This article throws light upon the four phases of growth of India’s trade union movement.
Growth of India’s Trade Union Movement Phase # 1. The First Phase (1875-1918):
The history of the trade union movement in India can be traced back to the days of the rise of the factory industry which, at the same time, brought to the fore the problems of modern capitalism. Notable problems among them were miserable working conditions, recruitment of women and child labour, long and excessive working hours, and so on. All these resulted in agitations, protests and strikes in different industries.
However, these did not make any perceptible impact on the status of the fact that the workers were not united or organised and were ignorant about the conception of the trade union movement. Meanwhile, the first Factory Commission was appointed in 1875 to investigate the conditions of work in factories.
Despite certain recommendations by the Commission, the Government of Bombay refused to implement these recommendations. This refusal spurred the cotton manufacturers in India to launch agitation with the object of minimising the grievances of the labourers.
It was at this juncture one Mr. Sashipada Banerjee in Bengal and Mr. Sorabjee Shapurjee Bengalee in Maharashtra came forward to enlighten the workers regarding the utility of the organised movement. Philanthropists and social workers at that time took up the cause of the mill workers. Mr. Bengalee prepared a bill on child labour and sent it to the Governor of Bombay for consideration (in 1878). Mr. Bengalee appealed to Manchester for support.
A fresh agitation was launched in England and agitationists demanded factory legislation in India. Consequently, the Factories Act of 1881 came into being whose provisions went against child and female labour. The chief characteristic of the labour movement of this period was that social organisations, instead of working class organisations, spearheaded the attack. Truly speaking, social organisations played a decisive role in engaging the attention of the Government for legislative intervention with factory conditions.
As the Factories Act of 1881 failed to mitigate the problems of child labour and female labour, the Government of Bombay appointed another Factory Committee in 1883. This legislative battle acted as a moralebooster to the labourers and the social workers who realised the necessity of representing the case of the workers to the Government on a common platform, “It is this movement that created the first labour leader in India Mr. Narayan Meghjee Lokhanday”, who actively took up the cause of the Bombay textile workers. In 1884, a Memorial signed by 5,500 workers setting forth their grievances was sent to the Bombay Factory Committee for presentation.
In 1890, N. M. Lokhanday founded Bombay Mill-hands’, Association to provide a clearing house for the grievances of the Bombay mill workers and to help in drawing public attention to the cause of labour. Some have erroneously regarded this association as the first trade union of India but it had no existence as an organised body, no roll of membership, no fund, and no constitution.
As a trade union leader, Mr. Sukomal Sen observes that Mr. Lokhandy took up the cause of the mill workers not with any trade union consciousness, but with a spirit of social service and sympathy with the lot of the workers. “Though actively devoted to the cause of the workers, he could not escape the historical limitations of that period. His name will thus go in history as one of the foremost philanthropists and promoters of labour welfare and not as a trade union leader”.
Practically, before 1895, class consciousness among workers was conspicuously absent. This prevented them from organising themselves. However, this period was marked by sporadic small strikes to ventilate grievances of workers. Through this haphazard movement workers learnt the utility, of united action even though the concept of trade union was yet to mature in real sense of the term.
Closely on the heels of Mr. Lokhanday’s Bombay Mill-hands’ Association, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of India and Burma—a labour association with rules, funds, and roll of membership—was formed in 1897. On scrutiny, it also did not appear to be a trade union in real sense. It merely functioned as a “mutual aid society”.
The political development of the early twentieth century coincided with the awakening of the working classes of India to move ahead with its economic struggles. The Swadeshi Movement born out of the partition of Bengal in 1905 transcended the bounds of the partition of Bengal and gave the necessary impetus to the working classes for conscious mass action under national bourgeoisie slogans.
Now political and social workers came forward to inculcate the sense of a strong and united action among wage-earning classes in a more systematic manner and tried to give the movement a militant character. Consequently, this period saw a series of strikes. In the midst of strike waves, the Printers’ Union, Calcutta (1905), which worked, in fact, as a strike committee, and the Bombay Postal Union (1907) came into being. Being strike committees, these unions became defunct after a few months’ survival.
Another important working-class action was the big strike called by the workers of the East Indian Railway in July-September 1906. A series of strikes in different departments rocked various provinces. The main object of the labour leaders was to give a popular and mass character to the movement.
All these unnerved the colonial authorities who now thought that the Indian labour problem merited attention. In the midst of this political action, class consciousness was yet to mature. Even then, one must not lose sight of the fact that the working class was gaining in solidarity. And, above all, organizational activity having the traits of modernity was also noticeable. But as far as trade union was concerned, it achieved little.
Trade union, in the truest sense of the term, was yet to come out as most of the working class organisations functioned merely as mutual aid societies rather than trade unions. Some notable organisations of the period were the Bombay Kamgar Hitwardhak Sabha (1909), Social Service League (1910) of Bombay, the Mohammedan Association (1895) of Calcutta. The first-named organisation functioned as a workers’ welfare organisation run on a humanitarian cause on behalf of the workers. The last- named association mingled class-consciousness of the workers with religion as it was a forum for Muslims only.
In this preparatory phase of the labour movement, the World War I of 1914-18 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 gave a new turn to the Indian working class movement. Closely on the heels of these developments began the period of more class-conscious proletarian actions and growth of trade unions in the true sense of the term. In short, the Indian labour classes entered the phase of modern labour movement.
The First Phase of the Movement: Its Features:
It transpires from the above discussion that the country’s early (1875-1918) labour movement saw growing class struggles and not too insignificant achievements. But at the same time the movement till them did not reach a sufficiently organised and powerful stage.
Labour movement during the period under review had some interesting features:
Firstly, during the period under review, trade unions in their infancies were of a sporadic or ad hoc nature. These unions were devoid of funds, regular membership, constitution, etc. Leadership of these associations came mainly from the philanthropists and social workers, rather the classes.
That is why it is said that trade unions of this period were “for the workers rather than by the workers”. The period from 1901 could, however, be described as the phase witnessing the formative process of trade unions. More class-conscious proletarian actions and growth of trade unions became more visible immediately after the World War I.
Secondly, the most notable feature of this period is the complete absence of radicalism without having any inherent link with the labour class. In the words of S. D. Punekar: “Though a strike, in this period, was not uncommon, there was not a single, solid well-built organisation either to conduct the strike or to negotiate with employers, and hence we may confidently assert that the method of collective bargaining was unknown before the war”.
Most of the unions did not play any part in the Indian labour movement. Whatever labour movement did occur, it confined its attention of throwing the labour question to the attention of the Government and the public.
The causes of the absence of radicalism were manifold:
(i) Absence of revolutionary doctrines and radical leaders;
(ii) Lack of class consciousness; and
(iii) Incapability of the so-called extremist-nationalist leaders or dominance of the moderate leaders in the national movement.
Thirdly, this period was marked by the political consciousness of the Indian working class. This is parallel to the militant national wave. Political strike of the Bombay workers and hartal of the masses in July 1908 following the arrest of B. G. Tilak was the first and direct political action of the Indian labour when Tilak urged for a mass movement against the colonial rule.
Thus Indian labour did participate in the freedom struggle of the country. In other words, economic movement of this time brought in its train a political weapon so as to give a Kick start to the country’s political independence.
Fourthly, basically trade unions during this period could be safely regarded as friendly societies. Nor did they experience any spontaneous growth in the sense that they were established when the need was felt. Deteriorating economic conditions and the state of industry could be the other reasons for the formation of an association. Once the purpose was over, it went into extinction.
Fifthly, one of the negative traits of the trade union movement of this period was the blending of politics with religion. As political philosophy was largely based upon religious beliefs, in the ultimate analysis, religion nurtured working classes—thereby vitiating class consciousness of the workers. However, Sunil Sen. in his posthumously published book Working Class Movements in India, 1885-1975 defended that the Indian trade unions played an important role in diffusing communal tension.
Finally, the trade unions concentrated their attention mainly among the educated white-collared workers such as printers, clerks, railway staff, etc. Its progress in the realm of organised industries like textiles, mining, plantations, etc., was utterly insignificant.
Growth of India’s Trade Union Movement Phase # 2. The Second Phase: Birth of A Trade Union (1918-24):
A chain of events encouraged the formation of an organised trade union after the World War I. The most important among them was the economic one. Grave economic miseries experienced by the Indian working class by way of price rise, low wages, long hours of work, and other exploitative measures in totally contrasting background of fabulous profits earned by both foreign and Indian employers brought untold misery to them. This found expression in industrial unrest and agitation and out of the agitation and protest was born the trade union movement in India.
Secondly, the explosive political situation of the country against the British imperialists following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Rowlett Act, imprisonment of national leaders brought political awakening of the working classes.
Thirdly, trade union movement in India was visibly influenced by the Russian November Revolution. The Marxian revolutionary theory and the messages of Lenin electrified the working classes all over the world who realised that a workers’ and peasants’ State was a goal within their reach. Such world- shaking event and Marxian doctrines invigorated Indian working classes to launch movement afresh.
Fourthly, world-wide uprising of labour consciousness and the consequent establishment of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1921 lent a new status to the working class. As a result of the interplay of these forces, Indian trade union movement ascended from mutual aid societies to that of active organised trade unionism. This is not a mean achievement.
The starting point of Indian trade union movement is traced to the foundation of Madras Labour Union in 1918 among the textile workers of Madras led by B. P. Wadia. The immediate cause of starting this union was the humanitarian feeling rather than the ideological underpinnings. Wadia—a political man as well as an associate of Annie Besant—was brought into the labour front to carry the political movement to the factories, particularly European-managed factories like Buckingham and Karnatic Mills.
The Madras Labour Union acted both as a social welfare centre and as a military organisation of industrial workers, of course, a relatively weaker centre of Indian labour movement. Though the formation of this union heralded the birth of a modern trade union in India, it indicated more of its personal and occidental character rather than a natural consequence in the course of general labour movement of India as a whole.
During 1918-1921, several organised labour unions sprouted throughout the country’s industrial centres. Robust unions were formed in shipping, railways, communications, textile and engineering. The discussion on Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association founded in 1918 by Gandhiji deserves special attention as it reflected the Gandhian thought on labour problems.
Gandhian philosophy desists workers and peasants from taking militant class struggle against the capitalists and landlords. Trade unions aim at promoting class peace and class collaboration in the background of existing social framework of the country. This Gandhian thought, however, left an indelible mark on the history of Indian labour movement. Sukomal Sen. believes that the Gandhian ideology adversely affected “the militancy of working-class movement at least in some parts of the country, if not of the whole”.
However, the years 1918-1921 saw a rapid extension of the movement. Of course, some ephemeral as well as spurious unions came into existence in the background of personal interests, yet some bona-fide unions appeared. Indian working class now started realising the necessity of concerted and united action having an all-pervasive character of organisational activity.
It has been estimated that there existed 125 unions with a total membership of 25,000. These unions were more active in the industrially advanced provinces of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras as membership in these provinces was roughly 80 p.c. This reinvigorated trade union activity sounded alarm bell to the imperialist government who deemed it as sedition. Government displayed its wisdom and ingenuity in curbing trade union activities. Above all, during these years, trade union movement was beset with various legal disabilities.
There had been no legal backing of trade union activities. This is evidenced from the fact that the union office bearers were liable to be sued in civil courts and even might be liable for criminal prosecution in the event of stoppage of works and other trade union activities. Because of the absence of any legislation safeguarding trade union activities, labour movement in this country was always under constant threat.
The classic example in this case was a suit filed by Messrs Binny and Company in the Madras High Court in 1920 against the office-bearers of the Madras Labour Union. The Court declared the trade union activity as an illegal conspiracy.
Of course, this judgement did not augur well for the labour movement of this country. It also gave a serious jolt to the trade unionists of England. Deputations were organised there by the British Trade Union Congress and the British Labour Party to impress upon the Secretary of State for India the necessity of legal protection to Indian trade unions.
During this time, workers spent their time and energy towards securing legal recognition. In 1921, N. M. Joshi, the veteran trade union leader, fought for legal protection of the trade union, in the Indian Assembly. And the movement had to wait till March 1926 when the Trade Union Act was passed. The Act defined the legal position of trade unions in definite and precise terms.
Foundation of the AITUC:
The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)—the first organisation of the Indian working class at national level—was born on 31th October 1920 under the president-ship of Lala Lajpat Rai. It was formed with a view to coordinate the activities of all the labour organisations in all the trades and in all the provinces of India and, generally, to further the interest of Indian labour matters relating to economic, political, and social issues.
In its early years, the AITUC was a “top” organisation and most of the leaders were “outsiders” in the sense that they had very faint connection with the proletariat classes. When the radicals as well as the communist intelligentsia came in at the helm of affairs of the AITUC, its object was modified by adding to it the aims of overthrowing of capitalism and plantation of socialism and the continuation of the struggle against imperialist domination.
In different sessions of the AITUC, leaders like C. R. Das, V. V. Giri and others as the Presidents of the AITUC, between 1924 and 1926, emphasised the principles of class-peace, moral and social improvement of workers. They also voiced demands for labour legislation to safeguard the interests of working classes and welfare provisions of the labouring classes.
“In a sense the trade unions were expected to function in the capacity of welfare associations but this cannot be called the differentia specific of the trade unions; which are, specially in the formative stage of capitalism, a weapon in the hands of the working class for forging class unity and launching mass action—strikes.” One of the distinguishing characteristics of the AITUC was that an exogenous leadership came from the middle class people. Anyway, by 1927, the AITUC had 57 affiliated unions with a membership of 1,50,555.
Growth of India’s Trade Union Movement Phase # 3. The Third Phase: Presence of Marxian Thought—Left-Wing Unionism (1924-34):
The subsequent history of the AITUC is “a history of relentless ideological conflicts bringing about alternately division and reunification a number of times” since the bogey of Marxism stood poised for a firm foundation in tandem with national bourgeoisie outlook of nationalists. As soon as the Marxian thought hit the Indian shore, Marxist groups appeared. Indian labour world too felt the presence of left-wing elements or the communists who aspired on revolutionizing the labour movement.
Now the country’s trade union movement saw two distinct groups—one group represented by the ‘rightists’ (or ‘Geneva-Amsterdam Group’) and the other group headed by the ‘leftists’ or ‘Moscovites’. This brought political rivalry and animosity—thereby putting a brake on India’s labour movement. In the words of V. V. Giri “…the rival leadership confused and this resulted in the failure of many strikes” and the “employers took full advantage of the differences among the leadership”.
Several trade union groups came to the forefront during this time. The moderate group headed by N. M. Joshi wanted the labour movement to develop independently of the political movement for national liberation. Joshi and his camp-followers believed in industrial action only and that too of a continuous character. They wanted trade unions to be concerned more with the betterment of workers’ conditions.
The other group was more militant. This group believed in political action as the initiative in this group wrested into the hands of communists and near-communists. In addition, there was a third group represented by Lala Lajpat Rai who and his supporters wanted the working class to develop its own political thinking and organisation.
Another strand of thinking aimed at developing a bonhomie relationship between the Indian National Congress with its all-India political following and the labour movement. Thus several lines of thinking shaped the future destiny of the AITUC—the first central organisation of labour.
Of course, split in the labour movement was feared because of these internal conflicts. But, at the same time, one must not lose sight of the fact that the Government took note of the growing communist movement in the country with a jaundiced eye, though the movement was weak and sporadic. To curb this communist infiltration in the Indian labour movement, repressive measures like the arrest of top active communist leaders, the Kanpur Conspiracy Case against the union leaders, etc., were put into action.
However, repressive measures were coupled with ameliorative measures through which the Government wanted to pacify the working class. One such measure was the passing of the Trade Union Act, 1926, which gave legal status to the workers’ organisations. But neither repression nor any pro-labour measures failed to check the advance of leftist awakening.
On the contrary, a number of labour unions with communist leanings sprang up. For instance, by 1926-27, Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties were formed initially in Bengal with the aim of uniting the militant elements in the working class movement with the Congress left. However, Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties formed in other provinces were united in the fold of All India Workers’ and Peasants’ Party in 1928.
Under the communist influence, the first of May (May Day) 1927, was celebrated as Labour Day in Bombay—the first-ever observation of May Day in India. Some communists and socialist labour leaders formed one of the best organised trade unions like the Girni Kamgar (Red Flag) Union (1928) of Bombay textile workers and the GIP Railway Union.
The period 1928-30 was full of industrial disputes and strikes and intense industrial unrest within the ranks of Indian labour. In the midst of power- grabbing between the two groups, the two wings of the trade union movement should have created a common platform for united work. Unfortunately, the Nagpur session of the AITUC in 1929 displayed the trial of strength between the leftists and the rightists (or the moderates or reformists).
The Minority group or the so-called reformists in the trade union movement, led by N. M. Joshi seceded from the parent body and formed a new organisation—the All India Trade Union Federation. On the other hand, the communists, together with the radicals or the so-called militant section of the country’s nationalists, captured the AITUC.
However, the ideologies of these two sections were palpably at variance and the marriage between the communists and ultra-nationalists ultimately broke up in 1931 in the Calcutta session of the AITUC. The result was the formation of the All India Red Trade Union Congress by the communists under the leadership of S. V. Deshpande and B. T. Randive on the question of the independent political role of the working class.
This second split of the AITUC had a dampening effect on the trade union movement. But the number of strikes organised by the All India Red Trade Union Congress headed by the communists increased during 1933-34 thereby denying any economic benefits to workers derived from strikes.
Thus, after these splits, Indian trade union movements stood divided into three national centres reflecting highest type of disunity and cleavage in organisation:
(i) The AIRTUC represented by the communists;
(ii) The original AITUC controlled by the non-communist radicals; and
(iii) The AITUF headed by the ‘moderates’ and the ‘rightists’.
Role of the Government towards the Movement:
It thus transpires that leaders were fighting among themselves without caring for organisational unity. Taking advantage of this disunity, the British Government viewed trade unions as an organisation of ‘subversive’ elements. The Government, bent on disrupting the trade union movement in this country, introduced the Trade Disputes Bill. The Bill was opposed tooth and nail by the labour leaders. But it became an Act in 1929. Not content with this Bill, the Government aimed at introducing Public Safety Bill in 1928, but that went in vain.
However, the protagonists of the Bill raised the bogey of ‘Communist Menace’ in the country. The Bill was slated for second debate in March 1929. As is well known, Indian labour movement in the early 1920s drew its inspiration from the Communist International. During this time, the Red International of Labour Unions, Moscow, trained Indian youths in labour movement at Tashkent and Moscow Universities. Imbibed by the communist ideology, young communists, after their return to the country, gave a militant shape to the labour movement.
Alarmed by this communist penetration, the imperialist Government attempted to nip the movement in the bud and instituted ‘Cawnpore Communist Conspiracy Case’, 1924. In the infamous Cawnpore Trial, leaders like Muzaffar Ahmed, S. A Dange and others were charged with conspiracy of propagating Bolshevism in India as Well as to overthrow the sovereignty of the King Emperor over British India by means of an organised violent revolution. These leaders were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
Undaunted by this high-handedness, the communists marched ahead and the labour movement of this country witnessed growing communist influence. As the communist influence became strong, the Government had to strike again against the organised labour movement in 1929. The Government arrested 31 choicest trade union leaders (including some British nationals) for ‘one of the longest and costliest trials of the world’, known as the Meerut Trial.
The main motive behind this trial was the crushing of labour upsurge in the country and in particular the impending general strike called by the Bombay textile workers. In addition, the trial intended to deter the European working class movement from giving any help to the Indian counterpart.
Last but not the least, the trial had the purpose of demonstrating to the ‘moderates’ the dangers of communism and, hence, to bring about a cleavage in the trade union movement. This historic trial was conducted on a gigantic scale involving a fabulous amount of cost of nearly £ 160,000 and lasted for nearly four and a half years. But what did the Government really gain from this scandalous trial?
Firstly, the trial of Indians and British citizens on the same charge exemplified a living unity and international fraternity among the working classes.
Secondly, the trial could be described as a platform for ideological propagation of Marxism. In fact, the British propaganda against socialism boomeranged as an unprecedented interest grew up in the minds of the Indian working classes.
Thirdly, “the Government’s attempt to create a gulf between the nascent left and the nationalist wings of the freedom movement resulted into a broad anti-imperialist front—this is all the more creditable in view of the narrow and doctrinaire attitude of the left to the national movement”.
Fourthly, the British Government expected faintest publicity of the Meerut Trial in view of the obscurity and security the town Meerut provided. But this nerve-wrecking trial created a great furore in the international arena. Scornful protests were raised by such international celebrities as Albert Einstein, Romain Rolland, H. G. Wells, the Archbishop of York, and Harold Laski.
This caricature of the alien Government had been succinctly summed up by the National Joint Council of the British Trades Union Congress and Labour Party after the trial was over. The cryptic wordings were: “the whole of the proceedings from beginning to end are utterly indefensible and constitute something in the nature of a judicial scandal.
Anyway, this period was marked by disunity and splits as well as imperial onslaughts. But, at the same time, Marxian ideology spread its wings on the labour front during this period. This left-awakening in this country stirred up foreign labour organisation and labour leaders of international stature to help the Indian labour movement.
Perturbed over this growing bogey of “Communist Menace”, the Government launched an offensive against this by declaring the Indian Communist Party illegal on 23 July 1934. This made more than a dozen registered trade unions illegal. The labour movement of the country went haywire. Its spirits were shattered. Its leaders were thrown into prisons. Its ranks and files were utterly divided.
Growth of India’s Trade Union Movement Phase # 4. The Fourth Phase (1935-1947):
The trade union movement in this country in the early 1930s came at a low ebb when disunity and dissensions rose to a great height. Taking an advantage of this situation, employers launched a brutal offensive throughout the country against the working class organisations.
Imperialist government also spared no efforts to put a halt to the labour movement, particularly the communist infiltration on the Indian soil. During this period, the British Government’s game plan consisted of (i) repression, (ii) legislation, and (iii) commission.
Arrest and repression of national labour leaders made them realise the utter futility of disunity. And, consequently, efforts for restoration of unity in trade union movement were brought to the force. Thus the period 1935-36 was marked by unity movement and the sharpening of the trade union struggles.
With the communist influence thus waning, the Red Trade Union Congress (RTUC) was dissolved and merged with the AITUC in 1935. During this time (1934) the Congress Socialist Party was floated. This socialist group within the Indian National Congress also joined the AITUC in 1935. The reunited AITUC appealed to the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) to forge unity.
The final unification was achieved in April 1938 when certain conditions laid down by the Joshi group were accepted by the leaders of the AITUC. These two organisations thus combined together but with some identifiable entities. The full merger became a reality in 1940 when the NTUF dissolved itself. By 1940, the total number of registered trade unions affiliated to the AITUC came to 191. It claimed a membership of 354,541.
Meanwhile, the Second World War broke out on 3rd September 1939 when some fresh opportunities for the movement to grow came up. The War saw a tremendous spurt in industrial activity as well as unprecedented rise in demand. Inflation and hyperinflation became so rampant that the workers’ real wages tumbled down speedily.
To compensate this loss, they demanded increase in wages and dearness allowance as well as sharing of profit through their labour organisations. But the Government as well as the employers was too belligerent to consider these genuine economic demands of the workers sympathetically.
The result was the formation of trade unions in all parts of the country, in all trades, and in all industries. A series of general strikes swept over all the industrial towns of the country. Anyway, by 1940-41, the number of registered trade unions rose to 727 and their membership climbed to over 5 lakhs. Despite this progress, at least in terms of numbers and membership, the trade union movement as a whole experienced a big jolt during the Second World War. The reason behind this unhealthy movement was the inability to take a firm and clear cut attitude towards the war.
One group led by the Radical Democratic leader, M. N. Roy, advocated wholehearted and unconditional cooperation with the British Government on the issue of war. An Anti-Fascist Conference was held at the end of 1941 when the Indian Federation of Labour (IFL)—with M. N. Roy as Secretary and Jamnadas Mehta as resident—was formed.
Roy and his followers came out as accomplices of the British Government. With its policy of support to the war, the Government blessed IFL as a national centre of labour of representative character parallel to the AITUC. The IFL was given a monthly grant of Rs. 13,000 by the British Government for conducting propaganda in favour of the British Government.
In view of this development, V. B. Singh rightly says that this created a new chapter in the history of our country’s labour movement —the Government’s patronage and support to a trade union that implements the official political and economic objectives. As a result, the progress of the IFL was miraculous. At the time of its birth (1941), the IFL had only 100 affiliated unions with a total membership of 3 lakhs. By 1944, the number of affiliated unions as well as membership swelled to 222 and 4 lakhs, respectively.
At the other extreme were the communists who followed the political line of opposing the imperialist war and cooperated with the Congress Party in anti-war efforts. With the invasion of Soviet Russia by the Nazi Germany in June 1941 and Japan’s entry into the Second World War, a basic change in the character of the War was noticed. Communists who earlier labelled war as an ‘imperialist war’ now regarded it as ‘peoples war’.
As a result of this change in the character of the War, defection in the AITUC again became sharp in 1942. Since then, the AITUC came to be dominated by the communists. However, the nationalists maintained an anti-war stance. Rather, their attitude centred basically round Great Britain. But, in the changed situation of the war, following the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the nationalists sought cooperation with the warring Britain. Consequently, during the later years of the war, the AITUC as a whole maintained official neutrality.
What emerges from this discussion is that the working-class unity, built so laboriously, thus crumbled, and the labouring classes saw humiliating splits in their organisations. Each group—now controlling a union, or a set of unions—followed and implemented its own strategies and policies. The post-war economic condition spelt disaster to the working classes since the problems of retrenchment and rising prices assumed a gigantic proportion.
This gave a strong fillip to the Indian working classes for further unionization. The number of registered trade unions rose from 865 with a membership of about 9 lakhs in 1945 to 3,000 with a membership of about 16.6 lakhs in 1947-48. Another concomitant feature of the post-war period was the industrial unrest following hard economic conditions. Industrial unrest led to work stoppages on a mass scale. Anyway, this phenomenal growth of the labour movement was also marked by “disunity in the trade union ranks” which defeated the very purpose of the movement.
It is a known fact that the AITUC has always been dominated by the communists. This domination created a riddle in the minds of the nationalist trade union leaders. Dissatisfied and disgusted with the communist leanings in the AITUC, nationalist trade union leaders were in real dilemma: Should they desert the AITUC and form their own labour organisation? They thought that if they dissociate themselves from the AITUC and build up their own organisation, they would be charged with injecting politics into the trade union movement.
On the other hand, if they stayed with the AITUC dominated by the communist group, they would have to swallow the ‘leftist misadventures’ against their wishes. This dilemma ultimately brought a cleavage in the AITUC after independence when the congress leadership decided to form a separate labour organisation strictly under their own political and ideological control. The Congress activists working in trade unions had a separate but small organisation known as the Hind Mazdoor Sewak Sangh.
Vallabbhai Patel, President of the Hind Mazdoor Sewak Sangh, started the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) on 3rd May 1947 “based on Gandhian ideology of class collaboration”. He called upon the unions under its influence to disaffiliate themselves from the AITUC and join the new organisation opposed to the communist ideology.
In 1948, after its secession from the Indian National Congress, the Socialist Party leaders felt that to serve the best interests of the workers they should have their own trade union wing. This led to the formation of the Hindi Mazdoor Panchayat which, after its amalgamation with the Indian Federation of Labour, resulted in the formation of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS).
Again, in April 1949, some secedes from the AITUC who could not agree with the principles and objectives of the HMS sponsored the formation of a new labour organisation—the United Trade Union Congress (UTUC).
Thus, at the beginning of 1950, there were four central federations of labour unions : the AITUC headed by the communists, the INTUC of the Congress Party, the HMS of the Praja Socialist Party, and the UTUC under the influence of the RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party). Thus labour organisations in this country have had political fervour. In addition, white-collar trade unionism without any political affiliation was organised in the post-war period.
The important ones are the Indian Federation of Working Journalists, the All-India Reserve Bank Employees’ Association, the All-India Railway men’s Federation, and so on. The leadership of these organisations was mostly “indigenous”. As these unions were not affiliated with any of the central federations, these unions sought cooperation from all the political parties and organisations when the situation demanded.