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Trade Union Movement In Kerala

The trade unions in Kerala started during the time of the trade expansion. James Darrah, an American man started a factory "Darrahs Mail Company" at Alleppey in 1858. Many workers came to the factory from five to six miles away. They came early in the morning and returned at night. Children also worked in the factory.


With the arrival of the British, not only the administration but the monopoly in trade also passed into their hands. Gradually British capital found its way to Kerala and began establish factories and investing in plantations and banking. Quite a few factories were established at Alleppey, Quilon, Kolachal and other places in Travancore. Along with foreign firms the native bourgeoisie also started establishing factories and banks.


On 31 March 1922, the first meeting was summoned under the chairmanship of Advocate P.B. Muhammed. They formed a Workers Association named "Labour Union". This was the first approach to a trade union in Kerala Then under the chairmanship of T.C Keshavan Mooppan an executive committee was formed. An opinion was brought forth that the labour union must be made as "Travancore Labour Association: Afterwards this union grew as "Travancore Coir Factory Workers union”.


The membership to the union was made on August 1922. At that time the workers were hesitant to join the union. They looked upon the union as an enemy. A large number of Coir factories sprang up especially at Alleppy and Cherthala. During the first decade of its existence, the Association functioned more as a welfare organization rather than as a radical trade union. The labourers were not keen on joining the Association. However, they joined the Association just to please the Moopan.


It was in 1934 the first general strike of the Coir factory workers was organised by the labour Association at Alleppy. A very strong progressive and radical section was steadily growing with the Association. The workers were exploited both by agents of owners of factories and local entrepreneurs although the production was increased by the hardship of the workers, the workers did not get any increase in wages.


Along with the Travancore area, Cochin and Malabar areas were also having their own share in Trade Union activities. In organising some of the unions in Malabar, the founding members of the communist’s movement played a very significant role; union struggle became part of the freedom struggle'. The development of the trade union movement and the emergence of the communist wing in it must be considered as part of the mainstream of freedom struggle and the subsequent growth of political democracy. A number of Malabar leaders of the communist party started a youth league and carried its message to Travancore. Meanwhile, a division known as the progressive group emerged in the state congress in Travancore. It particularly emphasized the need for mobilizing workers for the freedom struggle and openly alleged that the state congress was trying the line of Gandhism and non-violence and that it was not agitated enough. Subsequently, a rift in the state congress between left and right came to limelight.


The Punnapra-Vayalar revolt of 1946 is considered as important landmark in the history of trade unionism in Kerala. The workers in Alleppey declared a general strike in September 1946. The police and the workers clashed and the police got the worst of it. On October 24, 1946 the bloodiest of armed conflicts, a battle between organized group of workers and police took place. Though started as a trade union agitation, the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt was part of a political struggle for achieving freedom and responsible government.


The objective basis for the trade union movement and the struggle by the working class of Kerala was provided by the extreme economic hardships and the poor and In human conditions of work particularly during the pre independence period. But with independence of the country, the cause of the struggle reverted again to economic demands. Gradually a new era of trade unionism has emerged in Kerala. Following the split of the Communist Party in 1964 the AITUC led unions began to split all over the state. The trade union arena in Kerala has become completely politicised. Each political party formed and nourished its own trade union wing. This resulted in unhealthy inter union rivalries. It is clear that trade unionism in Kerala has been entering into a new phase of growth which continues till now.


With the increase of industrialization, expanding labour force, growing trade union consciousness, increasing rate of literacy among the workers are some of the causes that led to a tremendous growth in trade union in Kerala. Kerala is now witnessing less of militancy in its labour movement, which was its bane in the past. Strikes and agitations for increase of wages and improvement of service conditions are on the decrease.


In the early days, the leadership of the trade unions emerged from the working class itself. But in the late 1930s and 40s, the working class was subjected to political mobilisation from outsiders who wanted to fight the British, the Raja and the Dewan. Fighting the employers and the establishment were complementary. This thinking spread all throughout Travancore, Cochin and Malabar. They had the common bond of communist ideology. In the process the working class could not distinguish between political issues and economic and industrial issues. It was quiet natural that these could not be separated from each other. As far as patterns of initiation is concerned, almost all trade union leaders in Kerala have had strong political affiliations. Often the trade union activity is used as a stepping stone into political leadership sometimes, both the positions have come in conflict with each other. And in turn almost all the political parties have used the organised forces of working class and student movement for political purposes.


In Kerala the trade union movement has strengthened the left movement involving the CPI and the RSP and in turn these political parties have championed the cause of working class. In Kerala in the period 1947-65, irrespective of the political uncertainties and splits in the union movement, the trade union had come to adopt a common united stand whenever their broad interests were affected. Increasingly they had come to believe in the method of collective bargaining.


The pattern of financial flow between the union movements and political parties explain the degree of political involvement of organised labour. The surplus budget of the trade union is a regular source of political party expenditure. The CPM and CITU have amassed several crores of rupees worth of property, buildings, vehicles, and other assets. As far as the leadership conflict is concerned, since the formation of the CITU, the Marxist unions concentrated in enhancing their political clout by organising and building up an extremist movement. But soon the militancy spread to other unions. Along with militancy, irresponsibility also crept in. it was common for one worker to take membership in more than one union and shift his loyalty according to his wish. At times, non union strikes also took place against the advice of a recognised union. Despite political and ideological differences, inter-union rivalry, politics of the union and leadership conflicts, a great degree of unity of goals was evident among the trade unions in Kerala. Multiplicity of trade unions has resulted in low incidence of political strikes. The trade union movement during 1920-67 was running parallel to the freedom struggle in the first phase and direct involvement in the socio-economic development of the state in the final phase. But political instability in the state tarnished its image as a progressive force.


Trade Union Act is out of date in dealing with the new issues. There was a demand for legislation to deal with the problem of union recognition either through secret ballot or membership verification. Almost all the central trade unions are concerned about the possible fall out of Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation on the Indian working class. They are deeply concerned about the retrenchment, cuts in wages and benefits enjoyed by the working class for a long time and also restrictions on legitimate trade union rights. Hence they have planned to form joint action councils and launch agitations against the Government’s New Economic Policy. On major issues of industrial relations, the trade unions in Kerala have come forward to form joint action councils and programmes. In such cases, it was difficult for the employees to drive one union against another. In some cases, some of the management had even signed agreements with unregistered unions. It is observed that once “the trade unions are militant, employers are legalistic and state tender minded”. But now it seems that after economic reforms were initiated, the unions are becoming more legalistic, employers more aggressive and militant, while the State continues to be soft and tender minded. The state must project itself as a facilitator rather than a provider of social protection. The employers are compelled to formulate new strategies to become more competitive.


The trade unions have been compelled to accept the reality of reforms and change and are advised to make appropriate adjustment to their attitudes and policies and also to make little sacrifices to make production efficient and keep industries running instead of forcing them to close down. The State is becoming more capital friendly and reversing its earlier labour friendly approach. One important result of economic reforms is the decline of trade unions. Jobs in the organised formal sector are being lost all around. Workers are now more concerned with keeping their jobs than demanding further improvements.


Many trade unions are witnessing declining membership and lack of interest even in paying their membership fees. Unions are deliberately kept out of joint consultations and decision-making process. To some employers, unions have become a nuisance. The workers have failed to understand the underlying threat that these labour laws are in the process of modification in favour of the Capital. The trade union movement today stands divided and fragmented. The political parties treat the unions as appendages to boost their vote banks. In Kerala, a new generation of workers is emerging. There is little concern for larger issues like growing unemployment, declining industries, loss of investor confidence and worsening wage relativities and even re emergence of contract system and pre capitalist modes of production. There is little democracy at the work place as well as in the day to day functioning of trade unions. In some unions, there is no internal democracy.


Basic issues concerning the working class in general and specific group of workers in particular are not discussed and debated. In Kerala, the trade union movement today is trying to establish a common platform for launching a “save industry” campaign and build trade union unity cutting across political differences. They know that the employer also is threatened. So unless both the partners join together, survival becomes difficult. The focus must be on larger organisational goals rather than personal or individual gains. What we need is a work culture based on mutual trust and good work and opportunities to grow, both for the employer and the employee.

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