May Day : Historical Perspective of Labour Movement

May 1, 2010

Every year, the first day of the month of May is being celebrated as the May Day. Since the beginning of the last decade of the nineteenth century this day came to be observed as the Labour Day or International Workers’ Day to highlight the struggle of the workers and manifest their solidarity throughout the world.

The emergence of the urban working class can be traced to the Industrial Revolution in Europe since the mid-eighteenth century. The workers were exploited with lengthy hours of work, poor wages and unhealthy living conditions. Even women and children were forced to work for 12 to 15 hours a day. There was neither government legislation nor popular movement to improve the condition of the working class.

The first attempt to ameliorate the miserable condition of the working class was made by the so called ‘Utopian Socialists’. A British socialist, Robert Owen created a model community of workers by improving their working and housing conditions and providing schools for their children. His ideas stimulated the cooperative movement in England. In France too, a number of socialists such as Saint Simon, Charles Fourier, Proudhon and Louis Blanc tried to implement socialist ideas to improve the condition of the workers. However, their efforts did not succeed in improving the lot of the working class.

It was Karl Marx who gave a voice to the working class. His clarion call, “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains”, has been the guiding spirit of the worker’s movements all over the world. Marx made a close study of the industrial society and formulated certain conclusions, which constitute the chief principles of Scientific Socialism also known as Marxism or Communism. The basic ideas of Karl Marx were first expressed in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ which he wrote along with Fredrich Engels in 1848. Marx believed that the only way to ensure a happy and harmonious society was to put the workers in control.

Marxism had great influence on the history of the world. It inspired the Communist Revolution in Russia (1917) and other countries like China, Cuba, Vietnam and other East European countries. Marxism and the Russian and Chinese Revolutions inspired and emboldened the working classes throughout the world to unionize and fight for their rights.

On May Day or International Workers’ Day, labour unions affiliated to various communist, socialist of anarchist groups take out processions and hold demonstrations and street rallies to show their solidarity and power. May Day is an important official holiday in most of the countries of the world. In Communist countries such as China and former Soviet Union, May Day celebrations typically feature elaborates popular and military parades.

In the United States, however, the official Federal holiday for the ‘working man’ is Labour Day on September 5. This day was promoted by the Central Labour Union and the Knights of Labour who organized the first workers’ parade in New York City on September 5, 1882.

In India, the movement of the working class originated in industrialized centers such as Kolkata and Mumbai during the British period. Industrial working class emerged in India in the middle of nineteenth century when railways came to be introduced along with its ancillary industries. With the development of coal and iron mines, iron and steel industries, jute and cotton textile factories and tea-plantation industry, the number of wage earning people went on increasing.

During the British rule, the condition of the Indian workers was miserable. They were paid meagre salaries. The working hours in all the cotton mills and even other industries were 13 to 15 hours a day. The working conditions inside the factories were ‘inhuman’. The workers had to put in hard labour and after the shift was over, they were so exhausted that a large number of them used to get fainted within the factory premises. The condition of the female workers was deplorable.

Employing of child labour was so common that children in the age group 5-7 constituted a major workforce in most of the factories.

Neither the British government nor the employers were sensitive to the miserable condition of the working class. Finally, after a lot of blood-bath on the part of the workers and pressure from the civil society, Indian Factory Act, 1881, was passed. This Act banned the employment of a child below 7 years of age in a factory and fixed the working hours for children in the age group 7-12 at 9 hours.

The labour movement in India had a humble beginning with Sashipada Banerjee publishing a journal titled ‘Bharat Shramajivi’ (Indian Labourers) in 1878 from Kolkata, exclusively devoted to the labourers.

This journal started expressing the labour problems for the first time. He also founded an institute in 1880 to spread primary and hygiene education among the workers. Another important contribution of Sashipada Banerjee was the establishment of a Savings Bank exclusively for the workers in Kolkata. A similar effort was initiated by Meghaji Narayan Lokhande in Bombay in 1898. He also started a journal, named ‘Deenabandhu’ (Friend of the Poor) in Marathi language.

The first major labour movement in India originated in Bengal. Much ahead of their European brethren, Indian railway men joined the first ever strike in the months of April and May, 1862, demanding an 8-hours-a-day working pattern. The historic May Day in Chicago (the Haymarket Massacre) took place around quarter of a century later. Very soon, the labour movement spread from Bengal to other parts of India.

The first political strike by the Indian working class took place in July 13, 1908, when the workers of the Greeves and Cotton Mill in Bombay ceased work protesting against the trial of Indian nationalist leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Lenin, who later was responsible for leading the Communist Revolution in Russia, highlighted the historic significance of these movements by the Indian workers.

Gradually, a large number of labour organizations came to be established in different industrial urban centres. As the workers started organizing themselves, they were in a better position to offer resistance to British imperialism and also attained a better bargaining power to protect and extend their legitimate rights.

In Kolkata and Mumbai as well as in other industrial centres, the labour movement was chiefly led by the Socialists and Communists. In post-independence era, with the proliferation of industries and factories, the working class began to make its presence felt. Realizing the potential of the workers as a political force, a number of labour unions came to be organized or supported by the political parties. Moreover, some of the labour union leaders developed political ambitions and contested elections either to the state assemblies or parliament.
Among the ma ny illustrious labour union leaders, George Fernandes and Datta Samant have left a lasting stamp of the working class movement in India in general and Mumbai in particular. Rising from humble beginning, George Fernandes became a firebrand trade union leader of Mumbai who initiated the ‘bandh’ culture in India. He contested the Lok Sabha elections in 1967 and defeated the Congress stalwart S.K. Patil.

Thereafter, George Fernandes never looked back. He went on contesting election, becoming member of the Union Cabinet and even founding his own political outfit, Samata Party which was later merged in the Janata Dal (U).

As a labour union leader, George Fernandes did achieve better wages and humane working conditions to workers in industries, municipalities and public transport. The week-long all India railway strike organized by George Fernandes in 1974 did paralyze the entire nation.

Datta Samant began life as a doctor in suburban Mumbai. Moved by the plight of some patients who were stone quarry workers, he sought to fight for their rights. Soon, he evolved as a militant labour union leader who could get better wages for the workers. In 1982, Datta Samant led 2.5 lakh workers from Mumbai's textile mills on a record-breaking strike. The strike practically destroyed the textile industry and rendered thousands of workers jobless. This was the saddest episode in the history of the working class movement in India. Datta Samant even contested and won the Lok Sabha election in 1989. However, union rivalry or other unexplainable reasons led to the assassination of Datta Samant in May 1997.

With the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and the East European countries during the 1980s and adoption of liberalization and globalization, the working class movement has received a serious set-back. By paying better salaries and providing good working environment, most of the multinational corporations and even Indian firms have made the labour unions redundant. Under these circumstances it seems that the International Workers’ Day has lost its relevance in modern times.

With the global economic meltdown, a large number of workers have lost their jobs. Many employees are forced to work on reduced salaries. As the workers in multinational companies are not unionized they do not possess the collective bargaining power in favour of workers. Besides, the silent majority of the unorganized urban and rural workers who continue to be exploited by ruthless employers await a messiah who could lend them a voice and lead them to a better future. As long as the workers are exploited and denied their basic rights, the May Day or the International Workers’ Day has relevance not only in modern times but also in future till the establishment of a classless society.


Dr Eugene D`Souza - Archives:


Dr Eugene D’Souza, Mumbai
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Comment on this article

  • adshenoy, mangloor

    Mon, May 03 2010

    Capitalism is the greatest evil on humanity. Its the poor who suffer in capitalism waiting for the handouts or poor or unpaid work. The rich pave the way for exploitation. These are the very crooks who kill labour movements- who uphold labour and labourers,
    Long live marxist movement- produce for need and not for greed.

    Capitalism is the CRONIC GREED. It survives only of exploitation.

  • Manohar Veigas, UDUPI

    Mon, May 03 2010

    Appreciate Dr. Eugene D'Souza's Article on the history of Labour Movement. It is the responsiblity of the government of that country to see that its working class fellow-men are not exploited through various legislation where the maximum working hours, minimum salary, Health-care package and compulsory terminal benefits is ensured specially in the unorganised sector. And also give the right to form a Union to all working class be it professionals or unskilled workers to safeguard its interest and to call for Strike be the last resort with reasonable notice.

  • Antony Crasta, Mangalore/Sydney, Australia

    Sun, May 02 2010

    Quite a bit of background and history of the Unionism and Labour Movement in India by Dr. Eugene, which is timely, to coincide with the Labour Day. I fully endorse the comments by Theo D`Silva when he says that Britishers were the pioneers and supporters of democratic thinking who instilled and encouraged such values amongst us, the Indians, before their departure. Needless to state, it is due to the continued efforts and hard work by the famous Union Leaders Mr. George Fernandes, Dr. Datta Samant and quite a few others, that the workforce in India today, millions in number, either in the Government Sector or in Private, enjoy better pay, multitude of benefits and conducive working conditions, and it is quite fair to acknowledge the good work of the Unions. However, in some instances, the Unions went too far, with their unrealisic demands and resorting to strikes etc., disregarding the problems faced by the Managements and also interest of the nation at large, for which, they paid huge price.

    Presently, I believe, some of the Union muscle power has been curtailed, consequent to which they are not so strong as they used to be a few decades ago. While I still advocate a fair, strong and active Unionism at the work place, it will be ideal if the Union Leaders resort to moderate and sensible ways of negotiating the pay and working conditions for their members.

  • Theo D'Silva (Kamath), Mangalore. India/Canada

    Sun, May 02 2010

    Dear Eugene, I really appreciate your article of history enligtenment to the present generation. But also tell them the fact, that Britishers were the one who had wisdom and moral democratic thinking, which the rulers didnt have. And Britishers are the one who gave us good educational and medical and good roadways to enligten us to be conscious of rights/wrongs and just with sathyagraha and least defence got freedom in golden platter not only a part of india but as country as India. And remember extreem end of Socialism is communism. So, I storngly recomend, we shoulld have the mixtue of three Democratic, socialistc(commumism), Capitalism. thanks, theo.

  • abooziya, mangalore

    Sat, May 01 2010

    LAL SALAM to our labour men

  • M.Mathias, Mangalore/Bahrain

    Sat, May 01 2010

    Salute to greatest Indian labour leaders Plasid D'Mello and George Fernandes.

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