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Labor Movement in India - Part I

The early period of industrialization in India circa 1875, witnessed a labor movement which was mostly a transient and emotive response of the working class to the tensions arising in the work-life (Shyam Sundar 2006). Workers fought not only against their inhuman working condition but also against imperialist oppression and for an eventually meaningful national cause (“TRADE UNION MOVEMENT IN INDIA” n.d.). The workers as a class were without any genuine organization of their own (Chatterjee and Mukhtar 1936). The Indian workers were said to be too ignorant, thoroughly peasant-minded and significantly backward to undertake this task at that time. This led to a rise in social workers and philanthropists like Narayan Meghaji Lokhanday voicing the concerns of the working class. The struggle, rather than being by the workers, turned out to be a struggle for the workers (“TRADE UNION MOVEMENT IN INDIA” n.d.).

An organized union movement began after the end of the First World War, several factors such as the creation of the ILO (International Labor Organization), the Russian Revolution, economic crisis and the rise of the freedom movement aided the rise of modern unions. There arose a constructive interface between politics and the union movement, as both needed each other: the former needed a more extensive political base for the freedom movement, and the latter required strong outside leadership (Shyam Sundar 2006). In an incident involving a textile worker in Madras, the worker was not given a break to use the restroom, was forced to defecate at his workstation and clean up afterwards. This spurred a nationwide strike followed by the formation of Madras Textile Workers Union under the leadership of Mr B.P. Wadia. The establishment of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in 1920 under the influence of political leaders like C.R, Das and Lajpat Rai who were not trade unionists in the sense of being themselves organizers of labor unions but occupied essential offices in AITUC because of their per-eminence as nationalist leaders (“’CHAPTER -III EMERGENCE OF WHITE COLLAR TRADE UNIONISM” n.d.). The creation of AITUC led to a domino effect with multiple unions set up and strikes organized across the country (“TRADE UNION MOVEMENT IN INDIA” n.d.). The Indian Trade Unions Act of 1926 conferred legal status on unions and also gave them a measure of legal and social security. However, as soon as ideological differences arose within the Congress, leaders of different shades of political opinion tried to gain control over various unions (Sheth 1968).

Until the eve of independence, AITUC remained the representative of the working class with all shades of political forces, ranging from the communists to the liberals, under its umbrella (Bhowmik n.d.). The splits led to the formation of INTUC under the Congress, HMS under the Jana Sangh, AITUC went to the CPI, which further split into CITU under the CPI(M). It must be observed that not all trade unions are affiliated to a political party. There are several unions which exist independently often at a plant or an enterprise level (Sheth 1968). However, central federations have greater power in informing legislative changes. Formation of the INTUC was the first step towards controlling the labor movement. As a newly independent country, the achievement of policy objectives could be more comfortable if the trade union was ideologically aligned and politically close to the party in power (Bhowmik n.d.).

In the long run, there were issues with the approach of a State controlled mechanism for industrial relations. Bhowmik highlights the movement became dependent on the State for protective legislation, implementation and solving industrial disputes. There is evidence to show that in the case of industrial disputes, the State rarely sides with the workers*(Bhowmik n.d.). During the early days of independence, labor legislation was protective and covered a wide range of industrial workplace relations. However, these led to inefficiency in firms over employment and introduced ineffectiveness *(Anand, Ranjan, and Jha 2014). When unions' attempts at collective bargaining failed, they often put up a fight in the form of strikes and boycotts. In theory, labor occupied a specific place in the Nehruvian imagination. It was the human element in a system of economic production, and the counterweight to the drive for profit that was its own end. Strikes were a means for unions to wield their strengths and achieve their goals, pointing to the existence of what was de facto a sanctioned political field in which labor was a legitimate political actor, one that could win considerable gains, as indeed was witnessed across the 1950s and1960s. Strikes were seen as necessary
political dissent which had to be accommodated until political conditions for its containment could be met. The reality was that these strikes were often politically motivated (Jit, Bharti, and Rajeev 2019). Biswajit characterizes trade unions as being plagued with issues like fragmentation and intra-union rivalry, short time objectives, economism, sectarianism, lack of ideological base, electoral considerations, and corrupt leadership (Ghosh 2008).

While liberalization policies in the '90s are often seen as the leading cause for economic growth, Kohli suggests these wheels were set in motion during the 80', after the Emergency, when the State adopted pro-business political and policy changes. There was a transition of India from "License Raj" to "India Inc." (Kohli 2006). Economic growth was preferred at the cost of labour activism. The post-emergency period clearly marks the sea-change that occurred in the position of labor, and the drastic diminution of labor's bargaining power with the unwillingness of the State after the Emergency to entertain labor as a meaningful interlocutor in industrial relations and in economic development (Rajagopal 2011). Business houses are allowed increasing freedom to engage with labor on their own terms and are free to declare lockouts with little intervention by the State. Strikes increasingly involve more workers, but they are shorter, and acquire a symbolic status rather than exhibiting the political muscle of unions in the production process. The nature of the negotiation between labor and business also changes, with monetary compensation becoming much more important than political power or workers' rights.

The post-emergency period is also the era which ushered in the rise of the middle class - the humble hero of national development, capable but lacking privilege and deserving of assistance, was something new. In this understanding, the middle class disturbed the status quo only to improve it (Rajagopal 2011). The new middle-class identity was shaped around consumerist notions and disenchanted with erstwhile forms of politics while conforming to pro-nationalist visions of the future. Liberalization in India can then be seen as an aftermath of the policies and the shift away from the License Raj era. In light of an acute economic crisis in 1991, there was a shift from relying on import substitution to opening up doors for foreign investment. The downfall of the communism led regime in Russia contributed to India rethinking its political alternatives (Nayyar 2016). Liberalization was not just an economic decision but a political choice in favor of persisting the hegemony while being packaged as an economic opportunity for the middle class. The changing nature of the global capitalist economy as it moved from the Keynesian phase to the neo-liberal phase resulted in the realignment of social forces among the ruling class across the board. Without going into the details of the political struggles that ensued, it should be noted that in India this realignment saw the weakening of the old storied industrial faction of the bourgeoisie that had long roots in the nationalist movement, and the gradual emergence of a new faction which embraced the 'sunrise industries' and favored privatization (Varadarajan 2014).

Post the implementation of the LPG model, the new capitalist class started demanding the implementation of neoliberal reform agenda. This included outlawing strikes, weakening union power, individualizing labor relations, diluting labor laws, privatizing public enterprises, freedom to hire and fire workers, enabling laws to introduce technological changes, closing undertakings, removal of law regarding prohibition of contract labour and repealing of legal provisions (Jit, Bharti, and Rajeev 2019). This period marked a significant decrease in strikes and an increase in lockouts which emphasizes the power of management. Biswajit highlights concerns that topics of equity, social justice, or self-reliance have subordinated to the logic of the market (Ghosh 2008). The apathy of the middle class and delineation from politics also contribute to a decline in unionization. Globally, union membership has declined in the liberalization era (McCarthy 2019).

Part I is a very short summary of the rich history of the working class in India. Part II attempts to understand how history affects the labor movement in the tech industry in India.

Edit :
Link to Part II :

Anand, Vishal, Shashi Ranjan, and Kumar Jha. 2014. “Trade Union Movement in India and the Aftermath of Liberalised Economic Policy of 1991.” IOSR Journal of Business and Management 16: 47–53.

Bhowmik, Sharit. n.d. “The Labour Movement in India: Present Problems and Future Perspectives.” Accessed July 29, 2020.


Chatterjee, Gladys M., and Ahmad Mukhtar. 1936. “Trade Unionism and Labour Disputes in India.” The Economic Journal 46 (184): 754.

Ghosh, Biswajit. 2008. “Economic Reforms and Trade Unionism in India-A Macro View.” Source: Indian Journal of Industrial Relations 43 (3): 355–84.

Jit, Ravinder, Anju Bharti, and P. V. Rajeev. 2019. “Impact of Liberalization and Globalization on Trade Unions in India.” Global Journal of Enterprise Information System 10 (2): 53–58.

Kohli, Atul. 2006. “Economic and Political Weekly.”

McCarthy, Niall. 2019. “The State Of Global Trade Union Membership [Infographic].” Forbes. 2019.

Nayyar, Deepak. 2016. “1991: Economic Liberalization and Political Process.” Livemint. October 13, 2016.

Rajagopal, Arvind. 2011. “The Emergency as Prehistory of the New Indian Middle Class*.” Modern Asian Studies 45 (5): 1003–1049.

Sheth, N. R. 1968. “Trade Unions in India—A Sociological Approach.” Sociological Bulletin 17 (1): 5–18.

Shyam Sundar, K. 2006. “Trade Unions and the New Challenges: One Step Forward and Two Steps Backward TRADE UNIONS AND THE NEW CHALLENGES: ONE STEP FORWARD AND TWO STEPS BACKWARD.” The Indian Journal of Labour Economics 49 (4).

“TRADE UNION MOVEMENT IN INDIA.” n.d. Accessed July 29, 2020.

Varadarajan, Latha. 2014. “Diaspora Direct Investment and the ‘Growth Story.’” Himal Southasian. December 23, 2014.

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