Origin of Trade Unions in India (813 Words)

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The origins of trade unions (TU) in India lie mired in controversy. Some believe that N. M. Lokhande started the first trade union known as The Bombay Mill Hands Association in 1880.

Lokhande was originally a mill worker and all his life he fought for the improvement of working conditions of the workers. The Association he formed provided yeomen service to the poorly-paid mill workers.

His crusade for improving working conditions in the textile mills earned him a place in the first Factories Commission, and the Factories Act of 1881 was passed on its recommendations. The Act, as mentioned earlier, reduced the working hours of children. There were other provisions such as better ventilation, better lighting, drinking water and toilets in the factories.


Labour historians like Chamanlal Revri and Sukomal Sen insist that the first trade union was started by B. P. Wadia, founder of the Madras Labour Union in 1918. Wadia was from an affluent family but he preferred to devote his life to the cause of the working people.

He was moved by the exploitation of workers by factory owners and he decided to start a trade union on the lines of the unions in Britain. The first trade union was of workers in Buckingham and Karnataka Mills (popularly known as Binnys). His union was more organised than Lokhande s Association.

While Lokhande did not recruit members nor did he charge a fee, Wadia kept a record of members, all of whom paid membership fees. This is why Revri and Sen assert that Wadias Madras Labour Union was truly a trade union. Unfortunately, Wadias career as a trade unionist in India was short-lived.

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When he organised a strike in Binnys in 1921, the employers appealed against the union in the Madras High Court. In a judgment similar to Taff Vale, the court ordered Wadia to pay the company Rs 50,000 as compensation for causing loss through the strike, which he was unable to do. The company decided to waive the amount if Wadia gave an undertaking that he would not take part in any further trade union activity. He then went to Britain where he resumed his trade union activities.

A few months after the Madras Labour Union was formed, in August 1918, Mahatma Gandhi founded the Textile Labour Association (TLA) or Majur Mahajan in Ahmedabad. This union is unique in many ways and it had an interesting beginning. Since August 1917, the mill owners of Ahmedabad were paying bonus to their workers of 70 per cent of their wages to compensate for the rising cost of living because of WWI; the workers used to be paid a pittance, and the bonus would avoid the issue of revision of basic pay.

The bonus was treated as a form of deferred payment and it was not related to profit. In January 1918, the mill owners stopped paying bonus. This created bitterness among the workers. They demanded that they be given at least 50 per cent dearness allowance (DA) as compensation. The employers refused this demand and the workers on their own struck work. After this, the workers sought the help of Gandhi.

They wanted him to intervene and strive for a compromise. He agreed to negotiate with the mill owners provided the workers scaled down their demand to 35 per cent, which they readily accepted. Gandhi, however, found that the mill owners were not in favour of any bonus or DA, but after a few rounds of talks they agreed to pay 20 per cent.


This was unacceptable to the workers. Instead of continuing negotiations for a settlement, the owners declared a lockout. Gandhi then went on a fast to pressurise the owners to come for negotiations. The owners agreed to go for arbitration and in the end they raised the amount to 27.5 per cent (Revri 1958: 73).

After this incident, Gandhi decided to form a union that would work in accordance with his ideals of non-violence. The TLA was based on the ideals of trusteeship (i.e., employers and employees are trustees of capital on behalf of society) and peaceful negotiation with the employers.

The union sought to protect the interests of labour through cooperation with the management rather than confrontation with them. Besides conducting its regular trade union activities, the union also conducted welfare programmes and educational activities, and provided medical facilities for the workers and the members of their families.

It enlisted the support of the employers and other wealthy people in the city for funding these schemes. The union also went to the extent of supporting some of the employers or their candidates in the city’s municipal elections . This union had little or no influence outside the textile industry in Ahmedabad and it did not seek affiliation with any trade union federation.

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