Trade union, is defined as a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment. It is defined in the Chamber's Encyclopedia as "an association of wage earners or salaried persons formed primarily for the purpose of collective action for the forwarding or defense of its professional interests. Trade unionism is a universal phenomenon and is the collective act of protecting and improving the living standards by people who sell their labour power against people who buy it.

The rise of trade unions, as they are known now, is a new development. The old caste system and craft guilds show rudiments of trade unionism. They had fossilized into hereditary organisations of professional traders or merchants. But the old worker's and craftsman's guilds working for collective benefits had the characteristic features that they were mostly their own employers. " Though they worked for wages, yet whatever they earned or produced or received,belonged to them all". Modern traded unions did not grow out of such guilds.

Indian Trade Unionism is an offspring of British Trade Unionism which is a product of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. In England, the old handicraftsman combined against the competition from the new machines. it was the life long wage earners in the factories that brought modern trade unions into being. Non-factory workers like silk weavers, hosiery workers, shipwrights, cloth makers, tailors formed unions. Some unions inspired by non- conformists' chapels began with giving sickness or accident benefits.

In India, old crafts were ruined, as the economic exploitation commenced under foreign domination. Raw materials were exported and finished British Merchandise flowed into the country. The artisan class perished. Rudimentary handicraft systems around agriculture and landlordism in the villages eked out a precarious existence. But it was not merchandise only which flowed into the country. Capital also came for more profits. Big industries were started. Cheap labour was an attraction. Raw materials could better be sent in a processed condition for factories abroad to manufacture and send back finished products. Even agriculture was geared to industrial crops like indigo, tea, coffee, jute requiring agricultural and plantation labour. The labour class was born.

With the abolition of slavery in 1834, there was a demand for Indian labour, and Indians were sent under the indentured system to other colonies. There were rail roads in the country to carry raw materials to the ports and distribute imported goods thence to the interior. Collieries worked. Cotton Mill was started in Bombay in 1853. Jute Mills grew up in Bengal from 1854, there being 60 by 1912. Cotton Textile Industry developed quickly there being 58 Mills by 1879-80 and 194 by 1900-1901. Meantime there was capital formation in the hands of Indians and industrialisation came to stay.

Local factory conditions began to attract attention. Humanitarian ideas too crossed the seas, in self-interest and liberal ideas. The manufacturers of Lancashire saw the thriving Cotton Mills in India and faced with hard competition wanted to make labour in India dearer, to reduce the time of work and increase price of work. Woman and children were extensively employed and their working conditions deserved attention. Labour movement was afoot. The immediate task was to reduce hardships of industrial life.

There were no organised trade unions at this time in India. In 1877, there was a strike by workers of Empress Jute Mills in Nagpur over wages. There were public meeting about conditions of textile workers. This helped local workers to organise. with pressure from abroad, the Manchester interests pressed British Government for amelioration of workers' conditions in India. A factory inspector from Lancashire reported about conditions in Bombay in 1887-88 to the Secretary of State who directed consideration of the matter. The Commission appointed by Bombay Government in 1875 had recommended no action. The Manchester Chamber of Commerce wanted the extension of British Child and Woman Labour Laws to India. In 1889, the workers of Spinning and Weaving Mills of Bombay sent a petition about their grievances.

There was an International labour Conference in Berlin in 1890 and some of its resolutions were sought to be applied to India. In 1890, the Bombay Millhands Association was formed. The Labour Commission of 1890 recommended factory legislation. This led to enactment of the Factories Act of 1891 to regulate child and woman Labour.

The Manchester interests and the Dundee Chamber of Commerce in 1894 wanted stricter factory legislation. In 1897, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in India and Burma was formed. The factory workers of Bombay demanded improvement in their conditions.

It was in 1905, the national movement against the partition of Bengal gave a fillip to the movement in favour of labour. With boycott of British goods, the nationalist leaders took up the cause of labour. There were stri,kes. In 1905, the first labour association, the Printers' Union was formed in Calcutta. In 1907, there was the Bombay Postal Union. A new Factories Bill after an enquiry by a Commission was introduced in 1909.

All these associations were more or less welfare associations than trade unions proper. bombay Mill Hands' association was more an association for workers than of workers. it was like a friendly society. the grievances of workers were often taken up individually. the Printers' Union and the Bombay Postal Union were sporadic attempts by workers to form militant unions, but fell into a moribund condition soon. In 1910, there was the Bombay Factory Workers'Association, Kamagar Hitvarthak Sangha or Workers' Welfare Association. It contemplated settlement of disputes between employees and employers. In 1911, the Factories Act was passed regulating hours of work.

Labour movement in the plantation and mines was slow to catch up as outsiders could not reach the site easily where the employees resided.

Trade Union movement in India practically took shape after the first world war. There was rapid growth of Industrialisation. in 1918, B.P.Wadia organised Madras Textile Labour union whcih proved to the most effective of the early labour organisations. Nationalism fed both the branches of industry, capital and labour, and so there was a more national and humanitarian attitude towards the efforts of labour unions. The All India Trade Union Congress was formed in 1920,under the influence of Nationalist Leaders.

It was from 1926 that the communists succeeded in developing the organisation from the workers'point of view. Foreign Trade Unionists visited India in the twenties and helped the growth of trade unionism.

The Indian Trade Union Act was passed in 1926. It was expedited by popular feelings against a Court decision injuncting a union in Madras in 1921 from interfering with the business of the employers. the workers were to be allowed to voice their grievances and bargain collectively with their employers. Strikes were their only weapon. The Meerut Conspiracy case of 1929-32 made the people aware of revolutionary trade unionism. In the thirties, with illegal strikes, failures in strikes like the one in G.I.P. Railways, quarrels , and widespread depression, the trade union movement suffered a set back. in 1936, there was National Federation of trade Unions amalgamating several Unions. All India Bank Employees' Federation , the national Federation of Indian Railway Employees, both independent unions were not affiliated to any central organisations.

The most important factor in trade unionism is the prominence of white collar unions of the middle class technicians, assistants, etc., who had so long kept aloof and were thrown in the movement by inflation.

In the history of labour legislations in India, the earliest attempt to regulate employment is seen in Workmen's Breach of Contract Act of 1859 and Employers and Workman (Dispute) Act of 1860. Workmen were liable to penal consequences for breach of contract under the Penal Code of 1860. To regulate the working conditions of workers in mines there was legislation in 1901. The Factories Act of 1881, 1891 and 1911 regulated the employment of children, woman and hours of work for men. The Trade unions Act was in 1926 and the Trades Disputes Act in 1929 banning lightning strikes and general strikes in public utility concerns and providing for settlement of disputes. It was replaced by the Industrial Disputes Act in 1947.

The Act of 1926 had several amendments to meet the occasional needs. The important amendment of 1947 on recognition and other allied matters including unfair practices remains in the statue book without being brought into force. In 1950, a Trade Union bill was introduced in Parliament to replace the existing Act. But it was not brought on the statue book. It made provisions for recognition and unfair practices. It provided that where more union than one applied for recognition, the union having the largest membership shall have preference. In the absence of a central legislation, some States have passed appropriate laws for representative or approved unions e.g. in Madya pradesh in 1960. In West Bengal , an amending bill was passed in 1969. Its main provision is about recognition of trade unions, compulsory recognition of the most representative union as the major bargaining agent. One Union for one unit or industry is contemplated. The Five Year Plans advocated these in policy but the policy was not reflected on legislation or even bringing into operations the Act of 1947, which did not get the assent of the President and is not on statue book. The tardiness and hesitancy of executive and legislative action over Trade Union matters do not speak of a firmness and sincerity of purpose in policies and plans.

(Courtesy Labour Research by ALL India State Bank Officers' Federation., Bangalore - Nov 04)