D. Goonawardena

The Heroic Struggle of the Workers

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 11, May 1929, No. 5, pp. 306-308, (1,332 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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Since 1921, Labour has begun to organise in Ceylon. The harbour strike of 1927 made the power of organised Labour felt. In October of last year the All-Ceylon Trade Union Congress was formed and a Labour Party has been organised to carry on the political side of the struggle. On January 4, 1929, the conductors, drivers and other employees of the Colombo Electric Tramway and Lighting Co., Ltd., formed themselves into the Tramwaymen’s Union and affiliated it to the Trade Union Congress.

On January 10 they submitted a memorandum of their demands. At present they start work with 1s. 9d. per day; from the seventh year, 3s., and at the end of eighteen years, 4s. per day. They asked for an all-round increase of 50 per cent. in wages and a general improvement in conditions of work. Mr. Goenesingha, the President of the Trade Union Corigress, made a compromise and persuaded the men to ask for only a 20-25 per cent, increase in wages and general improvement in conditions. Messrs, Boustead Bros., the local agents of the company, granted a few minor concessions as regards leave and overtime, but refused to consider the vital question of wages. On the 21st Mr. Goenesingha asked for the reinstatement of a dismissed conductor, and on the refusal of Mr. Boustead to consider the matter he threatened a strike. Mr. Boustead asked him to go ahead. On January 23, 150 men struck work, principally on the question of wages, but expressed their willingness to submit the dispute to arbitration. The Bousteads, confident of victory, called for “volunteers” and started recruiting a new staff. They issued reports that, as far as the company was concerned, the strike was over, and threatened to cancel the privilege of superannuation gratuities. A few English planters and assistants in firms “volunteered” to scab, but at no time was the company able to run anything near a normal service.

Both sides prepared for a bitter struggle. At a mass meeting of the strikers and their sympathisers it was decided to launch a vigorous campaign to boycott the trams. Colombo and approaches to it were placarded with posters asking the public to boycott the trains and “show sympathy for the sufferers.” The Labour Union ran its own fleet of motor-cars as an alternative service. Public sympathy began to mobilise for the strikers. “The public” began to serve the boycotters with “soft drinks.” Funds began to pour in to aid the strikers. The law students in red sashes demonstrated their support in front of the Labour Union Offices. The mercantile clerks went in procession in the streets and expressed their sympathy. The railway workers displayed their sympathy in even more vigorous ways.

From the beginning, two armed policemen guarded every car, and this number was increased as the strike progressed. The tramway routes were lined with police. At important junctions there were stationed detachments of police in charge of senior officers. Colombo began to take on the appearance of an armed camp. Labour Union volunteers and their sympathisers were assaulted and arrested. The hostility of the police and the agitation among the people were daily showing themselves in strong colours. A clash seemed inevitable.

Labour looked for fresh weapons, and found the sympathetic strike ready at hand. Messrs. Bousteads are agents for a number of companies, so a boycott of their goods in the harbour was declared. The piling up of goods in the harbour and “good offices” of Mr. Hayley, President of the Chamber of Commerce, negotiations were started on February 1. An understanding was arrived at, but the shrewd lawyers of the company drew up an agreement which even a local capitalist paper called “an inhuman document,” and which drew from Goenesingha the remark: “I am not a lunatic to sign it.”

The boycott was stiffened, and the men prepared for a “fight to a finish.” Public feeling was running high. Again, on February 4, protracted negotiations were started by Mr. Hayley, the high priest of “industrial peace,” in order to bring about “a peaceful settlement.” An agreement was arrived at, but the Bousteads wanted time till twelve noon of the 5th even to cable London for permission to arbitrate. On the morning of the 5th Mr. Goenesingha and other labour leaders were assaulted by the police. When the news of these incidents spread to the workshops and the harbour, nearly 20,000 men “downed tools,” and there occurred a “spontaneous general strike.” The men marched to the Labour Union offices and the police headquarters. However, the agreement was signed at 11.20 a.m., and the men were calmed and persuaded to go back to work. Mr. Goenesingha undertook to call off the strike till the 10th, pending a reply from London. But it was too late. Crowds began to gather in the streets. The attempt of an armed police guard to arrest two men in the railway workshops brought strong resistance. By 5.30 the crowds were so thick and threatening that the police, in panic, withdrew to the security of their headquarters. The crowds demanded the release of the men arrested. A baton charge proved futile. A stray shot killed an onlooker. The sight of the dead body made them furious and thirsting for vengeance. They cut off the telephone and electric light wires and a gas-main, burned the record office and a fire engine, and barricaded the entrances to the P.H.Q. with municipal refuse carts. The Fort police and the Royal garrison. Artillery were called and firing ordered. The Fort Police and “the Boys of the Bulldog Breed” came firing from a distance. Firing lasted twenty minutes, five were left dead and about 250 wounded, mostly onlookers and men at the railway station.

For two days the police could not appear in the streets. Their sight was anathema to the public; whenever they appeared they were greeted with a shower of bottles, brick-bats, etc. The Labour Union volunteers stepped into the breach and kept order. They were not authorised to do so, but they displayed initiative and commonsense and left parliamentary imbeciles to talk about fine constitutional points. On February is the Company cabled from London its willingness to submit wages for arbitration, but superannuation gratuities were to be granted only on “good behaviour.” Goenesingha persuaded the men to accept the terms, and the strike came to an end. The same day the “European” Volunteer Force held a route march in Colombo—rating the sanctions of imperialism.

The tramwaymen’s strike demonstrates the militancy, organising ability and the solidarity of the workers of Ceylon, but the leaders displayed lamentable confusion and muddle-headedness. Not understanding the class nature of the state, they considered the police to be impartial in an industrial dispute.

Messrs. Goenesingha, C.H.Z. Fernando and Mahadeva negotiated with high government officials for the substitution of Ceylonese police by English police, thereby losing public sympathy. They wanted “educated English police who understand the proper functions of Labour Unions,” in place of the ignorant Ceylonese police who only carry out Government orders. This tendency on the part of the Labour Leaders is a direct result of the machinations of MacDonald, Purcell. & Co. Until Goenesingha attended the Commonwealth Labour Conference last summer, he was a splendid fighter for the working class, but since his return, confused by Fabian mysticism, he has become an advocate of “industrial peace.” The renegade MacDonald is moving heaven and earth to keep the Colonial labour movements as appendages to his own bankrupt Party and to prevent the Colonial workers from giving any support to the nationalist movements against imperialism. The opportunist labour leaders of Ceylon are helping these renegades who are trying to camouflage imperialism. But the workers of Ceylon, driven by objective conditions and the infiltration of new ideas, are beginning to open their eyes. They, by their heroic efforts for two weeks and by a final demonstration on February 5, showed what mettle they are made of.