The actions of the working class in the first phase (1850s till 1918] were sporadic and unorganised in nature and hence were mostly ineffective.
In this phase, some philanthropists in the 1880’s sought to improve working conditions by urging the British authorities in India to introduce legislations for improving its condition.
S. S. Bengalee in Bombay, Sasipada Banerjee in Bengal and Narayan Lokhandya in Maharashtra were prominent among them.
Worker’s Movements Prior to the Emergence of Trade Unions in India :
Labour Movements and protest preceded the emergence of Trade Unions in India. They basically protested against low wages, long working hours, inhuman conditions of work and several other issues.
Although the plantations and mines contained a large number of workers who were exploited, their conditions did not attract much attention in the initial period because they were far from the urban areas, away from the notice of early social reformers, journalists and public activists.
But, despite this isolation, the plantation workers, on their own, registered their protests against the exploitation and oppression by the plantation owners and managers.
Reports of such resistance are available since 1884. Individual and collective abstention from work and abandonment of the tea gardens were forms of passive resistance by the workers.
More active forms of protests were expressed in individual and collective violence against the assaults by the plantation authorities. All these protests were severely repressed by the planters’ musclemen with the help of the colonial police.
The workers in the cotton and jute industries and in the railways, on the other hand, were more in the public gaze.
The early social workers and philanthropists were also involved with them. This facilitated better organizational work as well as better reporting and public support.
Records of open resistance are available since the 1870s in Bombay. In 1884, the Bombay Cotton Mill Workers held a big meeting and submitted their demands to the government for lesser hours of work.
There were also reports of strikes among the mill workers. By the 1890s, the strikes became so frequent that the authorities spoke about a ‘Strike Mania’ among the workers.
These strikes and protests increasingly began to involve more and more workers. The increasing duration of strikes and involvement of larger number of workers forced the Bombay Millowners’ Association to refer to the existence of a ‘Labour Movement’ in this country in 1913.
The increasing intensity and frequency of strikes on wages and other issues created a situation where it was possible to combine at a wider level.
The rising prices, declining real wages, and shortage of foodstuffs during the First World War created the situation for a larger action and it resulted in the general strike in 1919, involving all Cotton Textile Mills in Bombay.
There was another general strike in 1920 on the issue of wages and bonus. These took place before the existence of any trade unions in the Bombay Mills.
In other industrial centres like Calcutta, Ahmadabad, Kanpur, Madras, Nagpur and Surat the situation was almost similar.
The workers were slowly learning to protest and combine for the redress of their grievances. These combinations were increasingly growing bigger involving larger number of workers.
The War years, which allowed the industrialists to make huge profits while the workers’ real wages declined, made the workers extremely dissatisfied with their conditions and, therefore, created the atmosphere for a broader unity leading to bigger strikes in many industrial centres.
Strike waves spread in other places and engulfed non-factory concerns like railways, plantations, mines, ports and docks, engineering workshops, oil installations, government mint and presses, tramways, gas and electricity supply undertakings and even the municipal workers.