All-India Trade Union Congress

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All-India Trade Union Congress

India 1920


The All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed in 1920 by leaders of the Indian National Congress and others to provide representation for India at the League of Nations' International Labor Organization (ILO). Although the AITUC was created initially for this specific purpose, it also was a consequence of a growing Indian labor movement. In the late nineteenth century, many Indian workers in various sectors of the economy had begun to organize and protest, in large part in response to the conditions imposed by the British colonial rulers. The Indian labor movement continued to expand in the early twentieth century. As was the case in many parts of the world, there was a particularly dramatic wave of working-class activity in the years immediately following World War I. Between 1917 and 1920, when the AITUC was formed, Indians began to form their first truly modern trade unions. A number of significant strikes accompanied this flurry of organizational activity. It was in this context that the AITUC was formed.

Throughout the 1920s British communists gained a great deal of control over the AITUC, although some opposing factions broke away. By World War II the communists had gained complete control of the federation. They lost some backing when they decided to support the war effort on the side of the British once the Soviet Union entered the war on the Allied side. This caused a split of the AITUC between reformist and revolutionary factions.


  • 1906: British Labour Party is founded.
  • 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfirio Diaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme are waged on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1921: Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Herbert Best isolate insulin, an advance that will alter the lives of diabetics and greatly reduce the number of deaths associated with the disease.
  • 1921: Washington Disarmament Conference limits the tonnage of world navies.
  • 1921: In a controversial U.S. case, Italian-born anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are tried and convicted of armed robbery and murder. Despite numerous protests from around the world, they will be executed six years later.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party, and of the Soviet Union.
  • 1928: Penicillin is discovered by Alexander Fleming.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)

Event and Its Context

Early Worker Organization in the Nineteenth Century

The origins of the labor movement in India can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century as the British more firmly established their rule and brought changes to the traditional economy. The British emphasized the growing of cash crops for export, which contributed to the growth in the number of poor, landless peasants. In addition, cheap British imports hurt Indian artisans. Further changes included the introduction of a money economy, the construction of railroads, and the expansion of mining. In response, Indians often protested or revolted against the British presence. The biggest and most well-known revolt came in 1857. There were also peasant insurrections in Bengal in 1873. Two years later in 1875, the Deccan Riots were directed at mass evictions and moneylenders.

As many peasants moved to the cities to work in cotton textile mills and others toiled on plantations producing cash crops, the first signs of labor unrest appeared. Long hours, low wages, and poor working conditions sometimes led Indian workers to protest. As early as 1862, railroad workers went on strike. Between 1882 and 1890 there were 25 strikes in India. Early organizational efforts in this period included jamats, which were based on caste.

Labor organization continued in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1884 N. H. Lokhande called a meeting of mill workers in Bombay. These workers presented a memorandum to the Factory Commission in hopes of limiting working hours, getting guarantees of days off and rest periods, and implementing regulations regarding child and female labor. In 1889 the workers made similar demands to the governor general in Bombay. Finally, the mill workers repeated their demands again at a mass meeting in Bombay in 1890 that was attended by some 10,000 workers. They then formed the Bombay Millhands Association with Lokhande as president. The association, however, had a very precarious existence and seemed to exist mostly on paper.

Throughout the 1890s, workers in the jute, maritime, printing, and railroad industries all attempted to organize in places such as Bengal, Calcutta, and Goa. At this early stage, however, these groups played more of a social role than carrying out the activities of true trade unions. Also, during the 1890s there were protests against the use of indentured Indian workers laboring in other British colonies such as South Africa.

Increased Worker Organization and Activity in the Twentieth Century

There were more strikes in the first decade of the twentieth century in the railroad and other industries. In 1908 there was a six-day mass strike in Bombay that resulted in street fighting between the workers and authorities. In 1910 philanthropists in Bombay formed a workers' welfare association to help settle disputes between the workers and management and to petition government. In general, however, before World War I, the only true trade unions that appeared in India were among certain upper-level railroad employees and among government employees.

The government passed some labor legislation in the years before the outbreak of World War I, mostly affecting the cotton textile industry. However, this legislation was not in response to worker agitation but rather was a result of pressure from cotton interests in England who felt that a cheap labor supply gave Indian cotton producers an unfair advantage. This pressure from England provided a certain degree of protection for Indian industrial workers. The first Factory Act, passed in 1881, dealt exclusively with child labor. A second Factory Act became law in 1891 under increasing pressure. It was broader than the first act but did not affect all industries. This second act was based on the findings of an 1890 factory commission that found that adult workers generally worked between 11.5 and 12.5 hours per day. Finally, a third Factory Act became effective in 1911, which for the first time fixed the workday for adult males at a maximum of 12 hours and also dealt with some health and safety issues.

As World War I drew to an end, economic and political conditions contributed to the rise of trade unions in India. As prices more than doubled, real wages decreased. In some cases there was even looting because of the poor economic situation. In addition, a famine in 1918-1919 made the situation even worse. At the same time nationalism was on the rise. Many Asians had already become increasingly nationalistic after the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, which showed that an Asian country could defeat a European power. Anti-British feelings were also growing in response to the repressive Rowlatt Acts, which extended wartime emergency measures. Then, in April 1919, British troops killed some 400 Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, further fueling anti-British sentiments.

Under such conditions, there was a wave of strikes after the war, as was the case in many countries throughout the world. In 1918 the first great strike of cotton mill workers took place in Bombay. By January 1919 more than 100,000 workers were on strike. The strikes continued into 1920, with more than 200 strikes in the first half of the year involving more than one million laborers, many seeking a reduction to a 10-hour workday.

In addition to numerous strikes, workers also began to form more unions. In 1917 weavers in Ahmedabad organized. A plague epidemic had hit the city in 1916 and many workers left. In response, some mill owners offered higher wages to keep workers in Ahmedabad. At the same time, some workers had demanded an additional plague allowance to stay on the job. The employers refused to pay both the plague allowance and the higher wages at the same time, which prompted a workers' strike in December 1917 that lasted 20 days and resulted in a 20 percent raise for the workers. After the plague threat subsided in 1918, the employers attempted to reduce wages, and the workers demanded a 50 percent wage increase. This situation led the employers to lock out the workers in February 1918. Eventually, the two sides agreed to arbitration, which resulted in a 35 percent increase in wages. The aftermath of the Ahmedabad dispute was the formation of the city-wide Ahmedabad Textile Labor Association, one of India's most significant early labor organizations.

Also in 1918, workers in Madras formed the Madras Labor Union. B. P. Wadia and Tiru Vika formed this early union in response to a lockout at the British-owned Buckingham and Carnatic Textile Mills. Others in Madras soon followed suit, including railroad, streetcar, electrical, and other textile workers. In addition, after a strike in 1921 at the Buckingham and Carnatic mills, a number of worker newspapers began to appear, including the English-language Swanharma. The Indian Seamen's Union also formed in 1918, and more workers organized in 1919 and 1920. However, at this point, most the unions were in reality strike committees that lived very short lives

In response to union organizing, some employers attempted to prevent the unionization of Indian workers. For example, in 1921 Buckingham and Carnatic Mills filed a suit against the Madras Labor Union for damages suffered due to a strike. The Madras High Court declared that unions were an "illegal conspiracy."

The Creation of the All-India Trade Union Congress

Before 1920 there was no national federation to coordinate union activity in India. This lack of a national organization caused a problem when the International Labor Organization (ILO) had its first conference in 1919. The government of India selected N. M Joshi as a representative without consulting the unions. In response, many unions protested. Joshi in return proposed the creation of an All-India Trade Union Congress to solve the dispute.

At a meeting in early July 1920, labor leaders decided that the Congress should meet in Bombay. They demanded that the government withdraw its nomination of Joshi and that the Congress elect the representative to the ILO. Also in July, workers created a reception committee of 500 members headed by Joseph Baptista, president of the Home Rule League. The reception committee originally scheduled the Congress for August 1920, although they later postponed it until October.

The first session convened on 31 October 1920 with Lala Lajpat Rai as chairman. One hundred and one delegates attended the meeting, as did a number of political leaders and a fraternal delegate from the British Trades Union Congress. The delegates elected Rai as the Congress' new president and as India's representative at the next ILO meeting in Geneva. Upon being elected and participating in a procession of 10,000 people, Rai stated that the goals of the Congress should be to organize, agitate, and educate.

The delegates discussed several resolutions. These included a demand for protection from police interference, the maintenance of an unemployment register, restriction on exporting foodstuffs, compensation for injuries, and health insurance. In addition, the delegates demanded that Indian workers be given some representation in the government, just as employers had representatives on legislative councils. Finally, the Congress delegates urged the government to intervene so as to bring about the end of strikes taking place in Bombay among the streetcar, postal, telegraph, and gas workers of the city. The request reflects the reformist sentiments of the early leaders of the AITUC, who preferred a government settlement to continued worker agitation. Indeed, the early AITUC was not run by workers themselves, but rather by members of the Indian National Congress, some social reformers, and even some employers, giving the federation a limited working-class consciousness. The government, however, declined to interfere, allowing the workers and employers to settle the dispute.

Overall, 64 unions in India were affiliated with the AITUC. The unions had a total membership of more than 140,000. In addition, another 43 unions expressed solidarity and promised future affiliation.

One of the AITUC's main goals once the first meeting was completed was to write a constitution. N. M. Joshi and others began to prepare such a document. In April 1921 they sent off a draft of the constitution to the affiliated unions for comment. The AITUC executive committee approved the new constitution in July. At this point the objective of the AITUC was to coordinate India's labor union in all trades in all provinces so as to promote the social, political, and economic interests of the workers. Yet in reality, the federation had no clear program or principles at this early stage. Rather, its main concern was to act as a nominating body for the ILO, a function that the government of India accepted as belonging to the newly created AITUC. Because Rai was unable to attend the meeting, the AITUC elected Joshi to represent India at the ILO's next meeting.

On 30 November 1921 a second meeting of the AITUC convened at Jharia, the center of the British-dominated coal industry. There was some resistance among the employers, who asked the government to send in a show of force and used hired thugs to intimidate the workers. Nevertheless, the meeting did take place, and the AITUC reported that some 50,000 people attended.

The AITUC Splits Along Ideological Lines

After less than a decade of existence, the AITUC began to splinter along ideological lines. In particular, the split divided the left-leaning, communist-inspired unions and the more conservative, reformist groups. AITUC had been created originally by moderates associated with the Indian National Congress. They did not preach class struggle but rather sought nonviolent, legal means to aid Indian workers. Early AITUC leaders preferred negotiation to strikes. Indeed, most of the original leaders were not workers themselves. Throughout the 1920s, however, communists increasingly gained in importance within the AITUC. Their ideology was, of course, class-based, and they preferred a militant struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

The two factions were able to cooperate to a certain extent until 1928, when the split became more significant. Several issues contributed to the increased division of the AITUC. To some degree, the split was simply a personal struggle for power as individual leaders sought to control the organization. In addition, certain specific issues were a cause of dissension. The two sides differed, for example, over AITUC affiliation with a world labor organization, resulting in a debate in 1928 over the matter. The reformers preferred to belong to the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), whereas the communists argued for membership in the Red International of Labor Unions. Another issue was the 1928 Nehru Report, which was a proposal for a constitution that would give India dominion status and internal self-government. The communists argued that India should fight for complete independence.

By 1928, with the struggle becoming even more personal between some of the key leaders, the communists had become much stronger, both within the AITUC itself and within some of the affiliated unions. For example, they controlled the Great Indian Peninsular (GIP) Railwaymen's Union, with some 45,000 members. In addition, they had played a key role in a number of strikes in that year, increasing their presence in the labor movement. The communists had become particularly powerful in industrial centers such as Bombay. Their influence in the Girni Kamger Union of Bombay especially worried the reformers. The union claimed to have more than 50,000 members, and the communists wanted to admit the union into the AITUC. A union with such a large membership would give the communists an additional 240 delegates to the AITUC and allow them to dominate the federation's decision-making process.

When the AITUC did indeed admit the Girni Kamger Union, the communists came to control the organization. They were able to push through a number of more radical resolutions that the reformers opposed. For example, the AITUC ended its affiliation with the ILO, which the communists considered simply to be a tool of capitalists and imperialists. They did, however, continue the affiliation with the ILO against imperialism. In reaction to these and other decisions, in 1929 some 30 unions withdrew from AITUC and formed their own group known as the All-India Trade Union Federation.

Key Players

Baptista, Joseph: President of the Home Rule League in India, Baptista was influential in the formation of the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). He served as the chairman of the original reception committee that planned the first meeting of the congress.

Joshi, N. M.: One of the key leaders of the AITUC, Joshi had been selected by the government of India as its representative to the ILO. However, the leaders of India's incipient labor movement protested because they had not been consulted. This dispute led to the formation of the AITUC in 1920. Joshi played a significant role in organizing the congress and held important leadership roles until the congress split along ideological lines in the late 1920s.

Rai, Lala Lajpat (1865-1928): Known as the "Lion of the Punjab," Rai was the first president of the AITUC. A lawyer and leading nationalist, Rai was a member of the Indian National Congress. During the 1910s Rai traveled extensively, including trips to the United States, England, and Japan. Upon his return in 1920, he was shocked by the British repression that he witnessed. It was at this point that Rai, a critic of imperialism, joined the AITUC and served as its president. Rai died in 1928, 18 days after being severely beaten by a British officer during a demonstration.

See also: International Federation of Trade Unions; International Labor Organization; Red International of Labor Unions.



Bhargava, P. P. Trade Union Dynamism. Jaipur, India: Printwell, 1995.

Goswami, Dharani. Trade Union Movement in India: Its Growth and Development. New Delhi, India: People's Publishing House, 1983.

Gupta, Prem Sagar. A Short History of All-India Trade Union Congress, 1920-1947. New Delhi, India: AITUC Publication, 1980.

Mehta, B. L. Trade Union Movement in India. Delhi, India:Kanishka Publishing House, 1991.

Raman Rao, A. V. Indian Trade Unions. Honolulu:University of Hawaii Industrial Relations Center, 1967.

—Ronald Young