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Emergence of trade unions in India and their development and growth

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For the first time in India, there was a regular membership and the members were to contribute one anna as monthly subscription.

Around the same time, labour agitation had started in Ahmedabad where the workers were agitating for a bonus to compensate for the rise in prices.

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Gandhiji stood by the workers’ side and demanded that the workers should be given 35 per cent bonus.

On the refusal of the millowners, he called for a strike and insisted that the principle of arbitration should be accepted.

He also went on a fast to persuade the millowners. Finally, the millowners accepted arbitration and as a compromise, the arbitrator recommended 27.5 per cent increase in wages.

On the basis of this struggle and on the principle of arbitration, the Textile Labour Association, also known as Majur Mahajan, was established in Ahmedabad in 1920. This union worked along Gandhian lines and became very strong over the years.

The Trade Union Movement now picked up momentum and many more unions were formed in many centres. By 1920, according to an estimate there were 125 Unions consisting of 250,000 members.

As far as, the durability and consistency of these unions are concerned we find that most of them were very temporary in nature and were little more than strike committees.

All this provided impetus for the formation of trade union at national level and subsequently, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed in 1920. Lala Lajpat Rai became the first president of the AITUC and Joseph Baptista its vice-president.

The AITUC received a lot of support from the Indian National Congress. There were about 107 Unions which were affiliated or sympathetic to the AITUC. It continued to grow until it split in 1929.

In the aftermath of the First World War, there were numerous strikes by the workers all over India under the guidance of trade unions in the advanced industrial centres like Bombay, Calcutta, Kanpur, Ahmedabad, and Madras.

The main industries where these unions were formed were cotton and jute textiles, railways, shipping, iron and steel and post and telegraphs.

In political terms, the most important phenomenon in the field of labour movement in India was the emergence of the Communists.

Soon after the formation of the CPI in 1920, the Communists became active in the Labour Movements.

The Communists organized the workers in cotton mills of Bombay and jute mills of Calcutta, besides many other industries and led militant struggles.

Due to their commitment to the cause of labour and their devotion to the organizational work, they were soon able to organize many new unions and gained ascendancy in the old ones.

By 1928-29, they were able to gain a marginal majority in the AITUC. In the tenth session of the AITUC held in Nagpur and presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Communists were able to pass resolutions calling for the boycott of the Royal Commission on Labour, demanding dissociation from the ILO and association with the League against Imperialism.

The Moderate and Reformist group, led by N.M.Joshi, Dewan Chaman Lai, V.V.Giri and B.Shiva Rao, was unable to digest these moves, and left the AITUC and formed the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

Another split in AITUC occurred in 1931, due to divergence between the Nationalist and Communist opinions.

The Communists severely criticized Gandhi and condemned the Round Table Conference in which the Congress was participating.

They wanted to pass a resolution to this effect. Unable to secure a majority for this, they walked out and formed another federation of trade unions, called the Red Trade Union Congress (RTUC).

Thus, by 1931, there were three national federations of trade unions – the AITUC, the IFTU and the RTUC.

It was felt by many trade union leaders that the division in their ranks was creating problems for their political and economic struggles. Therefore, there were attempts for unity immediately after the splits.

As a beginning, the Railway unions and some unaffiliated unions united with the IFTU to form the National Federation of Trade Unions (NFTU) in 1933. At another level also there was a move towards unity.

The Red Trade Union Congress, led by the communists and the AITUC, led by radical nationalists, were coming closer. They united in 1935 and the name AITUC was retained for the unified organization.

There was a strong desire for unity among the ranks of the Trade Unions. It was due to the intensified nationalist and anti-imperialist consciousness.

To achieve unity among the anti-imperialist forces, both the AITUC and NFTU were making intense efforts.

The unity was achieved in 1940 when the NFTU merged with the AITUC and N.M.Joshi of the NFTU became its General Secretary.

As soon as, the unity was achieved, the division resurfaced in the organization owing to the varying politics of the trade union leaders.

The Second World War created this rift. Some of the trade union leaders led by M.N.Roy believed that the fascist countries were the main enemies and the democratic countries should be supported against them.

But the majority of the trade union leaders comprising the nationalists and communists in the initial stages, while agreeing with this opinion in principle, decided to remain neutral because Britain, which was in control of India, was not willing to promise independence to this country.

The Roy Group broke from the AITUC in July 1941 and decided to support the British Indian Government in its War efforts by not sponsoring strikes and by trying to convince the workers to raise productivity.

The Group set up the Indian Federation of Labour (IFL] and continued its active support to government’s War efforts, while the AITUC maintained the stance of neutrality.

In the post-war period, when the contours of a national government were becoming apparent, the political rivalry within the Trade Unions became even more acute.

The Congress tried to influence the AITUC and its unions to work along Gandhian lines and in support of the Congress.

But by then the Communist influence had grown very strong. The Congress, therefore, founded Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) in May 1947.

In 1948, the unions under the influence of the Congress Socialists came out of the AITUC and formed the Hind Mazdoor Panchayat (HMP).

In 1949, another organization called United Trade Union Congress was formed under the famous trade union leader, Mrinal Kanti Bose.

In 1949, the HMP and the IFL united to found the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS). Thus, in 1949, there were four central trade union federations-the AITUC, the INTUC, the HMS and the UTUC.

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