Looking back at the trade union history in India, one can understand that Chennai served as the epicentre for such movement along with other national movements.
The Binny Mills strike was the base for the rising of ‘Madras Labour Union’, the first ever trade union that was founded in India, said N Ramakrishnan, CPM party worker and party journalist.
Ramakrishnan who wrote around 50 to 70 books in Tamil, all pertaining to Communist and trade unions history, said, “12 to 16 hours of work without sufficient wages was seen as exploitation by the management of Binny Mills; henceforth the strike was needed.”
He said, “The exploited labourers who worked at Binny Mills often shared their troubles with Ramanujalu Naidu and Selvapathy Chettiar, who then ran a small shop nearby the mills. During those days, Chettiar also ran a sabha called ‘Sri Venkatesa Gunamrutha Varshini Sabha’, where bhajans and spiritual discourses took place.”
The duo heard the shocking tales and turned to Thiru V Ka., for further action. T V K also helped them in some ways. “In one of the sabha meetings it was decided to form a union for protecting the labourers, since it became the need of the hour. Hence leaders like TVK, B P Wadia, Singaravelar and Sakkarai Chettiar among others founded the ‘Madras Labour Union’ on 27th April, 1918. This was the first trade union in India, founded in Madras.”
“Between 1921-24, Binny Mills witnessed many struggles, police firing and deaths, that made the then British government to look into the issues” he added. Meanwhile, the management of Binny Mills filed a case against the union for the loss incurred by the management.
“But, the union managed to challenge the case and won. Later, in order to safeguard the trade unions, Indian Labour Act, 1926 was passed in the backdrop of Binny Mills struggle,” Ramakrishnan added.
He further stated that, in the same time, following the Madras Labour Union, an All India Trade Union Congress was founded to coordinate the functioning of all the trade unions of the country. It became the first organised trade union movement in the country.
Dr Dilip Veeraraghavan, a visually impaired professor , who worked at the Department of Humanities, IIT-Madras published his thesis on Chennai Trade Unions, as a book in Tamil titled ‘Chennai Perunagara Thozhir Sanga Varalaru’. In the book, he traced the in-and-out history of trade unions in Chennai.
The author revealed in his work that following the Madras Labour Union, other unions like Press Workers Union, Chennai Tramway Workers Union, MSM Railway Workers Union were formed. These unions came together and the first labour union conference was organised in Chennai on March 21, 1920, headed by Diwan Bahadur P Kesava Pillai. “In 1937, Chennai Corporation Employees Movement and in the 40s, the Spencer Employees Union struggles led by V P Chinthan too made an impact on trade union movement. After Independence, in 1948, the trade unions and Communist party were banned and in 1951 the ban was lifted,” Ramakrishan recalled. “To put more precisely, it was a militant trade union movement that originated in Tamil Nadu, than any other place in the country, then,” said Ramakrishnan.