Main LA Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Labor Action, 6 January 1947


A Report from the Ceylonese Trotskyists:

Story of the Ceylon General Strike


From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 1, 6 January 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In a recent issue of Labor Action we reported briefly on sweeping strike events in Ceylon, the colonial island of the British Empire, lying off the coast of India. The Trotskyists of the island played a major role in the leadership of this strike. Below we are publishing first accounts of the events of the strike itself, as reported in Sama Samajist, the official paper of the Ceylonese Troskyists.Editor


On Wednesday, October 16, 1946, daily-paid workers in government workshops and factories at Ratmalana, Dematagoda and Kolonnawa struck work as a last resort after repeated representations to the government to redress their grievances. By 2 p.m. on Wednesday the 16th of October 7,0000 workers in the railway, P.W.D. Factory and the Electrical Department were out to demonstrate that they were determined by their united strength to obtain their demands, which had been communicated to the government repeatedly. Their central ‘demands are: (1) Parity in the increment of wages between daily-paid and higher monthly paid staffs of the government; the removal of all service restrictions imposed on workers who left their workshops to look after their families when the Japanese bombed Ceylon in 1942; (2) Housing or rent allowance in lieu of houses; (3) Full trade union rights for all government workers; (4) No victimization, the reinstatement of all workers interdicted or dismissed since the 1st of October (the 85 overseers and attendants dismissed or interdicted from duty at the Angoda Mental Hospital and the Galle Hospital).

On Saturday the 12th of October at a mammoth meeting of government workers held under the auspices of the Federation of Government Workers’ Unions in Price Park, speakers from various workshops and factories of the government reiterated their demands and expressed their determination to fight for their just and legitimate rights. The Federation of Government Workers’ Unions made representations to the government and expressed its desire to negotiate with representatives of fhe government a method of finding ways and means of redressing the grievances of daily-paid workers. The Federation, however, never called upon workers to strike. The strike has been forced on the workers by obdurate heads of departments, by the insolence of the Chief Secretary and the callousness of the Board of Ministers who increased the salaries of Civil List and Higher Officers of the Public Service at the expense of the daily-paid, lower and middle rungs of the public service.

The strike which commenced on Wednesday, October 16, 1946 began to sweep everything before it. The Hydro-Electric Scheme workers joined the strike on October 16, 1946 as soon as they had news of the strike in Colombo. From 12 midnight on Wednesday lightermen, wharf laborers and dockers started to come out. By noon on Thursday, October 17, 1946, the Port of Colombo ceased to function, the entire staff of the Harbor Engineers Department walked out at 11 a.m. and marched to Price Park through the Fort and Pettah in a giant demonstration. On Thursday the Pettah Power Station and the smaller stations and substations of the Electrical Department were affected by the strike. The strikers held demonstrations and meetings every day at the factories and workshops in Price Park and on Galle Face Green. The entire proletariat of Colombo was roused and its militancy reached white heat. On Friday workers in the Gas Company, workers at the Turf Club, over 2000 Municipal workers, largely scavengers’ and sweepers’ sections – and the ceramic factory workers in Negombo were involved in the strike. On Saturday workers in the CTO central end branch workshops joined the strike and sections of the Civil Defense Department came out.

The workers of the Irrigation Workshops at Ratmalana and Maradana had struck work on Friday. By Sunday morning the army of strikers had swelled to about 30,000. The government was taken by surprise by the rapidity with which the working class struck its blows at vital sections in the communications system of the government. The Ceylonese bourgeoisie was stunned by the sweep of the strike. All their plans were upset. It was not till Saturday evening that the Board of Ministers began to display that it .. was recovering from the panic into which it had been driven by the sledge-hammer blows of the general strike initiated by workers in government workshops, factories, port, railway, etc. Hospital workers, despite grave provocation by the Director of Medical and Sanitary Services and the Minister of Health, refrained from joining the strike till late on Tuesday. The strike was reaching its peak. Over 30,000 workers were affected. The railway was paralyzed. The government workshops and factories were idle. The port functioned with the aid of troops and prison labor to unload a few food ships. The Electrical Department was limping. Paralysis was affecting the entire communications system of the government. The working class was marching forward with confidence and courage. The strike was still expanding. Its heavy blows were falling on vital sections in the government machine. The appearance of M.G. Mendis of the Stalinist-controlled Ceylon Trade Union Federation and Mr. Goonesingha of the Ceylon Trade Union Congress on the platform of the Federation of Government Workers’ Unions at Price Park and Galle Face gave confidence and courage to the older and less developed sections of the working class. Their speeches rallied wavering and timid elements of the working class to the struggle.

Social Crisis At Work

By Saturday a new development made the working, class pause to take stock of its position. The long-drawn-out strike in the Exchange Banks was concluded by Mr. Goonesingha without consulting the Bank Clerks Union. There was strong opposition to this betrayal of the strikers in the Exchange Banks just at the moment when the most militant sections of the working class had marched into battle against the boss class and their government. It was at this stage that the Stalinist-controlled CTUF came forward with a proposal to limit the expanding general strike to the port and the railway and send the strikers in other places back to work. That the united front of working-class parties in support of the workers in the struggle was short lived was clear to the Ceylonese bourgeoisie. The compromisist political parties in the working class, the Stalinists and the Labour Party, were not reluctant to let the government understand that they were not willing to enter into a fight to a finish. The Board of Ministers was quick to grasp the changed situation behind the appearance of unity in the camp of the working-class parties. The Ceylonese bourgeoisie recovered its equilibrium and planned to crush the rising tide of working-class revolt.

The Board of Ministers met the Governor on Friday afternoon. The Governor’s broadcast on Saturday evening gave expression to the recovery from panic the Ceylonese bourgeoisie had gained. The Governor’s speech betrayed the dilemma the Board of Ministers is confronted with. The desire to use armed force to suppress the working-class upsurge is mixed with the fear of consequences of the use of armed force. The speech reveals the velvet glove in which the mailed fist is hidden. The Ministers are confronted with the necessity of using the police and the army to force the strikers back to work without alienating public opinion by the premature use of violence. Thus arises the need to prepare the public mind by horror stories of alleged sabotage and violence by the strikers. The capitalist press made the maximum use of the railway accident at Ratmale near Anuradhapura.

At the time of our going to press the strike is still expanding. The militancy of the strikers is undiminished. Fresh waves of strikers in the local government services are joining the roaring flood of working class revolt against Intolerable conditions imposed on it by the aftermath of the Second Imperialist World War. Capitalism and imperialism in Ceylon are in the throes of an insoluble crisis.

Top of page

Main LA Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 26 November 2020