History of Trade Unionism – Public Meeting by Forum for IT Employees

Sushmita

Forum for IT Employees(FITE) was formed in the aftermath of massive TCS lay-offs in late 2014-early 2015 and is made up of young workers working in IT companies. Besides job lay-offs, the group addresses various worker issues in IT industry including non-payment of salaries, biased appraisals etc. FITE has over one thousand members across India, of whom 250 are in Chennai. In an effort to promote unionization among IT workers, FITE organized a public meeting on the history of labour movement in India. Two speakers addressed the public: Comrade Vijayan, a veteran union leader in SPIC who has worked in Tuticorin, Chennai and Baroda, and Dr. V. Krishna Kumar, the President of Forum for Physiotherapists, Tamil Nadu.

According to Comrade Vijayan, the first industrial workers in England were migrants from villages who had been farmers or were in other occupations. They were uprooted and placed in new occupations in factories where they were now just individuals fighting for their rights. The working hours were long and they had no time for their family, the wages were low and housing was abysmal. In course of time workers realized that they were all facing the same issues. Their organizations gradually evolved from workers welfare committees and associations to trade unions. In response to their struggles, the English Government passed a series of laws called the Factory Acts which regulated the number of working hours, working conditions in factories and safety conditions .

In the 1850s, British systems of factory production were imported to India but not the protective laws, like the Factory Acts. In the nascent stage of labour struggle in India, labour issues were taken up by concerned. observers, like social reformers and journalists. Demands focused on working conditions for women and children. Workers started getting together to discuss issues in associations, clubs or sabhas. For example, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in India was one such society in 1897. The Madras and Calcutta Postal Unions were set up in 1907. These processes were similar to what happened in England.

Madras Labour Union, one of the first organized labour unions in India, was started by B.P.Wadia, a student of Annie Besant. The union launched a strike against abysmal working conditions in Binny Mills, Madras (aka Buckingham and Carnatic Mills). The workers went on a hunger strike, but the management did not budge. The workers were forced to go back to work. In 1921, there was another strike, which lasted for six months. The strike was finally broken up on caste grounds. After the strike ended, Binny Mills filed a case against B P Wadia. He was charged with inciting workers and causing the mills to lose money. The court ruled against Wadia and fined him Rs 71,000, which he could not pay. The court then ordered him to retire from public life.

The radicalism and outrage built up as a result of this strike led to the passage of the Indian Trade Union Act. Article 17 and 18 of the Act decriminalized trade unions. This Act gave workers the right to form a union. Specifically, a group consisting of a minimum of seven workers could register themselves as a Union. It is interesting to note that this law has still not been enforced in spirit. We see today in the case of IT workers, that people are still afraid of being associated to a union.

In the early stages of the independence movement (for example during the Binny mills strike), labour activism was connected to mainstream political parties (for example Congress). But this changed as India approached freedom in 1947. Mainstream politics started to adopt terms like ‘constructive criticism’ and ‘nation-building’ and distanced themselves from labour activism. For example, in February 1946, various units of the Royal Indian Navy went on strike. The ‘mutiny’ started as a complaint about substandard food on a vessel off the coast of Bombay, but it soon spread to other parts of the country. Sailors abroad a vessel off the coast of Karachi went on strike. Officers in Indian army and air force also refused to take orders. The Congress party and the Muslim League strongly criticized these actions.

The discussion after the talk was focussed on the practical challenges in building a union in current day workplace. The task of organizing labour has gotten much harder than it was before the 1990s. As an example, the Trade Union Act was amended in 2001 to require a minimum of 100 members for the registration of a trade union, instead of the 7 required by the Act of 1926. The speakers also discussed the difficulties of organizing in an industry (like IT) where no unions exist. Although some companies do not explicitly forbid union activities, most employees believe that they are not allowed to join a union. In a hostile environment like this, even if one is able to form a union in a company, the union will face challenges because of the absence of unions in rival companies. The presence of a union in a company may be used to tarnish the image of the company on the grounds that worker strikes could delay the products being delivered on time. In an environment where any worker organization is viewed suspiciously, the speakers recommended adopting tactful approaches. The goals of workers’ organizations can be presented as being in the interests of the management, as they address workers’ problems and thus increase efficiency. For example, a redressal mechanism for a biased reprisal given by an immediate supervisor might contribute to a better work environment overall. The speakers emphasized the importance of maintaining good personal relations with everybody in the workplace, as a lot of workers’ issues require solutions that involve complex interpersonal interactions. After all, the worker is not in conflict with the supervisor on a personal level. The conflict of interest arises because the capitalist mode of production assigns adversarial roles to the worker and supervisor.

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