By Amarjeet Kaur
All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the first Central Trade Union of India founded on October 31, 1920, in Mumbai with unions of various sectors from all over the country is entering into its centenary year on October 31, 2019.
The year-long centenary celebrations with variety of programmes are to begin with the first meeting to be held in Mumbai on October 31, this year. Let us look into the circumstances which led to the formation of this historic organization of workers.
The beginning of the labour upsurge against oppression and exploitation goes back to the second half of nineteenth century, with the emergence of class of casual general labour during British Raj in India. The self-sufficient Village economy was shattered with no new structures in place, creating impoverished peasantry and landless labour force.
The dumping of cheap industrial goods resulting in millions of artisans, spinners, weavers, craftsmen, smelters, smiths, potters, etc, who could no more live on agriculture also turned into landless labourers. This led to widespread famines in India through the period from 1850 to 1890 resulting in deaths of several lakhs and also reducing millions as beggars.
The anguish of impoverished masses, ruined peasantry was up in revolt which resulted in several movements even though crushed by the rulers. This background did help the 1857 revolt by princely states and the common masses against the disempowering policies of British rule.
Till this time trade unionism was not known to workers, they were reacting to extreme exploitative working conditions and very low wages. They formed themselves as ‘jamaats’ which were based more on social caste basis in order to fight back oppression of employers. This was beginning of organization by the workers even though not the trade unions in essence.
From 1905 onwards there was notable advance in the working class actions and it was more and more closing its ranks with the advance of freedom struggle in the country.
A strike took place in Bombay against extension of working hours. The printing press workers in Calcutta also struck work. Another great event of the period was strike by industrial workers of Bombay from July 24 to 28, 1908, in protest against the pronouncement of judgment sentencing six years imprisonment to freedom fighter Balgangadhar Tilak. There were street fights between workers and police and military of British rulers.
Lenin wrote about this strike, “The Indian proletariat has already matured sufficiently to wage a mass struggle, class conscious and political, and that being the case, Anglo- Russian methods in India are played out”.
This also needs mention here that the Factory Act established in 1881, was promulgated in the background of competition being provided to British Companies by goods produced in India due to availability of cheap labour and long working hours.
Even then it was only for the industry where competition to foreign industrial goods was posed. It was amended several times within a short period of few years. It was blessing in disguise as regards working hours and weekly holiday etc but the wages and working conditions continued to be pathetic. In seasonal industry no changes were brought about as it did not impact the competitiveness to British Industry.
The October Revolution in 1917 in Russia during First World War was a great impetus for Indian labour movement as the working class along with peasantry captured power first time in the history of mankind.
In 1918 great strike in cotton mills of Bombay started and soon it spread to other areas with 1,25,000 workers participating by January 1919. The strike against Rowlatt Act had great impact on the national struggle itself. In the first half of 1920, there were 200 strikes involving 15 lakh workers. The demands were for 10 hrs working and dearness allowance. Out of 97 strikes during July to December 1920, only 31 ended in failure. In all other cases there were successes to some extent.
It was in this heroic background that the preparations began in July 16, 1920 when a convention was held in Bombay which decided “to hold All India Trade Union Congress in Bombay”. A reception committee with 500 members with Joseph Baptista as chairperson was formed.
Hence the first session, the founding conference began on October 31, 1920, in Empire Theatre Bombay with Lala Lajpat Rai as the founding President in which 101 delegates from 64 unions with a membership of 1,40,854 from all over India participated with presence of political leaders of various shades of opinions such as Moti Lal Nehru, Mohd. Ali Jinnah, Annie Basant, V J Patel, B.P. Wadia, J. Baptista, Lalubhai Samaldas, Jamnadas, Dwarka Das, B W Wadia R R Karandikar, Col. J.C. Wedgwood.
British Trade Union Congress attended as fraternal delegate. 43 other unions which could not join the conference expressed sympathy and full support. A few unions of government servants kept themselves aloof. The Ahmedabad Labour Association with six unions and 16,450 members right from the start functioned as separate organization under the patronage of employers.
Lala Lajpat Rai led a procession of 10,000 workers in the city of Bombay. Lala Lajpat Rai had declared “for the present, our greatest need is to organise, agitate and educate. We must organise our workers, make them class conscious and educate them in the ways and interest of the commonwealth”. He also observed that labour “today had become an international factor and everyone’s life all over the world had become interlinked. There would be no salvation until and unless the workers of Asia were organised and internationally affiliated”.
In this first conference with Lala Lajpat Rai as president, Deewan Chaman Lal was the general secretary. Later on Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, VV Giri, Sarojini Naidu, C R Das and several of other political leaders of the freedom struggle were associated with subsequent conferences and work of AITUC giving impetus to the work.
AITUC in its second session in 1921 in Jharia had adopted a resolution of Swaraj (Complete independence from British rule), almost eight years before the platform of freedom struggle- the Indian National Congress adopted such resolution in 1929.
In the aftermath of second World War the AITUC played significant role in the foundation of World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), in the conference held in London with 204 delegates and observers representing 670 million workers from all parts of the world. AITUC was represented by S.A. Dange, R.A. Khedgikar and Sudhindra Pramanik. This conference adopted workers charter.
In the last 10 decades since its founding, the AITUC has been at the forefront of all struggles for bringing about changes in favour of the working class. The days of intense struggles are ahead. It is important to unite the trade unions for these struggles. It is becoming more important for solidarity of working class with in the respective countries, and also beyond the boundaries in all continents and at the international level. (IPA Service)
The writer is the General Secretary of AITUC.