workers appealed to Madras High Court because under ‘Common Law’, strike is a breach of law. In 1919, Mahatma Gandhi suggested to let individual struggle be a Mass movement. In 1920, the First National Trade union organization (The All ndia Trade Union Congress (AITUC)) was established. Many of the leaders of this organization were leaders of the national Movement. In 1926, Trade union law came up with the efforts of Mr. N N Joshi that became operative from 1927.

The third phase began with the emergence of independent India (in 1947), and the Governments ought the cooperation of the unions for planned economic development. The working class movement was also politicized along the lines of political parties. For instance Indian national trade Union Congress (INTUC) is the trade union arm of the Congress Party. The AITUC is the trade union arm of the Communist Party of India. Besides workers, white-collar employees, supervisors and managers are also organized by the trade unions, as for example in the Banking, Insurance and Petroleum industries.

The setting up of textile and clothing mills around the port cities of Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata), Madras (now Chennai) and Surat in the second half of the 19th century led to the beginnings of the industrial workforce in India. Several incidents of strikes and protests by workers have been recorded during this time. The credit for the first association of Indian workers is generally given to the Bombay Mill-Hands Association founded by N.M. Lokhande in 1890. This was in the period just after the passing of the ‘First’ Factories Act in 1881 by the British Government of the time. The following years saw the formation of several labour associations and unions. The first clearly registered trade-union is considered to be the Madras Labour Union founded by B.P. Wadia in 1918, while the first trade union federation to be set up was the All India Trade Union Congress in 1920.

Following the rapid growth of unions around the time of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the setting up of the ILO industrial conflict began to increase and over 1,000 strikes were recorded between 1920 and 1924. The waves of strikes boiled over with the arrest of prominent leaders and trade-unionists in the infamous ‘Cawnpore Conspiracy case’ in 1924 with the union leaders being arrested and accused of attempting a Communist revolution to try and overthrow the ruling British government. Subsequently, the Trade Union Act (1926) was passed which created the rules for the regulation and closer monitoring of Trade Unions. In the first year of the law’s operation, 28 unions registered and submitted returns with a total membership 100,619. The number of unions grew rapidly after that and by the time of Independence of India in 1947, there were 2,766 unions registered which had a combined membership of over 1.66 million. This resulted in a wide influence of unions and workers’ organisations and led to significantly favourable social legislation being enacted in the first decade of Independence. Several important labour laws were passed during this time.

Independence (1947) to liberalisation (1991)

Following its Independence in 1947 and the formation of the Republic in 1950, India largely followed a Socialist economic approach encouraging public sector employment and pro-worker legislations. The trade-union movement reflected the main political divisions of the time and was divided mainly along Socialist and Communist lines. The subsequent decades saw significant expansion in trade union membership with the number of active unions reaching its peak in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s. While the 1970s in India was a period characterised by political instability, the 1980s was characterised by the beginnings of a distinct turn towards more market-friendly policies, support for industrialists and an implicit opposition to workers. Two key events during this period were the 1974 railway strike in India and the Great Bombay textile strike of 1982, the latter of which subsequently led to a long and complicated stalemate.

Liberalisation (1991) to present

The period following the Economic liberalisation in 1991 was characterised by declining government intervention in the economy, a decline in the creation of public sector employment and encouragement for the private sector. Efforts for unionisation in the private sectors were often met with opposition and the wider general withdrawal of State support for workers further undermined their bargaining power. These policies led to a stagnation in the number of unionised formal sector workers.

A gradual shift in focus about the importance of the Informal sector and ‘Informal employment in the formal sector’ from the late 1990s onwards meant that trade unions also began to focus on these workers. This has led to greater enrolment of these workers and subsequently led to increases in union membership. The Central Trade Union Organisations (CTU’s) increased their combined membership from 13.21 million in 1989 to 24.85 million in 2002. Almost all the CTUOs now have at least 20 percent of their official members coming from the informal sector.