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History and Development of Trade Union in India

History of Trade Union in India

The trade union of India was historically developed from the trade union movement of India. Trade union movement in our country has a century-long history. The first quarter of the present century saw the birth of the trade union movement, but the seeds of the movement were sown much earlier.

In the twenties, soon after the World War I, working class in our country realised the effectiveness of labour strike as a means of obtaining concessions, higher wages, and better working conditions. Many strikes were declared consequently and most of them were successful. This success led to the formation of several unions.

The AITUC was set up in 1920 with the objectives of representing workers interests, to coordinate the activities of all labour organisations in the country, and to spread the message about the need for union movement. Hundreds of unions came into being in big and small industries. Their number, as well as membership, increased considerably.

A landmark in the history of labour movement was the enactment of the Trade Unions Act 1926.

The Act gave a legal status to the registered trade unions and conferred on them and their members a measure of immunity from civil suits and criminal presentation. Registration of union gave them respectability before employers and the general public.

Towards the end of 1920s, there was a split in the union movement, the split being caused by the leader’s ideological differences. The AITUC was captured by the communists. The moderates formed a new organisation, called All India Trade Union Federation. Ideological differences and splits had their effect on strikes too. Majority of the strikes failed.

Unlike the 1920s, the 1930s were not favourable to the trade union movement. The presentation of the communists involved in the Meerut conspiracy case and the failure of the Bombay textile strike of 1929 brought a lull in trade union activities.

The Economic depression of the period also added to the dull phase of the union movement. Retrenchments and strikes were common, the latter being mostly ineffective. There were further splits in the movement, but just before the World War II some unity was achieved.

After World War II

The unity was shattered during the World War II because of ideological differences and the mounting cost of living. Industrial unrest increased and the Govt, banned strikes and lockouts invoking the Defence of India Rules. Luckily workers realized the need for an organized movement to secure relief. This realisation led to an increase in the number of unions.

The aftermath of independence was not good for unions. The hopes of workers to secure better facilities and wages from the national government were not realized. There were large-scale unrest and strikes and lockouts multiplied.

The disunity in the trade union ranks was aggravated by the starting of three central labour organisations, namely the INTUC in 1947, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) in 1948, and the United Trade Union Congress (UTUC) in 1949.

As years went by, more unions and central organisations came into being the movement became deeply entrenched as of today, there are 50,000 registered unions and most of them are affiliated to one or the other central trade union.

Development of Trade Union in India

Trade unions are formed and developed on different criteria. Some of the criteria are:

  1. Craft basis,
  2. Industrial Unions,
  3. General grouping based on place and
  4. Federations.

Craft Unions

In this organization, the labour class is grouped based on particular trade or occupation. This category is mainly amongst the white collared employees. The measures are mostly in the horizontal system and craft-conscious rather than class conscious. This will have a lot of commonality in thinking and approach to problems resolution. The bank employees’ union, doctors’ union, lawyers’ association, teachers’ association come under this category.

Industrial Unions

A particular category of industry will have their own unions. All crafts and trades coming under that industry are part of the union. Textile mill unions, Steel Industry Unions, Mill Mazdoor Sangh, Girni Kamgar Union’s are some of the examples of industrial unions in India. They form a strong force in collective bargaining. They cover all welfare of similar industry workers in a city or industrial town. Industrial unions are more vocal, volatile and indulge in agitation and strikes. Similarly, these industries face more lockouts and arbitration for disputes redressal.

General Union

This is a conglomerate group of different industry employees forming a union. This happens normally in industrial towns, ancillary units, and SSI units in a city or suburb. Examples are Peenya Industrial Workers’ Union, Thane Industry employees’ unions and Jamshedpur labour union.


These are apex bodies at national level. All trade unions like craft union, industrial unions and general union become members of federations to have a bigger identity. Central trade unions as federations help smaller unions and support at the national level to address their cause.

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