Evolution of Trade Unions in India


Indian Labour Movement.

  • Living conditions of workers – miserable.
  • Establishment of Bombay Mill Hands Association – 1890 – president – N.M. Lokahnde .
  • Objective –
    • Invite attention of government and public to many grievances of the textile workers of Bombay.
    • But they were not a trade union as they had no
      • Membership
      • Funds
      • Rules
      • No trade unions could grow – poverty and illiteracy.


1st World War period

  • 1st World War – sparked off  trade union movement in India.
  • Sharp rise in prices, cost of living => wage lag
  • Indian workers launched a series of strikes from 1918 to 1920.
  • >200 strikes in first 6 months of 1920.
  • Rising cost of living, ruthless exploitation and suppression, political agitation against foreign rule, establishment of ILO in 1919 => AITUC in 1920.
  • AITUC had 64 trade unions when it was formed in 1920.



  • Features :
    • Formation of AITUC
    • Expansion in the no. of trade unions and membership
    • Enactment of Indian Trade Unions Act, 1926
    • Increase in freq of industrial disputes => work stoppages
    • Split in AITUC


Formation of AITUC

  • Direct result of establishment of ILO in 1919.
  • Formed to represent Indian labour at International Labour Conference.
  • British Trade Union Congress and American Federation of labour were setup – individual trade union operated in different contexts => felt the need to establish a central federation.
  • Indian trade union => central came first, then individual trade unions in different industries.
  • 1st president of AITUC – Lala Lajpat Rai


Expansion of the no. of trade unions and membership

  • No. of  trade unions continued to increase.
  • Concentrated in the provinces of Bombay, Madras, Bengal.
  • Considerable trade union activities – Railways, shipping, cotton, jute, mining, engineering, printing and paper.


Enactment of Indian Trade Union Act, 1926

  • Need for nominating the workers’ representatives in ILO, Indian Trade Unions Act, 1926 was passed
  • Provided protection against criminal liability under section 120(B) of Indian Penal Code to officers and members of the trade union registered under this act.
  • Security against cases of civil damages arising out of trade disputes.


  • Increase in frequency of Industrial Disputes
  • Strikes and lockouts were very frequent.
  • Crores of man days were lost.
  • May 1, 1927 was celebrated at Bombay as the Labour Day – the symbol of opening of a new era of the Indian Labour movement as a conscious part of the International Labour Movement.



  • AITUC suffered three major splits dividing and weakening the trade union movement
  • Happened at the Nagpur Session in 1929.
  • 3 major parts
    • Truncated AITUC
    • Indian Trade Union Federation
    • Red Trade Union Congress



  • Great depression and its effects on trade union activities
  • Reunification of trade union movement.


Great depression and its effects on Trade Union activities

  • Economic activities came to a standstill, falling prices, wage cuts, mass unemployment, starvation
  • Decline in membership of trade union.
  • Truncated AITUC, Indian Trade Union Federation and Red Trade Union Congress were not in a position to offer any resistance to the onslaughts of employers and deteriorating labour standards.
  • Employers resorted to wage cuts, retrenchment and schemes of rationalization.


Reunification of Trade Union Movement

  • There was a split in the Red Trade Union Congress in 1931.
  • Indian trade unions were divided into 4 groups –
    • Original AITUC – control of radicals
    • Indian Trade union Federation – control of moderates
    • Red Trade Union Congress – control of communists
    • Group of independent trade union not attached to any central organization.
    • Indian labour Movement was unified – 1940 – series of compromises – RR Gokhale, VV Giri, NM Joshi, Diwan Chamanlal.
    • Happened at Nagpur in 1940.



  • Two major events:
    • 2nd World War
    • Indian independence


2nd World War

  • Effects:
    • Attitude towards the war and the split in the trade union movement.
    • force to trade union growth and increase in the number of industrial disputes.
    • beginning of the practice of paying DA and bonus.
    • Creation of tripartite bodies in the field of labour and industrial relations.


  • Attitude towards the war and the split in the TU movement
  • AITUC became a divided house.
  • Nationalists + communists = attitude of neutrality towards the war.
  • Radical democrats went in for all-out support to the war efforts.
  • The radicals formed a IFL – Indian Federation of Labour in November 1941. Jamna Das Mehta was the president.
  • At the end of the war, there were 2 central federations,
    • AITUC
    • Indian Federation of Labour.


Trade Union growth and rise in the number of industrial disputes

  • Trade Union movement gained impetus during the war.
  • Prices and profits soared up because of shortage in consumer goods.


Dearness Allowance and Bonus

  • To neutralize the effects of rising prices on workers’ real earnings due to the war. It was to be abolished after the war was over. But this didn’t happen.
  • There were controversies and the courts decided that workers have a right to claim bonus out of the profit of the industry.
  • Dispute resolved with the payment of bonus act, 1965.


Post Independence Period 1947-66

  • The expansion of employment-intensive public enterprises resulted in the rapid growth of trade unionism within them.
  • The central Government at that time exerted a major role in determining wages and working conditions. Trade union structures were highly centralized.
  • A series of labour movement splits occurred during this industrializing period.
  • Division in the labour movement continued with the creation of :
    • Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) in 1948
    • The United Trade Union Congress (UTUC), 1949
    • The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) in 1955
    • The United Trade Union Congress-Lenin Sarani (UTUC-LS) in 1951
    • Various laws were introduced to regulate working and employment conditions and to systemize industrial relations.
      • Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act (1946)
      • The Industrial Disputes Act (1947)
      • The Indian Factories Act (1948)
      • The Minimum Wages Act (1948)
      • The Plantation Labour Act (1951)
      • The Employees’ Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act (1952)
      • The Companies Act (1956)
      • The Maternity Benefit Act (1961)




  • Industrial stagnation set in from 1967 to 1979 – made more acute by oil price shocks in 1973 and 1978 – triggered inflation.
  • Railwaymen’s strike in May 1974 provoked Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to issue a State of Emergency in 1975.
  • The national emergency lasted from 1975 to 1977; during that time, the right to strike was suspended and union activities were restricted.
  • Labour militancy became a common phenomenon, particularly with the extremely high labour upsurge.
  • During the 1967-79 period, there were 2,437 strikes on an average per year, involving average of 1.87 million workers annually and 12.39 million lost work days.
  • The situation was further worsened by a severe drought in 1979.
  • The number of registered trade unions more than doubled, from 15,314 in 1967 to 34,430 in 1979.



  • The economy suffered from severe internal and external aggravations, resulting in an industrial recession from 1980 through 1981.
  • From the mid 1980s, the Government imposed an economic liberalization policy that offered
    • export incentives and
    • encouraged domestic market competitiveness
    • The labour market was made more flexible, making it easier for companies to subcontract and outsource their production of consumer nondurables to the unorganized sector.
    • Such a flexible labour market brought an adverse impact on trade union activities and reshaped the industrial relations system.
    • As a consequence of economic downturn and political suppression in 1981, the registered unions sharply declined from 34,430 in 1979 to 15,042.
    • In 1991, the number of registered trade unions drastically increased.



  • After borrowing a massive bailout loan of US$1.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the economy became more open, liberalized and privatized than ever before.
  • During the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and its affiliates grew – membership of 6.2 million  – the largest CTUO (central trade union organization).
  • The 2004 election results required the formation of a coalition government – the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
  • The INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress), the second-largest CTUO (central trade union organization), wielded more political influence because it was aligned with the INC (Indian National Congress).
  • The number of trade unions increased, but they became more divided at both the national and state levels.
  • The number of CTUOs increased to 12 in 2008.


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