Everything you need to know about the history of trade union in India. The trade union movement in India started late, though the industrialization of the country began about 1850.

The development of trade unionism has a chequered history and a stormy career in India. It has been the natural outcome of the modern factory systems.

All these trade unions aimed at promoting welfare activities for workers, spreading literacy among them and redressing their grievances by constitutional methods. They were, however, not trade unions in the true sense of the phrase but rather social unions, and they were completely free from even the most rudimentary touch of radicalism.

The history of trade union over the period of time includes:- 1. Pre-Independence Period and 2. Post-Independence Period.


Also learn about the stages of trade union movement in India over the period of time starting from 1875 to 1947 till present time.

History of Trade Unions in India – 2 Important Periods: Pre-Independence Period and Post-Independence Period

The contractual relationship between employer and employees has undergone several changes. The days of hire and fire policy have gone. The rights and obligations of employers are documented in the form of various labour legislations. As per International Labour Organisation “Harmonious industrial relations based on freedom of association are essential for smooth working of the process of production”. This statement is the basic foundation of growth and development of trade unions.

The environment is changing from capitalism to participative voluntarisms. In this process, the roles of trade unions are very important and they are gaining the attention by the employers because trade unions are reducing the gap between employer and employees and facilitating sound and healthy industrial relations in the organisation.

The constitution of India guarantees the Right to form Association or unions a Fundamental Right under Article 19(c). Now the trade unions are considered as subsystems of the organisation and their main role is to regulate and maintain the terms and conditions of employment.


The trade union movement in India started late, though the industrialization of the country began about 1850. The development of trade unionism has a chequered history and a stormy career in India. It has been the natural outcome of the modern factory systems.

From the understanding point of view, it is important to divide the growth of trade unions movement in two parts:

1. Pre-Independence period, and

2. Post-Independence period.

1. Pre-Independence Period:


The first trade union called the Bombay Mill Hands Association was formed under the leadership of Mr. N. M. Lokhande in Bombay in 1890. Consequently due to efforts of his a new factories Act, 1891 was passed in March 1891. After that Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in India 1897, Printer’s union of Calcutta, 1905, Madras and Calcutta Postal Union 1907, and Kamgar Hitwardhak Sabha, 1910 were started in India. The aims of all these unions were to promote welfare activities and redressing their grievances.

During this period the working conditions and living conditions of the workers were very bad and their working hours were long. The period from 1850 to 1900 there was no trade union in the real sense but they were social unions because they could not serve the purpose of trade unions. The leadership in this movement was provided by social reformers and politicians-cum-nationalists.

The real beginning period of this movement was between 1900 to 1925. Many adhoc unions disappeared and number of strong and large sized unions came into existence in India. After First World War the Russian Revolution, 1917 and the establishment of International Labour Organisation, 1919 gave a new turn to the trade union movement in India, B. P. Wadia an associate of Annie Besant, formed the Madras Labour Union of all textile workers in the city of Madras in 1919.

The year 1920 was the most important year in the Trade union congress. AITUC was formed in this year under the president-ship of Lala Lajpat Rai. It was estimated that in 1924 there were 167 unions in the country. Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the spinners ‘Union and Weavers’ union was established in Ahmedabad which later on federated into the Textile Labour Association. This union was based on Gandhian Philosophy of non-violence and mutual trust.

The emergence of Left wing Trade Unions came into existence between periods from 1924 to 1940 and also a number of important Labour Acts were passed by government in the interest of workers. The communists were gaining importance in the trade union movement from 1928. As a result of this, N. M. Joshi broke away from the AITUC and formed All India Trade Union Federation (AITUF).

In year 1931, due to the fundamental differences between communists and left wing, there was another rift in the AITUC and the communists Mr. B. T. Ranadine formed the Red Trade Union Congress (TTUC). In 1935, the RTUC merged into the AITUC and finally the unity was achieved in 1940 when N.M. Joshi becoming General Secretary of the AITUC.

During the period from 1923 to 1940, the workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, the Trade Union Act, 1926, the Trade Disputes Acts, 1929, and the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, were passed in India.

During Second World War, the Indian National Congress was in power in several provinces but in year 1943 the war was coming to close and the communists decided to revert to their old role of militant trade unionism in an effort to regain their lost popularity.

The top leaders of Indian National Congress were fed-up with communist’s philosophy and formed a new trade union in May, 1947, called Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). One very important labour Act was passed government called Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.

2. Post-Independence Period:


After Independence on 15 August 1947, the government passed very important Labour Act in December, 1947 which is helping in solving the disputes between employers and employees is called Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 the INTUC started gaining importance among working class in Indian in 1948 and on other hand, socialists separated from AITUC and formed their own central organisation called Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) in 1948.

In 1949, the left wing socialists, who were dissatisfied with the policies and attitude of the Socialist Party, formed the United Trade Union Congress (UTUC). In year 1955 the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), in 1962 Confederation of Free Trade Unions (CFTU) and in 1965 Hind Mazdoor Panchayat (HMP) were formed in India. The Communists divided themselves into the CPI and CPM from AITUC in 1970.

The AITUC came under the Control of the CPI and CPM started a new organisation called centre for Indian Trade Union (CITV) on the other hand, there was rift in INTUC in 1972 and the splinter formed a new central organisation called National Labour Organisation (NLO). At present there are ten central trade unions and a number of registered federations of unions in India as against one or two in U.K., Japan, and U.S.A.

History of Trade Unions in India in Brief

The trade union movement in India started rather late, though the industrialization of the country began about 1850. The first trade union was founded by Mr. N.K. Lokhande in 1890, and was known as the Bombay Mill Hands Association. This was followed by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in India, 1897, the Printers Union of Calcutta, 1905, the Madras and Calcutta Postal Union, 1907 and the Kamgar Hitwardhak Sabha 1910.


All these trade unions aimed at promoting welfare activities for workers, spreading literacy among them and redressing their grievances by constitutional methods. They were, however, not trade unions in the true sense of the phrase but rather social unions, and they were completely free from even the most rudimentary touch of radicalism.

The movement was for the workers rather than by the workers, and was generally confined to the somewhat educated class of workers. As a result, it did not make much headway among those employed in the textile, mining and plantation industries. The leadership in this movement was provided mostly by social reformers, careerists and politicians-cum-nationalists.

The movement developed somewhat during the First World War, although it began to take roots in the country only after the end of this catastrophic conflict. Frequent rise or fall in prices, the Swaraj Movement, the Russian Revolution and the setting up of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) — all these affected the ideas of the workers, and intensified the sense of class-consciousness among them.

By 1920, there was a fairly large class of industrial employees, many of whom joined the various unions — the Indian Seamen’s Union, the Madras Textile Labourers Union, the Jamshedpur Labour Association, the G.I.P. Workers’ Union, and the Colliery Employees Association of Jharia.


The Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association came into being following the initiative taken for that purpose by Mahatma Gandhi, which was the forerunner of the Indian National Trade Union Congress set up in 1947.

National leaders provided the political climate in which the trade union movement thrive. At the same time, the manner in which it was conducted generated a mounting sense of bitterness among the employers, for trade unions formed for the purpose of getting higher wages for workers.

In 1928, when the Communists gained influence in the trade union movement, one of the longest and costliest trials of strength ensued between the Communists and others, which continued for about four-and-a-half years.

On the questions of the boycott of the Whitley Commission, the affiliation of the All-India Trade Union Congress with the League against Imperialism (The Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, a camouflaged Communist Organisation) and the sending of a delegation to the ILO Conference, the moderates, headed by N.M. Joshi, broke away from the AITUC and formed another organisation, the All-India Trade Union Federation.

In 1931, following fundamental differences between the Communists and left-wing unionists, there was another rift in the AITUC, and the Communists, led by B.T. Ranadive and others formed the Red Trade Union Congress. Two years later, the National Federation of Labour was formed, which attempted to facilitate the unity of all the left-wing organizations of labour.

The AITUF and NFL joined together to form the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF). The AITUC and the RTUC, however, remained aloof. In 1935, the RTUC merged into the AITUC.


During the Second World War, the Indian National Congress was in power in seven provinces. There were big strikes, which made it possible for labour to organise a larger number of trade unions. After nine years of split, the NTUF was dissolved and the organisation merged into the AITUC (in 1940), which became the sole representative of organised labour.

In the following year, however, there was another split, when the radicals in the organisation broke away from the parent body to form the Indian Federation of Labour, which was recognised by the government as a representative organisation of Indian labour. By the end of the war, the Communists dominated the AITUC, while the Royists controlled the IFL.

As a result of these developments, a qualitative change came about in the trade union movement, which made it possible for labour to participate in negotiations with employers and in tripartite deliberations.

When attempts to restructure the AITUC failed, those who favoured the ideals of socialism and shared the views of the Indian National Congress separated from the labour organisation, and set up the Indian National Trade Union Congress in 1947. When, in the following year, the Socialists broke away from the Indian National Congress, they formed the Praja Socialist Party, whose supporters in the labour movement established what came to be known as the Hindustan Mazdoor Panchayat (HMP).

Later, this organisation and IFL merged to form the Hind Mazdoor Sabha. In 1949, a group of left wing Socialists, who were dissatisfied with the policies and attitude of the Socialist Party, established the United Trade Union Congress. These moves and counter moves in favour of a split or unity continued to dominate the labour scene for a number of years.

After 1952, a number of efforts were made for bringing about unity in the movement such as in 1953, and 1958. In 1959, a few unions led by the members of the socialist party seceded from the H.M.S. and formed Hind Mazdoor Panchayat (H.M.P.). It became the organ of Samyukta Socialist Party and was launched in 1962.


In 1962, a new organisation called Confederation of Free Trade Unions (CFTU) was formed as a result of the active interest taken in its formation by the International Confederation of Christian Trade Union and the support of the Swatantra Party.

There was again a rift in the AITUC in 1970, when the Communists divided themselves into the CPI and CPM. The AITUC came under the control of the CPI and the CPM started a new organisation — the Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU).

The split in the Indian National Congress in two separate groups in 1972 also resulted in a change in the INTUC. The ruling Congress party retained its control on the INTUC and the (Organisation Congress) severed itself from the INTUC and formed a new union — National Labour Organisation (NLO).

In September 1972, a new development took place. With the formation of National Council of Central Trade Union (NCCTU), providing a common platform for trade union activities of the AITUC, INTUC and HMS, CITU was isolated. It, therefore, formed a United Council of Trade Union (UCTU) as rival body of NCCTU. Since then, both these bodies have ceased to exist.

After the declaration of the emergency, again the INTUC, AITUC and HMS combined and joined with employers’ representatives on what was called National Apex Body. With the lifting of emergency and the installation of the Janata Government at the Centre, this body ceased to exist.

There were 28,924 registered trade unions of which 8,177 were submitting returns and these had a membership of 54.47 lakh in 1977, as against 14,370 registered unions, 7,086 submitting returns with a membership of 43.69 lakh in 1966.


At present, there are five major central trade union organizations, namely, INTUC, BMS, HMS, AITUC and CITU. Other trade unions are Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat (HMKP), Indian Federation of Free Trade Union (IFFTU), National Front of Indian Trade Union (NFITU), National Labour Organization (NLO), Trade Unions Coordination Centre (TUCC), United Trade Union Congress (UTUC) and United Trade Union Congress-Lenin Sarani (UTUC-LS)

History of Trade Unions in India – Stages of Trade Union Movement Development in India

The stages of trade union movement in India can be divided into the following periods:

Stage # i. Period between 1875-1918:

The first period stand from 1875 and goes up to the end of First World War. The period may be called as the period of social welfare also. In the present form trade unions came into existence in 1854 in Bombay. The founder of organised labour movement in India may be said to be Mr. N.M. Lokhande who a factory worker himself.

His agitation gave the birth first factory commission in Bombay and on account of that the mill owners gave half an hour leave to the workers compensated. A new factories Act, was passed in 1890 which introduced several amendments Mr. Lokhande was started. But the labour movement of India during this period was wholly unorganized and social in character.

The union formed during this period lacked definite aim and constitution and the leaders worked mostly in advisory capacity. Dr. Punekar has characterized this period as the ‘social welfare period’ of our early trade union movement.

Stage # ii. Period of 1918-1924:

The close of the First World War saw the beginning of the labour movement in truly modern sense of the term. During this period many labour organisations were developed and organised. In this period the leadership of labour movement came in the hands of politicians, doctors and advocates.


Economic and political conditions of that time also contributed to this awakening. At different places and in different industries labour unions were formed. In Ahmedabad Anusuyaben established a trade union in textile industries in 1917. In Madras Mr. B.P. Wadia established it in 1918. Between 1918 and 1924. Scores of unions came into existence in the country. At the national level All India Trade Union Congress was established in 1920.

Stage # iii. Period between 1924-1935:

The their phase of the Indian labour movement which may be called ‘The period of left wing Trade Unionism’ started in 1924 and lasted up to the year if 1935. During this period there was domination of communism in India. 1924 strikes dormant and till now became intense and many communist leaders were arrested in the country. Labour movement took militant form in 1926.

Indian Labour Union Act was passed AITUC was bifurcated and a new party Indian Trade union Federation came into existence. In 1931 AITUC was again dissented in Calcutta session and under the leadership of Mr. B.T. Randive a separate party All India Red Trade Union Congress was established.

During 1931 at Delhi National Federation of Labour was established and including the India Trade Union Federation a new name National Trade Union Federation was given. In 1935 Red Trade Union Congress again united with All India Trade Union Congress.

Stage # iv. Unity Period of Labour (1935):

This period is the time of unity of the labour movement and revolutionary procedure. With the new constitution of 1935 they united with the efforts of Trade Union Unity Committee in 1938. National Trade Union Federation and AITUC made a pact and both joined AITUC. There was no division labour union increased; while in 1935 it numbered 101, it reached 169 during 1939 and more strikes occurred.

Stage # v. Second World War Period (1939-46):

Trade union became very strong during this period. War time price rise led to awakening in workers with development of collective bargaining capacity and arbitration policy during war time lead to its development at rapid pace. Such chances developed labour union quickly and their number of members grew. Government and employers were cooperative to the unions. Even then trade unions have less unity.

In 1900 NTUF joined AITUC. There were differences about joining war with Britain Extremists dissociated from AITUC and established India Federation of Labour. In 1942 Quit India Movement was started AITUC came under the leadership of communists. During this period the Industrial Relations Act 1946 was passed and Industrial Disputes Bill was proposed.

Stage # vi. Present Period (1947 to Present Time):

After independence trade union movement had important changes. In 1947 Hind Mazdoor Sang established Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). 1948 Praja Socialist Party established Hind Mazdoor Panchayat which during 1948 joined India Federation of Labour and it was renamed as Hind Mazdoor Sabha. In 1949 United Trade Union Congress was established.

Government recognised these four Centrum organisations for the purpose of representation at national and international levels INTUC, AITUC, HMS and UTUC. Besides these four some other federations have come into existence — of Jan Sing the All India Bhartiya Mazdoor Sang was formed in the year 1955. The SSP formed Hind Mazdoor Panchayat in 1965.

The CPM party formed the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Thus we see that after independence the trade union movement has been dominated by political parties. The government amended the Trade Unions Act 1926 many times to get this movement free from politicians and outside interventional. But this aim could not be achieved. These two important features outside leadership and political affiliation continues even today.

History of Trade Unions in India (with Measures to Strengthen Trade Union)

Trade union movement in India, like any other industrially-developed country in the world, has a long history. However, we shall not go to trace the detailed history but confine only to major developments so as to arrive at the present scenario. Trade union activities started in India with the formation of Bombay Mill Hands Association in 1890.

This was followed by formation of some other trade unions at places like Kolkata and Chennai. All these unions aimed at promoting welfare activities for workers, spreading literacy among them, and redressing their grievances by legal methods. The leadership to these unions was provided mostly by social reformers and politicians.

During the First World War (1914-1919) and immediately afterwards, certain events like Russian Revolution (1917), setting up of International Labour Organization (1919), and Swaraj Movement, etc. facilitated the trade union movement which led to the formation of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).

Formation of AITUC prompted the formation of a number of trade unions — industry-wise-as well as region-wise. In 1926, the Trade Unions Act was enacted to provide legal status to union activities and registration of unions under the Act. During late 1920s, ideological differences among top union leaders started emerging on political lines and many leaders left AITUC and formed National Trade Union Federation.

During the period of Second World War (1939-1945), trade union activities were lying low as the strikes and lockouts were banned under the Defence of India Rules. In the post-war period, the political leaders were busy in political activities and trade union activities suffered.

After the independence, the growth of trade unions followed the pattern of development of political parties. Thus, Congress Party formed the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) in 1947; Praja Socialist Party formed Hind Mazdoor Sabha in 1948. Meanwhile Communist Party of India took over the control of AITUC. With the proliferation of political parties, the trade unions also proliferated.

Presently, the more active central trade unions are as follows:

1. Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) — Congress Party

2. All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) — Communist Party

3. Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) — Communist (Marxists)

4. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) — Bharatiya Janata Party

5. Hind Mazdoor Sangh (HMS) — Former Praja Socialist Party

Federations of Trade Unions:

1. All India Bank Employees Association

2. National Federation of Indian Railway Men

3. All India Post and Dock Workers Federation

4. All India Mine Worker Federation

5. National Federation of Post and Telegraph Workers

6. Indian Federation of Working Journalists

INTUC and HMS are affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions while AITUC is affiliated with the worked Federation of Trade Unions. There are approximated nine thousand trade unions including unregistered unions and more than seventy federations and confederations registered under the Trade Union Act, 1926 in India. In fact, the trade union movement has gathered speed after independence. Trade Unions have been playing the role of agitators and bargainers.

There is high degree of unionization in Coal, Cotton, Cement, Mine, Textiles, Steel Railways, Ports and Docks, Tobacco, Banking and Insurance. On the other hand, white collar unions are also increasing in India. The degree of unionism is high in organized industrial sector and agricultural sector but in unorganized sectors is very less numbers. The membership figures have not changed significantly over the years only 10% of the total workforce in India is unionized.

Measures to Strengthen Trade Union Movement in India:

The following are some of the measures to minimize trade union problem and to strengthen the Trade Union Movement in India:

1. It should be the constant endeavour of policy makers to aim at the unity of trade union Organizations, so that they may be brought together on the basis of a common programme. There should be legal provision for the recognition of the representative union. Due recognition should be given to trade unions as the legitimate bargaining agents of workers.

2. Outside political leadership has been developed due to the absence of internal leadership. Outside leadership is the main cause for the multiple problems of the trade union. The problems can be eradicated through the development of leadership talents from within. Management should encourage internal workers to lead their own movement. Management and trade union should provide educational and training facilities for the development of internal leadership.

3. The functions of trade unions should be widened and broadened. In addition to safeguarding the economic interests of their members, they should be encouraged to assume social responsibilities. As far as possible, trade unions should be drawn into participation in the development programme of the country.

4. The Trade Union Act of 1956 should be amended and the number of members required to a trade union should be increased from 7 per cent to 50 per cent of the employees of the organization. Similarly, the scope for outside leadership should be reduced from 50 per cent to 10 per cent.

The membership subscription should be enhanced from 25 paise to 1 per cent of the monthly wages of the worker. The Trade Union Act should be amended in order to avoid dual membership.

5. Trade union should not unnecessarily involve in the management decision, where their interference reduces the organizational effectiveness.

6. Trade union should form a labour party and trade union in the country should be affiliated to it. It gives adequate strength to the trade unions both in the industry and in the Parliament.

7. Paid union officials should be employed, so that they may devote their whole time to union work.