History of All India Trade Union Congress (2026 words)

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Trade unions in India grew at a fairly fast pace after 1918. Some of the nationalist leaders like Lokmanya Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and others wanted to draw the working class into the struggle for independence.

Others like V. V. Giri and N. M. Joshi were keen to have a trade union federation that would represent the interests of labour in India in international forums.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) had been started in 1919 and Indian labour could get representation if it had a federation. These two streams merged to form the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) on 31 October 1920.


Till the eve of Independence, AITUC remained as the representative of the working class with all shades of political forces, ranging from the communists to the liberals, under its umbrella. The federation underwent two major splits over ideological issues during this period.

The first split occurred in 1929 when liberals such as Giri, Joshi and others broke away to form a separate federation over the issue of representation in the Royal Commission on Labour in India. The communists and the supporters of the Indian National Congress in the AITUC wanted to boycott the Commission but the liberals (known as the Rightists) wanted to support it.

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When the majority in the Executive Committee of the AITUC decided to support the move to boycott the Commission, the Rightists broke away and formed the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). In the following year, the communists broke away to form the Red Flag Trade Union Congress. However, they re-joined the AITUC within two years and the IFTU decided to merge with the parent body in 1939.


The communists managed to gain control over the AITUC during the last few years of colonial rule. In 1942, the Indian National Congress organised the Quit India Movement. The colonial government arrested the leaders and they were imprisoned till the eve of Independence.

The communists did not participate in this movement. They took advantage of the fact that Congress trade union leaders were in jail and they gained control over the AITUC. After the leaders were released from jail, they found that they had lost control over the labour movement.

Soon after Home Rule was declared in 1947, the leaders of the Congress decided that since the working class would have to play a crucial role in the new pattern of planned development, it could not allow the trade union movement to be led by those who would not fully support its policies.

The Congress started another trade union centre which would rival the communist-controlled AITUC s hold over the working class. Thus the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) was formed in May 1947, three months before Independence. The remarks of Kandubhai Desai, one of the founders, make the purpose clear.


While inaugurating the new federation he said, ‘It is high time that those interested in building up strong trade unionism dissociate themselves from the communists if not for anything else to demonstrate to the world that whatever prestige and status the movement had was because of non-communist trade union workers’ (Johri 1967: 10).

Apart from anti-communism, a more important reason was dovetailing trade union aims with the government’s policies. Desai admitted, ‘It is also felt by many active trade union men [sic] that with the advent of the country’s independence, the trade union movement would have to play its destined and legitimate role of influencing the trends toward the elimination of political, economic and social exploitation.’ The underlying meaning of this statement is that the existing federation, with its pro-communist slant, could not be a dependable ally of the Congress and its policies.

The formation of the INTUC marked the first step of the state in controlling the labour movement. Some industrial relations experts like C. K. Johri (1967: 11-12) tried to justify this by arguing that industrial peace was necessary during the period of national reconstruction, especially when there was a consensus that ‘economic development must take place under the aegis of the government’, implying that the government would have to play the role of employer in this system, and trade unions would have to considerably soften their role as an opposition group.

Johri asserted that in such a situation the government of a newly independent country could achieve its policy objectives more easily if the trade union movement, or a major part of it, was ideologically aligned and politically close to the party in power.

The split in the AITUC in 1947 paved the way for further splits based on narrow party lines with the result it almost became mandatory for every political party to have its trade union front. When a political party splits, a division forms in its trade union front also, thereby fragmenting the working class movement further. Similarly, a new political party invariably floats its own trade union.

At the time of the formation of the INTUC, the pro-socialist group within the Congress did not support the federation and their trade unions remained with the AITUC. A year later, in 1948, this group broke away to form a new political party called the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) and decided to have its own trade union front which would attract the non-communist and non-Congress trade unions together.

Thus the Hind Mazdur Panchayat (HMP) was formed in that year. The party’s objective was partly realised as the Indian Federation of Labour, which was inspired by M. N. Roy, a former communist who later became severely anti-communist, merged with the HMP to form a new federation called Hind Mazdur Sabha (HMS).

In 1949, the unions supported by the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), a Marxist group having influence mainly in West Bengal and Kerala, which had earlier joined the HMS, decided to form their own federation, the United Trade Union Congress (UTUC). In 1952, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh a political party with a Hindu fundamentalist background, was formed and in 1955 it initiated another trade union centre known as Bharatiya Mazdur Sangh (BMS).

Meanwhile, the socialists kept splitting and re-joining to form new parties. In 1965, a party comprising breakaway groups from the PSP and Socialist Party was formed known as the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP). Its most important trade union leader, George Fernandes, broke away from the HMS to form a new Hind Mazdur Panchayat (HMP). Till the early 1970s, the most important trade union federations in the country were the INTUC, AITUC and HMS.

The split in the communist movement, in the wake of the Chinese aggression in 1962, led to the formation of another communist party, the CPI (M), or CPM, in 1964. Though initially the unions loyal to both communist parties remained with the AITUC, in 1970 the CPI (M) decided to set up another trade union body known as Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) which took away a large section of unions from the AITUC, especially the ones in West Bengal and Kerala.

The other pro-communist federation of trade unions, the UTUC, was also split when a splinter group within the RSP (which later became a separate political party, the Socialist Unity Centre), formed its own wing of the UTUC. The two federations are distinguished from each other by the locations of their headquarters in Calcutta (Bow Bazaar and Lenin Sarani), known as UTUC (BB) and UTUC (LS) respectively.

Apart from the working class being divided on the lines of political parties at the national level, regional parties too started forming their own trade union centres from the late 1960s. This process was started by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) when it formed the state government in 1967 in Tamil Nadu (then known as Madras state) when it initiated its own trade union centre in the state. Later, when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was formed in 1977, it set up a rival centre.

The year 1967 saw the birth of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai. In its early phase, the Sena claimed to represent the interests of Maharashtrians, more particularly the Marathi-speaking people in Mumbai. It was avowedly anti-south Indian and anti-communist. It formed its own labour wing, the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena (BKS).

It was widely believed that the Shiv Sena and its labour wing had the backing of the industrial houses (most of which were non-Maharashtrian) in the Mumbai-Pune industrial belt to combat the communist unions which were very strong then. It managed to divide the working class in Mumbai on regional lines and it gained in strength. By the mid- 1970s, BKS had become fairly strong.

The rise of the Shiv Sena was linked, to a large extent, with the deteriorating economic situation in the country. In 1966-67, the country reeled under a recession which led to a decline in production and subsequently to job losses. Mumbai, being the financial and industrial capital of India, suffered the most.

The existing trade unions, including the communists, were unable to cope with this phenomenon as their traditional means of seeking redress, namely, work stoppage, mass rallies, and so on, were ineffective. The legislations granting protection to workers in the organised sector provided little solace to retrenched workers.

The Shiv Sena was formed at this time. It aggressively asserted that job losses were due to the influx of south Indians into the city as these people were taking away available jobs from the local population. The Shiv Sena’s influence over the organised working class based on this reasoning could not be stemmed by the traditional trade unions.

It was only in the mid-1970s that Datta Samant (1933-97), a medical practitioner-turned-trade unionist, could put an effective check on the Shiv Sena. The methods used by Samant were similar to those used by the Sena unions to oust the opposition, namely, intimidation and violence.

Thus, the underlying feature of the trade union scenario is proliferation of political parties resulting in a large number of trade unions. Besides, there is a growing tendency towards unions being based on regional, communal and caste lines. There are also a number of unions created by people in order to get political mileage or other individual-centred benefits.

Some enterprises, especially branches of multinational companies (MNCs), have their internal unions run by their own members. These unions are independent in the sense that they are not affiliated to any of the federations. They are called enterprise unions with their own strengths and weaknesses.

While commenting on the confusing trade union scenario in India, an ILO report (qtd. in Venkat Ratnam 1994) notes: ‘The early (post-Independence) splits in Indian trade unionism tended to be on ideological grounds each lined to a particular political party. Much of the recent fragmentation, however, has centred on personalities and occasionally on caste or regional considerations.’

We can see that the trade union movement, which was fairly united during colonial rule, stands badly divided. This has weakened the working class movement and deprived it of the power it has to challenge capital and the state. Quite often, inter-union rivalries are stronger than the conflicts between management and labour.

Moreover, the mushrooming of unions makes it difficult for labour to get proper representation in the national policy-making bodies such as the Indian Labour Conference (ILC) and the Planning Commission. The government, in consultation with the ILC, has laid down three conditions for recognition of national trade union centres.

Firstly, the centre must have a total membership of 5, 00,000, secondly, its membership must be spread over at least four states, and thirdly, the membership must cover at least four industries. There are seven such centres which are recognised as national federations—INTUC, BMS, CITU, HMS, AITUC, UTUC (BB), and UTUC (LS).

These unions collectively represent the overwhelming majority of the unionised labour force, but given the level of unionisation of labour, the membership is a small percentage of the country’s total workforce. In the following sections, I shall discuss the problems of unionisation in the various sections of the working class.

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