The term labour movement is a broad term for the development of a collective organisation of working people, to campaign in their own interest for better treatment of their employers and governments, in particular through the implementation of specific laws governing labour relations.
The term ‘labour movement’ is generally applied to all the various types of long-term associations of workers/employees that formed in industrialised or industrialising economies.
According to Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, “Labour movement is conceived as all of the organised activity of wage-earners to better their own conditions either immediately or in the more or less distant future”.
According to G.D.H. Cole, Labour movement implies, in some degree, a community of outlook. Thus the labour movement in a country emerges from a common need to serve a common interest.
It seeks to develop amongst employees a spirit of combination, class-consciousness, and solidarity of interest and generates a consciousness for self-respect, and creates organisations for their self-protection, safeguarding of their common interest and betterment of their economic and social conditions.
A trade union is thus an essential basis of labour movement. The labour movement without trade unions cannot exist. Trade unions are the principal institutions in which employees learn the lesson of self-reliance and solidarity.
The Indian labour movement is more than 150 years old, with its origin in the 1850s and 1870s. But it gained momentum in 1918 when the Madras Labour Union was formed with mill workers as members.
The formation of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in 1920 gave a flip to the organised labour movement in India. A series of agitations and strikes happened during the early years of unionisation in different parts of the country.
The focus of the unions was to end the exploitation of workers in factories and other workplaces like mines. Trade unions also participated in the freedom struggle against the colonial rule. National leaders like Mahatma Gandhi were active in the trade union movement. The introduction of the Trade Union Act of 1926 provided the required legal framework for unions.
The changes in the political landscape of India resulted in the AITUC splitting into the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) in 1947, followed by the formation of the Hindustan Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) in 1948.
Later political events like the split between the Indian National Congress and the communist party also resulted in the formation of corresponding unions. Thus, in India, politically connected unions became a regular feature. The election of the communist government in states like Kerala and West Bengal gave a flip to the labour movement in the states.
With the support of political parties and elected governments, the public sector companies and many private companies became heavily unionized. What followed in the 1960s and 1970s was a rise in trade union activity leading to strikes and lockouts.
Though the imposition of emergency in 1975 led to the suspension of trade union rights and a sudden fall in trade union activity (many prominent opposition trade union leaders were jailed during the emergency period), post-emergency, the activities picked up.
Under pressure from trade unions, in 1976, the Industrial Disputes Act was amended making it mandatory for firms employing more than 300 workmen to take prior government permission before retrenching workmen.
The failure of the Bombay textile strike (started in 1981) led by independent trade union leader Dutta Samant marked another shift in the labour unions.
Non-political unions focused on members’ requirements alone became a reality. After the first wave of economic liberalisation in 1984, the approach of unions also started to change. By that time the profile of their members also changed with more people wanting better living conditions, rather than those led by larger political ideology.
Private sector unions became increasingly open to productivity-linked agreements that were later accepted by the public sector unions also. The powerful banking sector trade unions allowed the introduction of computers in a limited scale.
They extracted a price for this in terms of extra payment. In many workplaces, there was a marked shift towards adopting a collaborative approach rather than a confrontationist approach.
The next phase of economic reforms introduced in 1992 focused on the opening of the economy and integrating with global economic forces.
Privatization of state-owned enterprises and the closing down of unviable ones were part of the reform package. The Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) became a legal option for firms to separate employees on mutual agreement.
The National Renewal Fund (NRF) was established to help firms adjust to the new economic realities currently, many traditional unions, both in public and private sectors have recognized the significance of market forces and competition and are prepared to work with the management to increase competitiveness.
While the industry and investors demanded reforming the labour laws to introduce more flexibility and the right to hire and fire, due to opposition from national unions much progress could not be made.
The emerging new generation IT/ITES sector saw firms where labour union activity was absent. The career and professional growth-focused employees showed antipathy toward unions and their employers went ahead to ensure good conditions of work.
Though there have been discussions about introducing trade union activity in the new sectors, not much progress could be made. Similar non-unions firms are functional in traditionally unionised sectors like manufacturing and services (e.g., the new private banks are completely trade union free).
Formal trade unions had traditionally kept out of actively organising the non-formal sector, which provides employment to a large section of the Indian working population. Exceptions are states like Kerala or West Bengal with strong leftist political activity at the grass-roots level.
Recently, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which works to organise informal sector workers, mostly women, has been given the status of a central trade union. The recognition will help SEWA raise issues of informal sector workers at different national platforms. Other national unions are also conscious about the requirements of informal sector workers.