World of Labour


North West Railway Strike

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 7, August 1925, No. 8, pp. 504-505, (916 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The lock-out and strike of workers on the North West Indian Railway is the biggest strike that has taken place in India since the general exodus of the Bombay mill workers in the spring of 1924. It has involved a larger number of workers than even the protracted strike on the East Indian Railway in the early part of 1922, and is therefore the biggest railway strike that has yet occurred in India.

The immediate occasion for the strike was the dismissal of a prominent member of the North Western Railway Union, a worker at the railway sheds in Rawalpindi in the extreme north of the Punjab. An appeal to the management led to the lock-out of 1,200 men on March 28. The Railway Agent at Lahore refused to allow of any representations being made to him by the North Western Railway Union and at various places on the line workers began to come out in sympathy with the Rawalpindi men. As all offers by the Union to open negotiations with the Railway Management were repulsed orders for a general strike were issued for April 10.

An immediate response was forthcoming, but as usually happens in India owing to the absence of organisation, the strike was only partial and workers at different stations came out independently and at different times. By the end of April some 20,000 men were affected. The strike continued in varying degrees in different centres throughout the whole of May and June. Estimates of the total number of workers involved are conflicting, the Railway Union putting it at 40,000, while the Railway Management do not admit that more than 20,000 of the total staff of 100,000 were concerned.

The widespread nature of the strike and the stubbornness with which it has been maintained, in spite of the unyielding resistance of the Railway Management, is evidence of keenly-felt underlying grievances. The demands of the men centre round:—

(1) Recognition of the Union.
(2) An all-round 25 per cent. wage increase.
(3) Abolition of arbitrary fines and other punishments.
(4) Investigation of other grievances.

A complication exists in the existence of a second union which is recognised by the Management. This body, calling itself the “North Western Railway Recognised Union,” apparently arose by a secession from the original union with the sympathy if not at the direct instigation of the employers, and has acted as a tool of the latter and has condemned the strike. The original union was founded several years ago largely owing to the efforts of a European worker, Mr. Miller, who, like the President and Secretary, still retains his original position on the Executive Committee. The other union seems to be definitely a yellow union, a device more than once adopted by Indian capitalism, a notable instance being the bogus union formed in order to smash the Bombay Tramwaymen’s Union two years ago.

The Railway Management and the Government has throughout categorically repulsed any attempts at mediation in the strike and has demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender. Police and soldiers have been much in evidence but there have been no violent outbreaks. Of the repressive measures adopted by the Management, one which has caused the most hardship has been the eviction of railway strikers from their quarters on the Company’s property, to make way for blacklegs recruited from the agricultural a population. It is interesting to note that one of the workers thus evicted was European engine driver, and he filed a suit against the Railway Agent to restrain him from eviction and was granted a temporary injunction. In the majority of cases, however, the victims have been illiterate, low-paid Indian workers, and they have had no redress.

The Railway Union issued an appeal to the European and Anglo-Indian drivers, guards and station staff asking them to give a day’s pay and lend their support to the strike. This was countered by an appeal from the Anglo-Indian and domiciled European Association of India who asked members of that community to remain loyal and hoped that not a single one would support the strike. The Anglo-Indian Association of Lahore responded with an assurance that they were “loyal to the core.” The Anglo-Indians and Europeans mostly occupy higher posts on the railway and always receive higher pay and other privileges.

Efforts at conciliation or mediation in the strike have proved fruitless, all being brusquely refused by the Railway Management. On June 1, the All India Railwaymen’s Union Federation appealed to the Chief Commissioner of Railways for the appointment of a Conciliation Board, but without result. Shortly afterwards a renewed attempt was made by the All-India Trade Union Congress at a specially convened meeting of its Executive Council.

The Government of India replied with a telegram declaring that it considered intervention by the Trade Union Congress “undesirable,” adding—

“You will appreciate the fact that the present strike is disowned by the recognised union with which the Railway Administration has always tried to work.”

The Trade Union Executive appointed its chairman, Mr. C F. Andrews, to make an inquiry in the Punjab and if possible to begin mediation. The Railway Administration, however, continued adamant and by the end of June the strike was called off, most of the railway workers being starved into submission. The strike thus ends in total defeat for the workers, but even during July many of the railwaymen who had gone back to their village homes did not return to apply for work.