Labour Monthly

Indian Workers' Great One-Day Strike

BY Ben Bradley

Source : Labour Monthly  January, 1939, No.1.
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML : Salil Sen
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). 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 most important event in India of recent times was the tremendous one-day strike against the Bombay Trades Dispute Bill. In Bombay alone, no less than two hundred thousand workers of all trades came out on the streets in strike action, in order to demonstrate their emphatic opposition to a measure which is calculated to severely curtail their liberty of action.

The original text of the Bill as brought forward by the Bombay Congress Ministry early in March last, opened by stating that it was to aid in the "prevention of strikes and lock-outs and to promote amicable settlement of Trades Disputes in factories and other industrial establishments." Even a glance at the original text of the Bill shows that its main purpose and trend was to restrict the freedom of trade union movement, and render direct action of the workers almost impossible. The main title of the Bill disclosed its purpose, to prevent strikes and lock-outs. .

As soon as the original text of the Bill was made public, the Trade Union leaders in India expressed their unanimous condemnation, and at a mass meeting of workers held on Kamgar Maidan, Bombay, on March 7, Subhas Chandra Bose, President of the Indian National Congress, also expressed his dissatisfaction with the measure. .

It was recognised on all sides that the pressing through of such a measure could only have extremely serious repercussions in relation to the United National Front in India. The Ministries of the seven Provinces where there are Congress majorities, are bound by the pledges which outline the National Congress policy towards working-class legislation. The Election Manifesto of the Congress fully understood the democratic character of the economic struggle of the masses. It assured the workers the right to strike and organise, it promised freedom for the Trade Union Movement, and also declared that the Congress would establish conciliation machinery for settlement of industrial disputes. .

The Legislative Assemblies with Congress Ministries had acquired an important significance for the working-class. The Congress Ministries are under mandate to pass measures extending democratic rights and liberties, to remove bureaucratic restrictions, thus enabling the workers and peasants to organise and struggle for better economic conditions. It is with these facts in mind that we consider the Bill which roused the opposition of the Indian working-class movement.

One of the most objectionable features of the original text runs as follows: .

III. Any Union may apply to the Registrar for registration as a recognised Union. On receipt of such application for registration, the Registrar shall forward a copy of the application to the employer or employers concerned, and on receipt of a communication from such employer or employers to the effect that the Union has received recog¬nition from them the Registrar shall proceed to register such union as a recognised Union. .

This clause would mean that no union would be registered unless the said Union satisfied the employers. .

We will not go into detail in connection with the original text, because when the Draft Bill was published in the Government Gazette and presented to the Bombay Provincial Legislative Assembly six months later, on July 30, it had been considerably amended. Presumably, the vigorous opposition created as a result of the publication of the original text caused the sponsors of the Bill to make these alterations. .

For example, it is very significant that the opening statement was altered from "aid in the prevention of strikes, etc.," to "make provision for the promotion of peaceful and amicable settlement of industrial disputes by conciliation and arbitration and for certain other purposes." Further, the clause referred to earlier in connection with submitting an application for registration to the employers first, does not appear in the published Draft of the Bill. .

Even with the drastic alterations made in the wording between the first and second drafts of the Bill, still the Bill as submitted remained most objectionable. Ignoring the protests of the Bombay Provincial Trade Union Congress, the new Draft embodied the same principles which had evoked the protests. The most vicious aspect of the Bill was that it would take away from the worker the only effective weapon he has -- the right to strike. .

The Trades Disputes Act (1929) of the Government of India, which evoked so much protest, prevents lightning strikes by prescribing a month's notice in public utility service. The present Bill not only demands a notice of strike, but makes every strike which takes place before the conciliatory proceedings are over illegal, but the notice provision, together with the conciliatory proceedings, would make strikes impossible for a period of between three to five months -- thus strike action would be paralysed under this Bill. .

The original draft blatantly announced its preference for arbitration and company Unions. The new proposals are intended to do the same with equal effectiveness. Militant unions, disfavoured by the owners, are effectively shut off from representing the workers, or entering into collective agreements before the Conciliation Court. Under Section 7 of the Bill any recognised Union with not less than five per cent. membership of the total number of employees will be declared a Registered Union under the Act. A Registered Union secures the right of representing the workers under certain conditions in the Conciliation Court. The Bill does not lay down any provision regarding recognition. There is no obligation on the owners to recognise a genuinely representa¬tive union. The question is left to the sweet will of the owners who are notorious for their hostility to any independent union. The provision, therefore, is a direct incitement to start company unions or recognise anti-working-class ones and secure them the right of representation before the Conciliation Court. .

The same section provides that where a Union is not recognised it must show 50 per cent. membership of the total employed before it is registered, i.e., before it can claim to recognise the workers in a Court of Conciliation. Anyone conversant with the Trade Union Movement knows that very few Unions can boast of consistent 50 per cent. membership. This provision therefore threatens the existence of free Trade Unions. .

The Bill provides for the establishment of a permanent tribunal for Arbitration - the Industrial Court -- and contemplates making arbitra¬tion more and more the dominant method of settling disputes. The Conciliation proceedings are to last for a period of three to five months -- no strikes can take place during this period. .

The owners, however, have been allowed a number of exceptions. They can lock-out their employees in a period of industrial depression. No notice is necessary. The workers cannot take the dispute to the Conciliation Court. Notice is required only for lock-out arising out of a trade dispute. Schedule II. of the Bill allows the owners to reduce the number of employees on the plea "that the character or volume of production has changed." Thus under the plea of temporary depression the owner can dismiss any number without notice, without conciliation proceedings. The change will become operative immediately. The workers are not allowed to give an immediate reply to this sudden change. Section 62 (b) (a) (c) makes it illegal to strike before the conciliation proceedings are over, that is, for a period of three to five months. In the meanwhile the change will continue to be in operation. This is nothing but a legal provision to break the solidarity of the workers. The Bill makes conciliatory proceedings absolutely binding on the workers but not on the owners. .

This same attempt to load the workers with heavy restrictions is seen in other provisions. Owners may lock-out their factories without notice by pleading industrial depression. But workers cannot strike for the whole period of conciliation, when prices are rising. World conditions exempt owners from the operation of the Act, but not the workers. .

This partiality for the owners is notoriously seen in Section 28. That Section makes it incumbent on workers to give notice of every change that is desired. But the clause binding the owners to give notice conveniently omits the question of wages. One is apt to treat this as an oversight. But the precise way in which the workers' responsibilities are mentioned, makes one believe that the omission is deliberate Anyway the Bill as it stands does not require any notice or conciliation proceedings when the owners want to reduce wages. At the same time it compels workers to resort to conciliation whenever a change is desired. No comment is necessary on this provision which so shamelessly favours the owners. There are a number of such provisions which directly or indirectly allow the owners to make changes and simultaneously deprive the workers of the right to resist immediately. .

Under Section 62, every strike, whether before or after conciliation proceedings, against the standing orders of the management, is rendered illegal for a period of one year. So far as the standing orders are con¬cerned the right to strike is abolished for a year. So far as other matters are concerned no strike can be declared or commenced till after the conciliation proceedings are over. Workers cannot declare a strike only for the reason that the employer has not carried out provisions of any standing order and has made an illegal change. The provision here is absolute. This is followed by another provision which restricts the right still further. After conciliation proceedings a strike to be legal must be commenced within two months after the expiry of the conciliation proceedings. Thus in various ways the right to direct action is so narrowed down that the freedom to strike is given only for two months after the expiry of conciliation proceedings. .

The new Bill enhances the penalties for illegal strikes. The original draft prescribed a fine equal to one day's wage for every day of the illegal strike. The present proposals prescribe a penalty of six months' imprison¬ment or fine, or both. The same penalties are prescribed for instigation. The Trade Disputes Act of the Central Government prescribes three months' imprisonment for illegal strikes. The Bombay Ministry intends to outbid the Central Government in legislative tyranny..

Strike is the only effective weapon of struggle in the last resort. In the final stage it is the normal form of industrial unrest, the most common form of workers' resistance. On the other hand, the owners' counter¬offensive does not normally take the form of lock-out. It takes the form of strike-breaking. Lock-out, as a method of intimidating the workers, is rarely used. In the nature of things it cannot be used as a normal weapon of counter-offensive. By putting strikes and lock-outs in the same category the Bill penalises the only weapon of the workers.

The Bombay Provincial Trade Union Congress made every effort to meet the Congress Ministers in order to discuss their objections to the Bill and to endeavour to get them to retrace their steps. The Bill was opposed in the Legislative Assembly by representatives of the Trade Union Movement, but the Congress Government persisted in pressing through this measure. .

At huge workers rallies all over India, workers voiced their protests against this reactionary Bill. .

On October 16 the Bombay workers, under the leadership of the Bombay Provincial Trade Union Congress, decided to organise a one-day Protest Strike to demonstrate against this unwanted Bill, and to demand its withdrawal. The Congress Socialist Party opposed this plan of the B.P.T.U.C. to rally the workers against this measure and in defence of their trade union rights. .

As November 7 drew near the Maharashtra Provincial Congress Committee mobilised all its resources in an endeavour to counter the call of the B.P.T.U.C. for the one-day Protest Strike. Motor lorries fitted with loud speakers went around the working-class areas calling upon the workers not to strike; meetings were arranged for front-rank Congress leaders, but the poor attendances at these meetings showed, as the Bombay Sentinel, a Nationalist evening daily, stated on November 2, that even all this "has not cut much ice among the mill workers. The strike will come off as planned by the Labour leaders and the demonstration promises to be a very imposing one." .

A last-minute effort was made by Labour leaders to prevail upon the Congress Ministry to postpone the further consideration of the Bill and discuss its provisions at a Joint Conference with Labour representatives. This was rejected. .

November 7, 1938, came, and it will go down in the history of the Indian working-class movement as one of the greatest demonstrations of the working-class in defence of trade union rights. No less than 200,000 workers of all trades came out on the streets of Bombay alone. Only 6 out of a total of 69 textile mills of Bombay worked partially during the day shift. In not one Mill did the night shift workers turn up. The Municipal Workshops closed down. The scavengers joined the protest strike. At Kurla, a suburb of Bombay, 3,000 workers downed tools. Five thousand tannery workers of Dharavi joined up. The overwhelming majority of the building workers, 5,000 domestic servants, compositors and machine-men of many presses in Girgaum, including those employed at the press of Patil (the Secretary of the Bombay Congress Committee), all the gold, silver and brass workers in Bhulsh¬war and Mandvi participated in the strike. .

"For the first time in the history of this great industrial city which has backed the Congress to its utmost power and strength in all its trials and vicissitudes, the word of the Congress failed in a most dismal manner." (Bombay Sentinel, November 7, 1938). .

Never had Bombay seen such a complete and spontaneous strike. Never had the unity of the working-class been demonstrated in such a striking manner. It was the most important mass demonstration of workers since the great strike movements of 1928-29. .

The rally at the Kamgar Maidan was attended by over one hundred thousand strikers. This vast gathering passed the resolution condemning the Labour Bill without a single dissentient voice. .

It was not in Bombay alone that the proletariat struck. At Ahmedabad, the fortress of Mr. Gulzarilal Nanda, 10,000 workers of 12 mills came out on strike. This in spite of the utmost efforts made by the Majoor Mahajan (Ahmedabad Labour Association), in spite of the orders issued by the police practically prohibiting processions. .

At Sholapur, the Juni Mill workers were the first to down tools. The workers came out en bloc and formed a procession of 8,000 led by Meenakshi Sardesai. This was the signal for the workers of other mills. By noon, 80 per cent. of the workers were out on the streets. All the women workers in Bidi factories joined the strike. .

At Amalner, Dhulia and Chalisgaon, the strike was a complete success. Scores of presses had to close down at Poona. .

The working-class, as far away as Calcutta, Cawnpore and Madras also demonstrated their solidarity and support to the magnificent stand the Bombay workers were making. .

In Bombay City early in the morning of November 7, lorry loads of armed police invaded the working-class locality. Trade Union leaders toured the locality in a lorry with a loud speaker calling the workers to strike action. Despite all Congress efforts to frustrate the strike, it was a tremendous success. An eye witness, writing in National Front, describes a scene as follows:

Deafening noise was coming through the window. I looked out of the window and found tram-cars packed with working class youth and children. They had hoisted up the red flag on the cars or waved them through the windows, lustily singing revolutionary songs and shouting slogans of triumph. We had only one lorry to do propaganda for the strike, but the boys managed to celebrate the victory from every tramcar or bus that passed through Parel. Not one passenger was hurt or molested. Tram conductors let them in without hindrance. The broad grin of the police constables showed that the thrill of a most successful struggle had seized them too. .

I went round among the knots of elderly workers. The holiday mood of the morning was no more there. They looked grim and thoughtful. Uppermost in their mind was "A Black Bill ... the same lathis ... Bullets too ... all this under a Congress Ministry ... what to make of the Congress now...." .

The police had opened fire on three occasions and there had been lathi charges. A number of workers were shot, two workers died as a result of the shooting -- Bhairoo Chavan and Bhagaji Waghmare add their names to the long list of workers who have made the greatest sacrifice in defence of working-class rights.

Interested elements who were desirous of splitting the united front of the Indian people tried to utilise the strike to drive a wedge between the working-class and the Indian National Congress. The Times of India, the mouthpiece of the British Government, stated on the eve of the strike: "It is a trial of strength between the Congress and the labour leaders." This, however, was far from being the case, the working-class of Bombay have a long record of struggle under the leadership of the Indian National Congress, the strike was not under the leadership of anti-Congress elements. .

In order to show that workers understood what they were struggling for, we will quote the most influential working-class paper in Bombay, National Front:

The smashing victory of the strike is not a victory against the Congress. It is a victory for working class unity, a victory of the same principles fighting for which the Congress has grown, and therefore a victory for the Congress in the truest sense of the word. The fact that Dr. Ambedkar supported the strike, the fact that Sjt. Jamnadas Mehta is the President of the B.P.T.U.C. cannot detract from the essential character of the protest strike. It was a victory over those who in the interest of enemies of the people seek to divide the popular forces, who disrupt the unity of the Congress by their attacks on the working class.

The 7th November strike was the greatest independent political action by the proletariat of this country. It shall prepare the proletariat for future actions on an even vaster scale. The unity of the working class movement achieved at Nagpur will be further cemented and strengthened by this first great united action under the leadership of the united T.U.C. for the defence of democratic rights of organisation and action.

The strike is of national significance. The workers downed tools in protest against a measure initiated by the Congress Ministry.

The blood of workers flowed on the streets of Bombay on November 7th because the Congress Ministry remained deaf to all appeals, refused to listen to the demand made by the A.I.T.U.C. representing over three hundred thousand organised workers.

The strike must act as the unifier of the national forces. The suicidal ministerial policy of concessions to vested interests and upholding police firing in the name of non-violence must be reversed. Adherence to Truth demands admission of the overwhelming success of the strike. The Black Bill whose condemnation the working class has written with its blood must be withdrawn. The unity of the people which has been achieved under the banner of the Congress must not be allowed to be disrupted.

Dr. Suresh Banerji, President of the A.I.T.U.C., has, according to latest information, been discussing the proposal for a Conference between the Bombay Provincial Trade Union Congress and the Con¬gress Ministries, with Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of the Congress. The workers are concerned with the unity of the nation as a whole; they seek to rehabilitate the cordial relations that must exist between the Indian National Congress and the Trade Union Congress if India's battle for freedom is to succeed.

Jawaharlal Nehru can play an important role in connection with this situation. While in England he was conscious of the growing rift between the Ministerial conciliators on the one hand and the growing force of the labour and kisan struggle on the other. He indicated this in an article he wrote in the LABOUR MONTHLY in August last year. All left Congressmen, labour and kisan workers, Socialists and Communists, will look to Jawaharlal Nehru to give a lead to stop the drift towards compromise. The most effective way to do this and to save unity would be first to consolidate all these forces in the form of a determined bloc as the basis for achieving the broader unity of the Indian people for the struggle against the Federation.