Historical Evolution of Trade Unions in India - Industrial Relations Management

History of trade Union Movement in India

Trade union as per Trade Union Act 1926 “Any combination formed primarily for the purpose of regulating the relations between workmen and employers or workmen and work manor employers and employers or for imposing restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade or business and includes any federation of two or more trade unions.”

From the above definition it is clear that Trade union is not just an association of the workmen of a factory or a trade or a business but also can be formed by officers and managers.
Trade union movement in India was started and led by philanthropists and social organizations and not by the workers.Bombay Presidency - by servants of India society Eastern India - by Brahma Samaj South India centered around Madras - by Theosophical Society

Evolution of Trade Unions in India

Trade union is a direct product of Industrialization and a very recent development. In India, the foundation of modern industry was laid between 1850 and 1870. Prior to that trade was confined to individuals and families like craftsmen and artisans. They had expertise and specialized skills which was inherited by their off springs. After Industrial revolution,these people started losing their individual identities and had to join factories to earn their livelihood and compete with mass production. There was a psychological dislocation as they were losing their identities.Indian trade union movement can be divided into three phases.

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.

Craft and General Union

Craft union: The earliest form of trade union, one whose membership is restricted to a particular category of skilled or craft workers, for instance, printers, carpenters and so on. Membership of craft unions is usually restricted to those who have completed the recognized qualification for the craft or skill in question, frequently an apprenticeship. Being closed unions (see below), craft unions may be quite small: for example, the National Union of Sheet Metal Workers of Ireland has 720 members as of January 1992, and the Cork Operative Butchers' Society 149 members at the same date

General union: A trade union which has no form of restriction on categories of worker who may join. There are no limits on the industrial or occupational area of recruitment. As such, general unions are open unions (see below), and tend to be fairly large. The largest general union in Ireland, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), has 190,500 members in the Republic of Ireland as of December 1992 and amounts to 43 per cent. of the Republic's total ICTU affiliated trade union membership. As some trade unions move away from their original areas of recruitment,so they may become more like general unions; for example, the British-based union EETPU (now amalgamated with the engineering union AEU to become AEEU) which was originally a craft union, has now moved into a number of other sectors and recruited many semiskilled workers, thus having become closer to a general union than a craft union. Similarly, the retail and distributive union IDATU has widened its areas of recruitment.

Union Shop: When the union acts as supplier of labor, once an employee is employed then he has to join the union. Here the union makes employment conditional on union membership.

Check Off: The check-off system is a practice where the management collects an employee’s union dues, as a wage deduction and gives a lump sum amount to the union. This is a facility that ensures totality of collection of union dues with no excuse for employees to a resist from paying for one reason or the other as it could happen in a voluntary system. Such a facility is provided only to a recognized union.

Distinction between Workers:

Based on the level and status of the employee for membership of the unions a distinction is being made. All shop floor workers are termed blue collar workers and all clerical or office staff, who does not work on the shop floor,are termed white collar workers. White collar workers are different from the blue collar workers on socio economic background, education, manner of speech, social customs and ideology. They are being paid monthly and enjoy longer holidays and various privileges as compared to blue collar workers. Nature of work clearly and significantly differentiates one from the other. In recent times white-collar unionism is expanding. Through the methods of agitation and litigation, white collar workers achieve the goals like better pay scales, more fringe benefits, internal promotion etc. A large membership, sound finance and internal leadership are a few strong points.

Trade Union Growth

In India the trade union remains as adhoc bodies or strike committees but as features of the industrial society. The various factors like political, economic historical and industrial have all helped the unions to get a legal status and represent the workers. However, the unions are handmaids of political parties. They joined with one or the other political parties as more adjuncts of the parties,instead of partnership based on equality and independence as in England. The Trade union rivalries also have become chapter in free India. Most of the viable unions are split into new unions having sympathies with political parties have permeated unions operating in different levels. But they have been able influence public policy, labor and industrial legislation. They have played an important role in involving suitable machinery for joint consultation in negotiate various issues between labour and management. Comparing other countries India has large number of trade unions for a single country.

Union Leadership

One of the most crucial factors in this sphere is the leadership that is provided. The leadership provides the direction and goals for a particular union. The leader’s task is to make the union effective, by improving the terms and conditions of employment of the worker and also by being concerned with the viability of the enterprise. The trade union organization based as it is, in many cases on individuals or the national federations and their ideologies, has not been able to evolve a professional cadre of leadership at the grass roots to the desired extent. In fact, quite often, a single union executive leader is responsible for running a large number of unions. “A survey of trade union leadership in Bombay in 1960 showed that one leader was president of 17 unions and secretary of two more.


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