Labor Movements

Labor movements in India advocate for workers’ rights, pushing for better conditions, fair pay, and social protections through strikes, protests, and negotiations, influencing labor laws and policies nationwide.

Labor Movements


The industrialization journey in India was characterized by a gradual pace, with coal mining being the solitary industry that resembled modern standards until approximately the middle of the 19th century. However, this process was not independent; rather, it was heavily influenced and controlled to align with British interests. Consequently, the emergence and growth of an industrial working class and its associated organizations were delayed. Professor Cole’s definition of the labor movement emphasizes a sense of collective identity based on shared status and the necessity for mutual assistance among workers.

Working Class Movements

Social Welfare Period (1875-1918)

Until 1918, the labor movement operated within constitutional bounds, primarily utilizing moderate tactics such as petitions, memoranda, committees, commissions, investigations, and legal measures. The timeline showcases various movements and leaders:

  • In 1870, Sasipada Banerjee authored “Bharat Shramjeevi Farmers Peasant Movements in India.”
  • Notable movements include the Kheda Satyagraha led by Gandhi and Patel in 1918, the Bardoli Satyagraha involving the Mehta brothers and Vallabhbhai Patel in Bombay province (Gujarat), and the Kisan Movement in Uttar Pradesh led by Chhabeelal Ramchandra and Gauri Shanker Mishra in the 1900s.
  • Other movements like the Eka Movement led by Madari Pasi in Uttar Pradesh, the All India Kisan Sabha Revolt led by Swami Sahajananda Saraswati in UP, the Tebhaga Movement in Bengal, and the Telangana Insurrection with Gandhi’s involvement in Hyderabad, all demonstrate various facets of labor activism.
  • In 1875, the first labor agitation in Bombay was guided by S. S. Bengalee.
  • In 1878, Sorabjee Shapoorji introduced a bill for improved working conditions.
  • Narain Meghajee Lokhanday initiated the Deenbandhu Newspaper in 1880, and in 1884, he established the Bombay Mill & Millhands Association, marking the inception of the first working-class association.
  • The first strike by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway occurred in 1899.
  • Despite efforts during the Swadeshi Movement, attempts to establish trade unions were unsuccessful.
  • The Madras Labour Union, founded in 1918, marked the first modern trade union organization.

Early Trade Union Period (1918-1924)

The workers’ methods were marked by a preference for petitioning, submitting memorials, and seeking resolution of grievances through gentle pressure.

  • The Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association, established in 1920 with Mahatma Gandhi’s guidance, saw leadership from Anusaya Ben Sarabai and Shankarlal.
  • The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), formed on October 31, 1920, under N. M. Joshi’s leadership had Lala Lajpat Rai as its inaugural president and Chaman Lal as its first secretary.
  • Following the AITUC’s formation, discussions on the ideological role of trade unions in India began.
  • Within the trade unions federation, three distinct ideological groups emerged:
    • Communists, led by M.N. Ray and Dange.
    • Nationalists, led by Gandhi and Nehru.
    • Moderates, led by N.M. Joshi and V.V. Giri.

Left-wing Unionism Period (1924-1934)

The AITUC emerged as the primary representative of the Indian working class.

  • However, it experienced a split in 1929 and another in 1931.
  • The influence of the communists was substantial, leading the government to conduct one of the longest and most expensive trials in the world in 1929—the Meerut Conspiracy case.
  • In 1934, the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) was formed.

Trade Unions’ Unity Period (1934-1938)

In later years, particularly in 1935 and 1940, worker unity was achieved primarily within the framework of heightened nationalist and anti-imperialist movements.

  • In 1940, the NTUF dissolved and amalgamated with the AITUC, reinstating the AITUC as the singular representative body of organized labor.

Second World War Period (1939-1945)

In 1942, the inaugural Indian Labour Conference was convened in Delhi.

  • During the wartime period, trade union strength surged from 420 in 1937-38 to 865 in 1944-45, with membership swelling from 3.90 lakhs to 8.89 lakhs.
  • A significant qualitative shift occurred in Indian trade unions, enhancing their capacity to engage in negotiations with employers and participate in tripartite discussions.

The Post-Independence Period (From 1947 to Present)

In contemporary India, trade unions’ affiliation with political parties has become a widespread phenomenon across the nation. Modern trade unionism, largely a result of the factory system of production and the capitalist societal order, emerged relatively late in India’s history. The growth pattern and nature of the labor movement in different periods were influenced by the prevailing social, economic, and political conditions of each era.

Today, trade unions and workers’ movements are intricately linked with various political parties. For instance, parties like the DMK and the ADMK have their own affiliated trade unions. Notable trade unions and their political affiliations include:

  1. All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) – led by CPI (Communist Party of India), established in 1920.
  2. Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) – founded in 1947 by the Congress Party, affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation.
  3. Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) – established in 1948 by the Praja Socialist Party, affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation.
  4. United Trade Union Congress (UTUC) – founded in 1949 by the Revolutionary Socialist Party, primarily active in Kerala, West Bengal, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu, with left-wing political affiliations.
  5. Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) – founded in 1955 by Dattopant Bapurao Thengadi, the labor wing of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the largest labor/trade union in India, known for recent nationwide movements against government privatization drives.
  6. Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) – established in 1970 by CPI(M) (Communist Party of India-Marxist), with a strong presence in Tripura, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh, and moderate presence in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions.
  7. Labour Progressive Federation – affiliated with DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), based in Tamil Nadu, founded in 1969.
  8. SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) – headquartered in Ahmedabad, founded in 1972, promotes the rights of low-income self-employed female workers, affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation.
  9. Trade Union Coordination Centre – affiliated with All India Forward Bloc, founded in 1970.
  10. All India Central Council of Trade Unions – affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, founded in 1989, affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions.

According to V.V. Giri’s analysis in “Labour Problems in Indian Industries,” the Indian trade union movement has been marred by three major defects: predominance of small-sized unions, financial challenges, and the absence of full-time paid officers. Additionally, Ramaswamy highlights the significant role of political issues in post-independence working class strikes.


V.V. Giri emphasizes that trade unions, with equal bargaining power to management, are essential for protecting the interests of workers. Without a united and strong trade union movement, the foundation of India’s industrial structure based on socialist democracy would be weak, posing challenges to ensuring fundamental rights for the working class.

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