The trade union movement in India started with the forming of Bombay Mill Hands Association in 1890 by N.K. Lokhands. In 1897, Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, Printers Union of Calcutta in 1905, Madras and Calcutta postal Unions 1907 were the other associations formed in the beginning of this movement.
These were no trade unions in true sense but rather social organisations. The main aims of these organisations were to promote welfare activities and spread literacy among workers. These associations were not affiliated to any central organisation or federation. The leadership to these unions was provided mostly by social reformers, careerists and politicians-cum nationalists.
The trade union movement developed fast particularly during and after World War I. The factors like economic hardship due to rise in cost of living, rising tide of nationalism, emergence of union leadership contributed to development of trade unionism in India.
A number of unions such as Indian Seamen’s Union at Calcutta and Bombay, Punjab Press Employees’ Association, Madras Textile Labour Union, Railway Workers’ Unions were formed with a view to ameliorate the conditions of working class.
A number of nationalist leaders like C.R. Das, Moti Lal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, V.V. Giri, S.A. Dange, S.V. Ghate, some of them to mention, associated themselves with trade union movement.
In 1920 All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed under the leadership of Lala Lajpat Rai. By 1926-27, workers’ and peasants’ parties sprang up and in 1928; various local units of these parties were united into in All India Workers’ and Peasants’ party. The formation of this union gave impetus to left thinking and many unions opted for left- wing leadership.
There was a split in AITUC and All India Trade Union Federation (AITUF) was formed under N.M. Joshi. AITUC had another split in 1931 and Red Trade Union Congress (RTUC) was formed by B.T. Ranadive and S.V. Deshpande. In 1935 RTUC merged into AITUC. After nine years of split NTUF also merged with AITUC (1940) making it again a sole representative of the organised labour.
Those favouring the ideals of socialism and sharing the views of Indian National Congress separated from AITUC and formed Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) in 1947. The socialists later formed Hind Mazdoor Panchayat (H.M.S.).
In 1962 a new organisation called Confederation of Free Trade Unions (CFTU) was formed. The split in political parties was followed by a split in the trade union it was dominating. This process has continued in the Indian scene right upto now.
Problems of Trade Union Movement in India:
i. Uneven Growth:
Trade unions are concentrated more or less in major metropolitan cities in India and traceable only in large scale units especially in cotton textile industry. The degree of unionism also varies from industry to industry, iron and steel, tobacco, railways, cement, banking, insurance etc. There is very little trade union activity in small scale sector, agricultural sector and domestic sector.
ii. Low Membership:
Most of the unions have low membership. Though the number of unions and union membership are increasing, average membership is inadequate. Because of their small size, unions suffer from lack of adequate funds and find it difficult to engage the services of experts to aid and advise members in times of need. They can’t bargain with employers effectively on their own.
iii. Weak Financial Position:
Most of the trade unions in India suffer from inadequate funds. This unsound financial position is mostly due to low membership and low rate of membership fee. Trade Union Act, 1926 prescribed the membership fee at 25 p. per member per month.
But the National Commission on labour recommended the increase of rate of membership subscription from 25 paisa to Re. 1 in the year 1990. But the Government did not accept this recommendation. Due to the financial weakness, most of the unions are not in a position to undertake welfare programmes for their workers.
iv. Political Leadership:
Most of the trade unions in India have professional political leadership. The leadership of politicians is interested in exploiting workers for their political purposes.
Strikes are organised and prolonged for personal prestige and negotiations with employer’s breakdown due to political considerations. The interest and welfare of the workers are very often ignored. Thus, the political leadership is very harmful to the trade union movement in India.
v. Multiplicity of Unions:
Multiple unions both at the plant and industry levels are responsible for unhealthy growth of trade union movement. There exist several unions in the same establishment or industry. The existence of this phenomenon can be attributed partly to the domination of outside leaders and partly to the labour laws.
Trade unions Act encourages a small sector of workers to form separate unions. Political outsiders establish unions of their own to increase their political influence. In some cases, employers encourage split in unions to undermine their bargaining power.
vi. Inter-Union Rivalry:
Due to the multiplicity of unions, inter-union rivalry takes place. Unions try to play down each other in a bid to gain greater influence on the workers. In the process, they do more harm than good to the cause of unionism as a whole. Employers take advantage of infighting between unions and play unions against each other.
They can also refuse to bargain on the plea that there is no representative union. Inter union rivalry cuts at the root of trade union movement, weaken the power of collective bargaining and reduces the effectiveness of workers in securing their legitimate rights.
vii. Problems of Recognition:
Many a times, the employers refuse recognition to trade unions under the contention that unions consist of only a small number of workers or because of multiplicity of union. Employers are under no obligation to give recognition to unions.
viii. Absence of Paid Office Bearers:
Weak finances and political leadership do-not permit unions to engage the services of full time, paid office bearers. Union activists, who work on a part-time basis, neither have the time nor the energy to take up union activities sincerely and diligently.
ix. Heterogeneous Nature of Labour:
Workers join factories with varying backgrounds and therefore, it is difficult for them to put up a joint front in case of trouble. Employers exploit the situation, under the circumstances, by dividing workers on the basis of race, religion, language etc.
x. Lack of Interest:
In order to make the trade union movement succeed, the members of the trade unions should take keen interest in the union affairs.
But majority of workers do-not take interest in union activities. The attendance at the general meetings of unions is very poor. Under such circumstances, trade unionism cannot be expected to make much progress and outside political leaders exploit the situation to serve their own personal agenda.
xi. Limited Stress on Welfare:
Many unions in India undertake only limited welfare activities. They feel that their major activity is to fight with the employer for more wages and allowances. Moreover, paucity of funds also hamper the welfare activities of the unions. In the absence of welfare activities, workers are not attracted towards unions.
xii. Lack of Public Support:
The general public is adversely affected due to strikes, go slow policy and other practices of unions. As a result, public support or sympathy is not available to the unions. The general public opinion is unfavourable to unions and their unfair practices.