Ironically the first ever demand for regulation of the condition of workers in factories in India came from the Lancashire textile capitalist lobby; apprehending the emergence of a competitive rival in the India textile industry under conditions of cheap and unregulated labour, they demanded the appointment of a commission for investigation into factory conditions. The first commission was appointed in 1875 although the First Factory Act was not passed before 1881.
The Act prohibited the employment of children under the age of 7, limited the number of working hours for children below the age of 12 years and provided that dangerous machinery should be fenced. Under similar extraneous pressure from British textile interest the Factory Act of 1891 was passed which limited the working day to 11 hours with an interval of 1 hour for women labour, increased the minimum and maximum ages of children from 7 and 12 years. Similar circumstances resulted in the enactment of factory acts for jute industry in 1909 and 1911.
The opening decade of the 20th century also gave the first ever demonstration of the emerging political consciousness among the Indian working class; the Bombay workers went on a political six-day strike over the conviction and imprisonment of Lokamanya Tilak in 1908-a development which elicited Lenin’s comments that “the Indian proletariat has already matured sufficiently to wage a class-conscious and political mass struggle”.
The initiative in organizing a Trade Union on the national basis was taken by the nationalist leaders and the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was founded on 31 October 1920. The Indian National Congress President of the year, Lala Lajpat Rai, was elected its President.
The national leaders kept close association with this Trade Union and nationalist leaders like C.R. Das, V.V. Giri and later on Sarojini Naidu, J.L. Nehru and Subhash Bose presided over its annual sessions. By 1927 the number of trade unions affiliated to the AITUC increased to 57 with a total membership of 1, 50,555. To begin with the AITUC was influenced by social democratic ideas of the British Labour Party.
Despite some Socialist leanings the AITUC remained, by and large, under the influence of moderates like N.M. Joshi who believed that the political activities of labour organizations should not go beyond agitation for the amelioration of their economic grievances. Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, Trusteeship and class-collaboration had great influence on the movement and strike was a weapon rarely employed.
The Trade Union Act of 1926 recognised trade unions as legal associations, laid down conditions for registration and regulation of trade union activities, secured their immunity, both civil and criminal, from prosecution for legitimate activities but put some restrictions on their political activities.
During 1926-27 the AITUC was divided into two group called ‘the reforming’ and ‘the revolutionary’ group also labeled as the Geneva-Amsterdam group’ and the ‘Muscovite group’, the former wanting AITUC to be affiliated to the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) with headquarters at Amsterdam and the latter desiring affiliation with the Red Labour Union (R.I.T.U.) organized from Moscow.
The Communist thinking seemed to carry greater influence. During 1928 the country witnessed unprecedented industrial unrest. The total number of strikes was 203 involving no less than 506,851 people and the total number of working days lost was 31,647,404. These strikes were inspired more by political ideas than immediate economic demands. The Communist journal Kranti thundered. “There is no peace until capitalism is overthrown”.
On the question of affiliation to an international labour body to the Communist viewpoint prevailed and the AITUC was affiliated to the Pan-Pacific Secretariat and to the Third International at Moscow. In protest the moderate group under Joshi’s leadership withdrew the AITUC and formed the All India Trade Union Federation in 1929.
The Second World War brought another year of rising prices and lagging behind wages. The year 1940 witnessed many strikes. In September 1940 the AITUC adopted a resolution disavowing any sympathy for imperialism of fascism. It resolved that “participation in a war which will not result in the establishment of freedom and democracy in India, will not benefit India, much less will it benefit the working class.”
M.N. Roy, the Communist-turned-Radical Democratic leader seceded from the AITUC and formed a pro-Government union called the Indian Federation of Labour. The Government responded by sanctioning a grant of Rs. 13,000 p.m. to the loyal organization.
The section of the AITUC under Communist influence also showed a pro- Government stance after the Soviet Union joined the war on the side of the Allied Powers. During the ‘Quit India’ movements in August 1942 the nationalist wing of the AITUC suffered the most, the Communist wing having declared in favour of the official Labour- Management-Government conciliation formulae.
In spite of the Communists getting thoroughly discredited and isolated for their pro-British stance, the nationalist leaders failed to capture the leadership of the AITUC. Consequently in 1944 national leaders led by Sardar Vallabbhai Patel organized the India National Trade Union Congress. Thus the advent of independence saw the polarization of Trade Unionism on the basis of political ideology.