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History And Development Of Trade Union In India

  • A trade union, as defined by the Trade Unions Act of 1926 (previously known as the Indian Trade Unions Act), is a collective body formed with the primary purpose of regulating relations between workers and employers, or between workers themselves, or between employers. This definition also covers any federation of two or more trade unions. These associations of wage-earners are established with the main aim of improving and maintaining the conditions of their work lives.
  • Trade unions have become an essential part of the modern industrial system in many countries, including India. They operate within the framework of the constitution and adhere to globally accepted principles established by organizations like the International Labour Organization (ILO).

History and Development of Labour Unions in India:

  • The emergence of trade unions was a response to the need of the time. They were formed to protect and secure the interests of the industrial worker and to present their collective demands and grievances. This became particularly necessary from the second half of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of industries.
  • The first trade union in India was formed in Bombay after the establishment of textile mills in the 1850s, followed by the formation of trade unions in Calcutta in 1854 with the establishment of Jute Mills.
  • The first factory commission set up in 1879 studied the problems of industrial workers. The first trade union under the leadership of Narayan Meghji Lokhande, the 'Bombay Millhands Association', was founded in 1884.
  • In 1891, The Indian factory Act was passed. Some other notable Trade unions include the Ahmedabad Weavers (1895), Jute Mills, Calcutta (1896), and Bombay Mill workers (1897) Union.

Characteristics of Early Trade Unions and Their Leadership:

  • Early trade union leaders were Social Reformers and Nationalists with political inclinations.
  • Their approaches were welfare-centric, focusing more on the rights of the workers.
  • These unions had a limited presence, mainly in the regions of industrial hubs, and were absent across the country.
  • Since the movement was in its nascent stage, it was difficult to identify concerted goals or long-term targets.

The First Organised Trade Union Era

  • The first organized Trade Union in India, the Madras Labour Union, was established in 1918.
  • The first world war, increased communication, and better awareness of global players contributed to the development of the trade union movement.
  • Some important Unions were the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (1917), All India Postal and RMS Association.
  • The All-India Trade Union Congress, the oldest trade union federation, was founded in 1920, under the leadership of Lala Lajpat Rai, Joseph Baptista, N.M Joshi, and Diwan Chaman Lall.

Early Origins and Colonial Context:

  • Trade unionism in India has roots dating back to the late 19th century when industrialization began to take hold during British colonial rule. The exploitation of labor in factories and industries, coupled with poor working conditions, led to the emergence of nascent workers' movements.
  • The Bombay Mill Hands Association (1890): The Bombay Mill Hands Association, formed in 1890, is often considered one of the first organized efforts to protect the rights of workers in India. It laid the foundation for subsequent trade union activities.
  • The All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC): The All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was established in 1920 in Bombay (now Mumbai) as a response to the exploitation faced by industrial workers. Notably, Lala Lajpat Rai, Joseph Baptista, and N. M. Joshi were instrumental in its formation.

Interwar Period and Influence of Nationalist Movements:

  • The period between the two World Wars witnessed a growth in trade union activities, influenced by nationalist sentiments and the struggle for independence.
  • AITUC and Indian National Congress: The AITUC, aligned with socialist and communist ideologies, gained prominence. The Indian National Congress, the principal political party during the independence movement, had a significant influence on the labour movement.

Trade Union Legislation in British India:

  • The British colonial administration responded to growing labour unrest by introducing limited legislative measures. The Trade Union Act of 1926 marked a significant step in recognizing the legal status of trade unions.
 Factors That Helped the Growth of the Trade Union Movement:
  • The high cost of basic commodities and difficult living conditions, especially as a result of the war, affected workers and fueled the growth of the movement.
  • The emergence of the Home Rule League, Gandhian ideals, and leadership, and prevailing conditions prompted leaders of the day to work to address workers' plight.
  • Events at the end of the First World War, the establishment of the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the Russian Revolution also contributed to the growth of the movement.
Post-1925 Era:
  • This era saw an increase in militancy and revolutionary activities among trade unions.
  • Leadership emerged to moderate the movement and bring it back to the mainstream.
  • The All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) broke away, forming factions � National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and All India Red Trade Union Congress (AIRTUC), which later merged again.
  • Legislative measures such as the Trade Unions Act, 1926, and the Trade Disputes Act, 1929, propelled the growth of trade union associations, allowing rights in exchange for obligation.

Post-1935 Era:

  • This era witnessed enhanced unity among different trade unions.
  • The political influence of the Indian National Congress across different states led to the growth and emergence of multiple organizations in the trade union sphere.
  • Legislative measures were adopted to confer power and recognition to different trade unions.
  • The government strived to promote industry while protecting the interest of the workers.
  • This era is also marked by resentment among unions for the suppression of their protests by the state machinery, instead of reconciliation and workable resolution.

Post-Independence Era (1947 Onward):

  • The post-independence period saw the consolidation of labour laws and the establishment of institutions to regulate industrial relations.

Constitutional Provisions:

  • The Constitution of India, adopted in 1950, included several provisions safeguarding workers' rights. Article 19(1)(c) recognized the right to form associations, including trade unions, as a fundamental right.

Industrial Disputes Act (1947):

  • The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 was a landmark legislation providing a legal framework for the resolution of industrial disputes. It addressed issues such as strikes, lockouts, and the process of dispute resolution.

Labor Policy and Planning:

  • The post-independence period witnessed the formulation of comprehensive labour policies and plans to promote social justice, job security, and workers' welfare.

Role of Trade Unions in the Economic Policies of the 1950s and 1960s:

  • Five-Year Plans and Workers' Participation: The Five-Year Plans initiated by the Indian government aimed at economic development and industrialization. During this period, there was an emphasis on workers' participation in management.
  • Emergence of New Unions: The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of new unions, often with affiliations to political parties or ideologies. Leaders like George Fernandes, representing the Bombay Industrial Union, became prominent figures in the labour movement.

Turbulence in the 1970s and 1980s:

  • The 1970s and 1980s were marked by significant labour unrest, strikes, and the politicization of trade unions.

The Emergency Period Post (1975-1977):

  • The imposition of Emergency (1975-1977) saw restrictions on civil liberties, including trade union activities. Many trade union leaders were arrested, and there was a clampdown on dissent.

Maruti Strike (1980):

  • The Maruti Strike of 1980, led by workers at the Maruti Suzuki plant in Gurgaon, was a notable event highlighting issues of worker rights, wages, and management-worker relations.

Liberalization and Legal Reforms (1990s Onward):

  • The economic reforms of the 1990s, liberalizing the Indian economy, brought about changes in industrial dynamics, impacting the labour movement.

Impact of Economic Reforms:

  • Privatization, globalization, and economic liberalization led to changes in the industrial landscape, impacting job security, labour relations, and the nature of employment.

Trade Union Fragmentation:

  • The trade union movement became more fragmented as new unions, often industry-specific or regional, emerged. This fragmentation sometimes resulted in a lack of cohesive representation for workers.

World War II and a New Era in the Labour Movement:
  • The World War II further deteriorated the standard of living, coupled with skyrocketing inflation of common commodities.
  • The war affected the common populace very adversely, which made the movement come out stronger.
  • The introduction of the Industrial Employment Act, 1946, and the Bombay Industrial Relations Act, 1946, marked the emergence and further strengthening of the trade union movements.
  • The movements also lent their voice to the national struggle and identified themselves as a crucial player in the national struggle.
Independence Era:
  • In the Independence era, trade unions were more influenced by regional or national political affiliations, thereby blurring their own position with respect to the primary concerns of the workers.
  • The Indian National Trade Union Congress was formed in 1947.
  • Post-liberalization, the influence of trade unions has somewhat attenuated, coupled with the privatization of the economy.
  • Labour code and minimum wage are still some demands remaining as contentious issues to be addressed.
  • The Hind Mazdoor Sabha was formed in 1948, and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh was founded in 1955.
  • The increase in the unorganised sectors of the Economy due to various reasons has led to an increase in the membership base of the unions.

Challenges Faced by Trade Unions in the Post-Independence Era
  • With concentration in large cities and dominated by organized sectors, rural agricultural labour is left out and not adequately given space.
  • Although the unions have registered growth in membership, large numbers of labourers are not part of the groups, thereby weakening their collective bargain potential.
  • Dwindling support base among the public post-liberalization.
  • Weak organizational structure and lack of clarity to deal with different labour groups.
  • Political ambitions and priorities of the leadership have trumped the concerns and interests of the labourers, further weakening the bargaining power.
  • Weakening of bargaining power due to similar fractions and easy influence by groups with a counter-narrative, driving a wedge among labour unions unity.
  • Lack of unity among labour unions, and resultant competitions for better share, which further puts them in disadvantage to put forth their demands.
  • The question of recognition of the unions, where a favourable group may be given priority, sidelining the genuine or major groups.
Importance of Labour Unions in the Post-Liberalization Era
  • Trade unions play an essential role in safeguarding the collective interest of the labourers, drawing a fine balance with the investor's interests.
  • They play a crucial role in ensuring the adoption of ethical business practices.
  • Trade unions are instrumental in garnering and mobilizing support for the interests of the labour class.
  • They help in strengthening the collective bargain capacity of the labour class.
 Legal Framework for Trade Unions:
  • Trade Union Act (1926):
    The Trade Union Act of 1926, enacted during British rule, provided the legal framework for the recognition and registration of trade unions.
  • Industrial Disputes Act (1947):
    The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 laid down procedures for the resolution of industrial disputes, emphasizing conciliation, arbitration, and adjudication.
  • Labor Laws and Regulations:
    Various labour laws and regulations govern trade unions in India, addressing issues such as working hours, conditions of service, wages, and social security.

Contemporary Landscape (21st Century):
  • Globalization and Challenges: The 21st century brought new challenges, including the impact of globalization and technological advancements on employment. Trade unions had to adapt their strategies to address the needs of diverse and often precarious forms of employment.
  • Labor Code Reforms: The government of India has been working on consolidating and amending labour laws to simplify compliance and improve ease of doing business. The introduction of labour codes aims at streamlining various aspects of labour legislation.
  • Issues of Gender and Inclusion: Efforts to address gender-specific issues within the workplace and promote inclusivity have gained prominence. Women's participation in trade unions has increased.
  • Struggles and Protests: Workers and trade unions continue to engage in struggles and protests to protect their rights, demand fair wages, and resist changes perceived as detrimental to labour interests.
  • Recent Reforms: The Introduction of Labour Codes Labour is a subject in the Concurrent List of the Constitution of India. The government has recently proposed new labour codes, which aim to unify various bills and provisions. These codes are broadly categorized into four different areas, dealing with Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions, Social security, Industrial Relations, and Wages. These four labour codes will rationalize 44 central labour laws.
The history and development of trade unions in India reflect a complex interplay of social, economic, and political factors. From the early struggles against colonial exploitation to the challenges posed by globalization and technological changes in the 21st century, trade unions have been at the forefront of advocating for workers' rights.

Legal frameworks have evolved over time to address the changing needs of the labour force. The Trade Union Act of 1926 and the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, among other legislations, laid the foundation for recognizing and regulating trade unions in India. The constitutional provisions guaranteeing the right to form associations and the subsequent labour laws have played a crucial role in shaping the legal framework for trade unions.

As India continues to navigate the complexities of a globalized economy, the role of trade unions remains pivotal. They are not only defenders of workers' rights but also participants in shaping policies and ensuring that the labour force is an integral part of the nation's development.

The legal perspective provides the necessary framework for the functioning of trade unions, balancing the interests of workers, employers, and the overall socio-economic fabric of the country. The journey of trade unions in India is an ongoing saga, and their role is likely to remain indispensable in the years to come.

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