In this article we will discuss about the origin and development of trade unions in India.

Labour movement is a wider term and it includes trade union movement Labour movement implies, in some degrees, a community of outlook. It is an organisation or rather many forms of organisations based upon the sense of a common status and common need of mutual help. It seeks to develop among workers a spirit of combination, class-consciousness and solidarity of interest and arouses a consciousness, for self-respect, rights and duties.

It creates organisation for their self-protection, safeguarding of their common interest and betterment of their social and economic position. A trade union, on the other hand, is essentially a basis of labour movement, without which labour movement cannot exist, because trade unions are the principal schools where workers learn the lesson of self-reliance and solidarity.

There is a lot of confusion in the use of these two terms. There is a slight difference between the two. We can better understand the terms as labour movement is ‘for the workers’ and trade union movement is ‘by the workers’. Every effort whether made by labourers themself through trade unions or by other persons such as social reformers labour leaders etc., is a part of labour movement and not that of trade union movement.


Trade union movement, on the other hand, is a movement by the workers through their trade unions or associations. In India, the labour movement started in 1875 when a number of measures to improve the lot of workers were taken by the Government, social reformers and enlightened employers, whereas, the Trade union movement was started in 1918, when the workers formed their association to improve their conditions.

Like other countries, development of trade union movement in India is co-extensive with large scale industries. Development of large industrial units brought about many changes in working and living environment of workers and created a number of complex problems. Introduction of machinery, new lines of production, concentration of industries in certain big cities gave birth to a new class of wage earners and divided the industrial society into capitalist and labourers or haves and have nots.

In the absence of any organisation, they were ruthlessly exploited and had to work in unbelievably pitiable conditions. Individual protests could have no effect on employers and therefore, they consolidated and united themselves to protect from the inhuman acts of the employers. They join hands and make protest on an organised scale, and formed labour unions.

The growth and development of labour movement and that of trade unions in India can be studied under the following stages:


(1) Period upto First World War (from 1875 to 1918):

Due to the development of large scale industries, many social evils like employment and exploitation of woman and child labour erupted in India who work in the deplorable conditions, more likely worse than the conditions of labour in England. Workers were not organised at that time and were very often at the mercy of the employers.

The first concerted action was taken in 1875 under the leadership of Sorabji Shaparji who along with some social workers started the agitation to draw the attention of the Government to the deplorable conditions of woman and child labour in Indian industries. Strikes were not absent even in the 19th century. In 1877, workers of The Empress Mills at Nagpur observed a strike over wage rates.

One of the important incidents in the eighties was the holding of the labour conference in 1884 in Bombay under the leadership of N.M. Lokhande who was a factory worker. A Memorandum was submitted to the Second Factory Commission to highlight the poor conditions of the workers, but no improvement was noticed. As a result, a mass meeting was organised in Bombay on April 21, 1890 which was attended by about 10,000 workers.


The meeting passed a resolution demanding:

(i) One weekly off day,

(ii) Half an hour’s rest at noon,

(iii) Reduction in working hours,

(iv) Payment of wages not later than the 15th day of the month, and

(v) Compensation to injuries sustained by a worker on duty.

The mill owners agreed to grant a weekly holiday to textile workers. Encouraged by this success, the Bombay Millhand Association was formed in 1890 by Shri N. M. Lokhande. This was the first trade union in India. Mr. Lokhande also started the workers’ first newspaper, known as DINABANDHU; the purpose was to place the legitimate grievances of the workers before the authorities and also to educate the workers.

This was the memorable achievement in the trade union movement in India prior to 20th century which made an impact throughout the country. The period 1882 to 1890, had witnessed 24 strikes in the two provinces of Bombay and Madras.

In subsequent years, a number of unions were formed such as:


(a) The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of India and Burma (for European and Anglo-Indian railway employees);

(b) The Printers’ Union of Calcutta, 1905;

(c) The Bombay Postal Union at Calcutta and Madras, 1907;

(d) The Kamgar Hitwardhak Sabha, 1909; and


(e) The Social Service League, 1910.

However, these were sporadic organisations and could not make the real start in the labour movement. The leaders of such organisations were primarily social reformers and law abiding persons and belonged to moderate school of politics. The objectives of these associations were to promote welfare activities.

Actually, these associations were not trade unions. They focused attention of the public to the necessity of improving the working conditions in the factories and laid foundations for the establishment of trade unions, which came into existence after the First World War.

(2) Between the Two Great Wars (1918-1938):


After the First World War trade union movement got intensified and the leadership of trade unions passed from the hands of social workers into the hands of politicians. That was the year of labour unrest all over the country.

The factors responsible for this situation were:

(i) The industrial unrest grew up as a result grave economic difficulties created by the war. The rising cost of living prompted the workers to take collective action for the increase in their wages.

(ii) The Swaraj Movement also intensified the movement, widened the gulf between employers and employees and brought about mass awakening among the workers demanding racial equality with their British employers.

(iii) The success of Russian Revolution 1917 also created a revolutionary wave of ideas, class consciousness and self-respect among workers.

(iv) The establishment of the International Labour Organisation in 1919 gave dignity to the workers all over the world and inspired the Labour movement.


(v) The non-cooperation movement of Mahatma Gandhi during 1920-21 and his support to the demands of working class also greatly influenced the labour movement.

At about 1920, a number of trade unions were formed. The Madras Textile Labour union was formed in 1918 by B.P. Wadia which led the formation of another 14 unions during 1918-19. The active association of Mahatma Gandhi with the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association gave a new turn to the labour movement by applying the principle of non-violence.

The Government nominated some delegates to the first conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Washington in 1919 without taking into account the then existing trade unions. As a result, all the 64 trade unions with a membership of 1,40,854 met in Bombay and established the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) on 30th October, 1920 as a central organisation of trade unions.

The move was supported by a number of leaders of All India Congress including Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, Motilal Nehru, Guljari Lai Nanda, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, C.R. Das etc. The main aim of this association was to facilitate the selection of delegates to ILO and also coordinating the functions of individual trade unions.

The ILO in 1921 adopted a resolution which emphasised that the labour should be given full freedom to form a union. Thus trade union movement gets great momentum during 1920’s. The number of unions had grown to 167 claiming a membership of 2.23 lakh workers in 1924.

In 1926, the Trade Union Act was passed and a period of regulated trade unionism started. It was a central law which provided a legal status to the registered trade unions and conferred on them and their members a measure of immunity from civil suits and criminal prosecutions.


This improved the image of trade unions in the public. The Act was proved a boon to the trade unionism in India. The existing trade unions were registered under the Act and tried to get them recognised. Apart from it, several new unions came into being.

By 1929, AITUC was the only central trade union. In 1930, there was a split in the AITUC on account of ideological differences which prompted the creation of a new organisation in the name of All India Trade Union Federation (A.I.T.U.F.) under the leadership of Shri N.M. Joshi. The AITUF was renamed as Nation Trade Union Federation (NTUF) in 1933.

With the formation of AITUF, the strength of the AITUC was reduced to 21 unions with a membership of 94,000 only. In 1931, there was another rift in the AITUC at the Calcutta session due to the fundamental differences between the communist and the left wing unionists. The communists led by B.T. Ranadive and S.V. Deshpande formed a new organisation named. Red Trade Union Congress (RTUC).

Thus, at this time there were three central labour organisations i.e. AITUC, AITUF and RTUC and there were some other independent organisations like the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) and the Textile Labour Association (TLA) of Ahmedabad.

After the first split of AITUC, efforts were made towards trade union unity through the Roy group. The lead was taken by the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) which was a neutral body. It formed a Trade Union Unity Committee in 1932 at its Bombay conference. By the efforts of AIRF, certain broad conclusions were drawn which were agreeable to both the wings of the labour i.e., AITUF and the AITUC.

The final decision was taken in 1933, when a new body in the name of the National Federation of Labour (NFL) was formed. The AITUF and the railway unions amalgamated with the NFL under the new name National Trade Union Federation (NTUF). The AITUC and the RTUC, however, were unconcerned with this development.


The division in the labour movement proved very costly. In 1933, more than 50.000 workers in Bombay city were thrown out of employment and the wage rates were cut drastically under these circumstances, the period was very critical and needed unity efforts. In 1935, the RTUC was merged into the AITUC which was recognised by then as the central organisation.

In 1937, there were general elections and the Indian National Congress pledged in its manifesto that if it was voted to power, it would improve the lot of workers by improving their living standard, working conditions, and by providing security against old age, sickness and unemployment.

As a result of this alluring manifesto, the Congress came to power in Seven States. There was a big upsurge of industrial unrest culminating in big strikes. In 1937, there were 379 strikes involving about 6.47 lakh workers and resulting in a loss of about 89.82 lakh man days.

In 1938, there was another unity move through the efforts of V.V. Giri, the AITUC in its Nagpur session finally accepted the terms for merger as laid down by the NTUF.

(3) During and After the Second World War (1939-1947):

The Second World war which broke out in September 1939, created new status in the united trade union movement. The leaders of the various factions in the AITUC again divided on the question of whether the AITUC should support the Government on war. Again a rift took place in 1941 and the Radicals left the AITUC and formed a new central labour federation known as the Indian Federation of Labour (IFL).


The shifts in the national political situation, continued to affect the Indian labour movement. The political situation compelled the communists of India to support the Government on war issue and leadership of AITUC which was in the hands of Indian National Congress, fell into the hands of communists.

During war-time, the trade unions consolidated their position due to certain factors namely:

(i) The Government and a number of employers launched a number of welfare measures in a bid to increase production of war materials and other essential goods and to maintain high profits;

(ii) Recognition was awarded by many employers to gain the support of workers in production. It gave strength to unions;

(iii) The Defence of India Rule 81-A was promulgated prohibiting the strikes and lockouts and providing that all disputes would be referred to adjudication and their rewards would be enforced;

(iv) A tripartite Labour Conference was convened in 1942, for the first time, to provide a common platform for discussion and mutual understanding between employers and employees.

During war time, the trade union strength grew 865 upto 1944-45 with a membership of 8.89 lakh workers.

In 1947, the Indian national Trade Union Congress (INTUC) was formed as a labour wing of The Indian National Congress.

(4) Post Independence Period (1947 to date):

Independence and the partition of the country shattered the hope of the workers for securing high wages and better working conditions from the national Government. In order to retain the amenities already earned by the workers, a series of strikes swept the country in 1947 in which 165.63 lakh man-days were lost and 18.41 lakh workers were involved.

In post-independence period, various political parties formed and kept control over various trade unions. In 1948, when socialist group broke away from the congress in 1948 and formed a new political party i.e., Praja Socialist party.

The trade union leaders working in the INTUC and were supporters of the newly formed political party, seceded from it and formed a new central trade union organisation called the Hindustan Mazdoor Panchayat (HMP). The HMP and the Indian Federation of Labour merged together in the name of Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) in 1948.

In 1949, the radicals and leftist groups, which did not agree with the principles of both AITUC and HMS left the AITUC and formed another organization in the name of United Trade Union Congress (UTUC) on 30th April 1949.

On a close observation, one can realise that the trade union movement in India has become politically motivated. Hence any split in a political party leads to the same type of split in the trade union dominated by that party.

Thus, by 1949, there were four central organisations led by different political parties i.e., the INTUC led by Congress, the AITUC dominated by the communists, the HMS, affiliated to the Socialist party and the UTUC, led by the Revolutionary Socialist party. It was an indication that the political involvement in trade union movement still continued. After 1952, a number of efforts were made for bringing about some unity in the movement but all failed.

In 1959, a few unions led by the members of the Socialist party seceded from the HMS and formed Hind Mazdoor Panchayat, an organisation of Samyukta Socialist Party. In 1962, a new organisation called Confederation of Free Trade Unions (CFTU) was formed with the support of Swatantra Party.

There was again a rift in the AITUC in 1970 when the Communists divided into CPI and CPM. The CPI held the AITUC and the CPM formed a new central organisation: the Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU).

In 1972, the Indian National Congress split in two groups, resulting in the division of INTUC in two groups. The ruling Congress retained its control over the INTUC and the organisation Congress formed a new union: National Labour Organisation (NLO). Unions in Gujarat and Kerala are affiliated to this union (NLO).

Another interesting development took place in May 1972, when a limited accord was reached between the AITUC, the INTUC and the HMS regarding the procedure to be followed for the recognition of trade unions. As a result, a National Council of Central Trade Unions (NCCTU) was formed with representative of the AITUC, INTUC and HMS. The basic idea behind it was to isolate the CITU. The CITU, soon set up a United Council of Trade Unions (UCTU) in September; 1972 as a rival body of NCCTU.

After the declaration of Emergency again, the INTUC, the AITUC and the HMS combined and joined with the Employers’ representatives on what was called the National Apex Body. This body ceased to exist as soon as the state of Emergency was lifted.

Present Scenario of the Trade Union Movement:

The Indian Trade unions have now got a legal status and now they are not as ad-hoc bodies or strike committees. They have now become a permanent feature of the industrial society. They have succeeded in organising Central Union Federations which help in the determination of principles, philosophy, ideology and purposes of the unions and give some sense of direction to the otherwise scattered and isolated unions.

The unions now have gained a remarkable status in the labour movement. Now, the Government and the employers consult them on all matters concerning labour. Unions also participate in formulating policies and ideologies at State and National levels. Due to various reasons such as affiliation to a political party etc., led to multiplicity of unions in post-independence period.

Through the status, the unions have now gained; they have influenced public policy, labour and industrial legislations. They have succeeded in evolving suitable machinery of joint consultation to negotiate various issues between labour and management.

In the modern industrial society, the importance of trade unions have been recognised which have diminished interest in political matters. Subtle changes are visible in the pattern of political unionism.

These changes have manifested in three ways:

(i) Political leaders have secondary interest in labour union activities. Now more emphasis has been paid to labour leadership by giving more attention to the improvement of union cadre, finances and training in official administration.

(ii) The national federations have shown keen interest in long term activities, even maintaining their rival character. Now federations arranges for the training of workers.

(iii) Now trade unions function as autonomous units rather than simply as appendage of political parties.

Central Trade Unions:

At present, there is a number of central trade union organisations but five major central trade unions each having a membership of above 5 lakhs and all India character.

The central organisations are: The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), The Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS). All these organisations are being controlled by different political parties.

Besides, there are various registered federations of unions in various industries and occupations, not affiliated to any central organisations. These are: The All India Bank Employees Association, National Federation of Indian Railwaymen, All India Port and Dock Workers Federation, National Federation of Post and Telegraph Workers, All India Mine Workers Federation, Indian Federation of working socialists etc.