World of Labour


South Indian Railway Strike

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 10, October 1928, No. 6, pp. 636-639, (1,6195 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.

For sometime the railway unions of India had been in a state of ferment, due to the tremendous retrenchment proposals put forward by the agents of the railways, which meant that at least 75,000 railway workers would be dismissed. An agitation was set on foot by the leaders of the various unions catering for the railway workers for a general strike, to prevent the proposals being put into operation.

At a meeting on June 16, the SI Railway workers decided to lay certain proposals before the agent requesting him to postpone the retrenchment proposals, which had been placed before the men. The following day a Strike Committee was elected and it was decided to organise a stay-in strike.

On June 28 the Central Committee of the S.I.R. Union wired the agent requesting him to give a decision on points raised previously: The withdrawal of Circular 202 (dealing with retrenchment), increase of pay for unskilled and all-round increase in wages, and stating that failing a reply a stay-in strike would take place in the shops on the line. The reply of the agent was to the effect that the retrenchment policy was the direct result of a Government inquiry. The next day, the workers at Negapatum commenced a stay-in strike. By 11 o’clock orders came through from the agent of the railway declaring a lock-out. Over 8,000 were affected at Negapatum, Podamur, Golden Rock and Trichinopoly, and police were drafted in and placed at all the important centres.

The Central Committee of the Union stated that the minimum demands of the workers would be:—

(1) All round increases of 25 per cent. in wages.
(2) Minimum for gangmen to be Rs. 30.
(3) Withdrawal of Circular 202.

Meanwhile several prominent Labour leaders condemned the strike action. S.V. Aiyar, editor of the Indian Railway Magazine and president of the M. and S.M. Railway Emproyees Union, states:—

Capital has resources behind it . . . . There is no strike fund and donations from Saklatvala and others from England will not feed 40,000 mouths.

Ernest Kirk, General Secretary of the Madras Labour Union condemned the strike action, and said:—

I am not against a strike, but if initiated and rushed and wire-pulled by adherents of Moscow it is severely handicapped from the outset.

Resolutions of protests were made at the workers’ meetings against Aiyar for “betraying the interests of the workers” and Kirk for “working against the Central Committee.”

On July 6, a complete “Hartal” was observed at Trichinopoly. All business was suspended. The vegetable and grain markets remained closed in sympathy with the locked-out workers and a procession 3,000 strong marched through the town.

At all the other centres resolutions were passed calling for a general strike all along the line. Meanwhile, arrangements were made to call a conference of the A.I. Railway Federation. By this time preparations were being made to call a general strike for July 20. R.V. Naidu, president of the S.I.R. Employees Association, appealed to the workers not to participate; since “constitutional agitation is our watchword.” But telegrams sent by the president of the Union were held up by the authorities as “being objectionable.”

On the 18th, Pillai, president of the S.I.R. Labour Union, wrote the agent asking whether he agreed to accept Labour Commissioners or Arbitrators on the following points:—

(1) Lock-out wages.
(2) Surplus to be absorbed after voluntary resignation.
(3) Unskilled wages to be increased.
(4) Running staff grievances.

The agent replied on the same day, stating that reductions were inevitable; that the question of pay was not one for arbitration, as the principle of no-work, no pay will be observed, that the unskilled rate of pay was fair and reasonable. He was prepared for negotiation or arbitration on the other matters, on condition that all agitation for a general strike ceased.

The reply was considered unsatisfactory and after another attempt to come to an agreement, it was decided that the strike should be called for the 20th. The Labour weekly, Thozilalee, issued a strike supplement printed in red, wall-papers and leaflets were issued by the strike committee, but the labour leader, Ernest Kirk, warned the workers “not to be carried away by Communist ideas being imported into the Union.”

On the 20th, the strike commenced. Practically all unskilled and night staff left duty. All work stopped at the central stations. The authorities replied to the strike by organised terrorism. The few trains that were running were escorted by reserve police with loaded guns. Meetings were dispersed, and at Korandi were prohibited within a radius of five miles. At Egmore forty men were served with notices prohibiting them from attending meetings. Within three days there were sixty-two arrests, and thirty men had been sent to the Shirjaki sub-jail.

At Mayavaram about 5,000 strikers lay on the rails and refused to let the Ceylon boat-train, under strong escort, pass. The police interfered and arrested nine, but the engine fires were put out. Later, about 8 o’clock, the crowd of strikers increased at the station and some stone-throwing began. The police opened fire on the strikers and it is stated that five were killed, several injured and about fifteen arrested. At Tuticorin there was also firing by police and seven were injured, and a shepherd named Kone was bayoneted and died later. Fourteen coolies were arrested. At Villupuram, when a train reached the station, it is stated that some stones were thrown, and the police in reply charged the crowd of strikers with drawn bayonets and fired. buckshots. Six were killed and twenty-two wounded.

The Forward said of this incident that:—

The race of dividend hunters will easily detect in these violent actions the mystic hands of Moscow. But can outside influences work so much havoc upon men’s minds as to make them lay open their hearts to the policemen’s bullets?

By the 25th D.K. Pillai, the president of the Central Committee, was arrested and searches made in the private residences of the Committee members and the Union offices.

T.K. Naidu, secretary of the Engineering Workshop Labour Union, and a member of the Strike Committee was arrested on the 26th, and P. Mudalier and V. Aujar, general secretary and vice-president of the Central Committee, were arrested at Madura.

On the 26th the Strike Committee issued a statement denying charges of sabotage and agreeing to go to arbitration on the four points previously given.

V. Aujar, who had been released on bail, stated at a meeting on the same day that the strike was premature, and Ernest Kirk, in an interview, attacked the Strike Movement saying:—

The strike is due to the influence of Communists. . . . The militant Moscow virus has already got into the blood of several leading branch officers and members of the Central Committee.... I would get into communication with the agent at once and agree to call off the strike provided he would be willing to resume negotiations.

The next day, the 27th, the Union secretary at Tinnevelly, M. Pillai without any instructions from the Central Committee called off the strike. Most of the strikers were unwilling to resume work and the action of Pillai was challenged, but a small number began work.

The same day, Narayanaswami, the secretary of the Podanur Branch, Chari, the manager of Thozilalee office, and Arumugan, a member of the Strike Committee, along with R. Naidu, president of the Madras Branch and six strikers were arrested.

At Trichinopoly and Madura the strike was in full swing, but at other places a few had started work.

On the 30th Krishnamachari, the secretary, and Pillai, treasurer of the S.I.R. Local Labour Union, the only members of the Strike Committee left after the arrests, issued this statement:—

We have demonstrated to the public our capacity for organisation and concerted action . . . (but) we find that the public have suffered in this quarrel between Capital and Labour and we are very sorry that we were forced to go on strike much against our wishes . . . relying on the justice of our cause we are determined to continue our fight by peaceful methods and with the sole aim of sparing the public all inconvenience, we have decided to call off the strike from 6 a.m. on the 30th.

Although the strike had been called off a large number were still out on August 1.

On the 2nd the agent stated that the whole staff were working. He also stated that the recognition given to the Union was withdrawn; that no strike pay would be paid, adding that he had the full approval of the Government. No points are to be submitted to arbitration, but if there are some outstanding he will consider submitting them to the Commissioner of Labour.

The governing authorities did not intend to run any risks for even when Joshi, Giri and Naidu arrived at Negapatum, on August 7, they were prohibited from speaking or attending meetings within a radius of five miles.

A commentary on one cause of the collapse of the strike was made by Jhabwalla who stated, at a meeting on July 18, that the leaders of the strike had wired to him concerning concerted action by the G.I.P., the B.B., the C.I. and the S.I.R. workers. He had immediately wired back asking them to wait until July 28. It appeared that the telegraphic communications were held up by the authorities. To his surprise the strike was declared on the 20th, and was bound to fail for want of organisation and support.

Since the calling off of the strike about twenty-seven strikers have been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, about thirty-six to three months and about forty-three others for periods of two to four months.