Indian Trade Unionism and its Weaknesses | Overview Introduction: Indian Trade unionism and its weaknesses Conceptual Backdrops of Trade Unionism Objectives of trade unions Trade unionism in India / Growth of Trade Union movements in India The First Workers’ Organisation in India Role of Trade unions Functions of Trade Unions Functions relating to trade union members Weakness of… Read More »

Indian Trade Unionism and its Weaknesses | Overview Introduction: Indian Trade unionism and its weaknesses Conceptual Backdrops of Trade Unionism Objectives of trade unions Trade unionism in India / Growth of Trade Union movements in India The First Workers’ Organisation in India Role of Trade unions Functions of Trade Unions Functions relating to trade union members Weakness of trade unionism in India Steps for making trade unions strong Conclusion Indian trade unionism was started in...

Indian Trade Unionism and its Weaknesses | Overview

Indian trade unionism was started in 1918 when the workers formed their association to improve their conditions whereas labour movement started in 1877 when the number of measures to improve the conditions of a lot of workers was taken by the government, social reformers and enlightened employers. The trade union movement is also a part of the labour movement which is a wider term.

This article throws light upon the evolution of trade unionism with special reference to Indian Trade Unionism. It furthers covers the objectives, role, need and functions of the trade unions. This article also delves into the weaknesses of the Trade Unions in India and suggestions to strengthen the Trade Unions in India.

Introduction: Indian Trade unionism and its weaknesses

Trade unionism is the primary form of the labour movement in fixed capitalism. A study of nature, growth of trade unionism and the functions as well as the role of trade unions in any country, cannot be neglected. In a developing economy or a country aspiring for economic development, a systematic study of trade unionism is important as it is highly essential to examine scientifically the existing and potential forms of human institutions so as to discover their impact upon the economic growth of the community which in turn, requires a thorough understanding of the institutions themselves starting from their origin to the functions, possibilities and the laws of growth.

Any discussion of trade unionism first requires a precise definition of the term ‘Trade Union’ because of the wide differences in the use of the term in different countries. Section 2 (h) of Indian Trade Unions Act of 1926 defines a trade union.

According to J.H. Richardson,

“A trade union is essentially an association of workers formed to safeguard and improve the working conditions of their members and more generally to raise their status and promote their vocational interests.”[1]

Conceptual Backdrops of Trade Unionism

A bird’s eye view of the history of industrial growth and trade union movement of the world in general and India in particular, which is of course written in blood-stained pages, will reveal numerous life and death struggles of workers to protect the workers’ interest and condition of employment, to promulgate the better philosophies and to attain better status and industrial relation.

Trade unionism is the result of the growth of modern industrial establishment involving the employment of a large number of workers in conditions which make them helpless in bargaining individually for their terms and conditions of the contract. It is universally accepted that the individual worker in isolation is powerless and unable to defend his interests effectively and that strength and power lie in unity, association and collective action find its strongest expression in trade unionism. So, trade unionism is the organised expression of the needs, wishes the aspirations and attitudes of the working class. By forming trade unions, workers can define their rights and achieve their improvement.

With the development of nations, organised trade unionism became highly developed. The inequality in bargaining power stimulated the idea of union development as the worker found trade union, as the only way to overcome the weakness of his bargaining position.[2]

Objectives of trade unions

The fundamental objective of the trade union movement has been the economic and social advancement of workers. Nowadays, the trade unions today are concerned not only with the solution of economic problems of their members relating to conditions of employment but also with their social and cultural development so that they may come up as good citizens, enjoying a dignified position in society. The objectives of trade unions have been influenced variedly by different ideologies.

Marx and Engels influenced trade unions in various ways. For them, the trade unions are the instrument to overthrow capitalism. Webbs considered trade unionism to be the extension of the principle of democracy in the sphere of industry.

According to Cole,

“The ultimate objective of trade unions should be the control of workers over industry, though the immediate objective may be the realisation of higher wages and better conditions of the employment for the workers.”

However, the basic objective of a trade union everywhere and at every time continues to be the safeguarding and furthering of the economic interests of its members. Besides this, the objectives of trade unions are stated hereunder.

  1. Defending or improving conditions of employment of labour.
  2. Raising the status of the worker as a citizen of industry and society.
  3. Extending the area of social control of the nations economic life and participating in that control.[3]

Trade unionism in India / Growth of Trade Union movements in India

The 1st strike

The origin of the trade unions can be traced back to 1877 when the Empress Mills’ workers at Nagpur struck following a wage cut. 5000 workers of Bombay textile workers submitted a petition demanding a regular wage payment. Many strikes were done from the year 1882 to 1890 which were not organised properly and short-lived. As a result, it ended in failure.

The factories Act

In 1875, the first committee appointed to inquire into the conditions of factory work favoured legal restriction in the form of factory laws. The first Factories Act was adopted in 1881. The Factory Commission was appointed in 1885. There was another Factories Act in 1891, and a Royal Commission on Labour was appointed in 1892. Restrictions on hours of work and on the employment of women were the chief gains of these investigations and legislation.

The First Workers’ Organisation in India:

The Bombay Mill hands’ Association formed in 1890 under the leadership of Narayan Lokhande was the first workers’ organization in India. Essentially a welfare organization to advance workers’ interests, the Association had no members, rules and regulations or funds. Soon a number of other organizations of a similar nature came up, the chief among them being the Kamgar Hitvardhak Sabha and Social Service League. Organizations, which may more properly be called trade unions, came into existence at the turn of the century, notable among them being the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of India and Burma, Unions of Printers in Calcutta.

Madras Labour Union

The Madras Labour Union was founded in 1918. Though it was primarily, an association of textile workers, it included workers in many other trades. B. P. Wadia and the nationalist leaders founded the Union. The monthly membership fee of the union was one anna. The major grievances of workers at this time were the harsh treatment meted out to Indian labour by the British supervisors, and the unduly short mid-day recess.

The union managed to obtain an extension of the recess from thirty to forty minutes. It also opened a cheap grain shop and library for its members and started some welfare activities. There was a major confrontation between the union and the management over the demand for a wage increase, which eventually led to a strike and lockout. The management filed a civil suit in the Madras High Court claiming that Wadia pay damages for inciting workers to breach their contract.

Textile Labour Association

About the same time as the Madras Labour Union was being organised, Anusuyaben Sarabhai had begun doing social work among mill workers in Ahmedabad, an activity which was eventually to lead to the founding of the famous Mazdoor Mahajan –Textile Labour Association, in 1920. Gandhiji declared that the Textile Labour Association, Ahmedabad, was his laboratory for experimenting with his ideas on industrial relations and a model labour union. He was duly satisfied with the success of the experiment and advised other trade unions to emulate it.

Formation of AITUC

The year 1920 also marked the formation of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). The main body of labour legislation and paradoxically enough even the formation of the AITUC owes virtually to the activities of the International Labour Organization.

The AITUC came into existence in 1920 with the principal reason to decide the labour representative for ILO’s first annual conference. Thus the real fillip to the Trade union movement in India both in matters of legislation and formation of Central Labour Organisation came from an international body, viz., ILO and the Government’s commitment to that body. Lala Lajpat Rai, the president of the Indian National Congress became the first president of AITUC. In 1924 there were 167 Trade unions with a quarter-million members in India.

Trade Unions Act

The Indian Trade Unions Act 1926 made it legal for any seven workers to combine in a Trade Union. It also removed the pursuit of legitimate trade union activity from the purview of civil and criminal proceedings. This is still the basic law governing trade unions in the country. The provisions of this law as amended are discussed in the subsequent chapter on labour legislation.

Role of Trade unions

The trade unions have various roles to perform and some of the roles of the trade unions are as follows:

  • Achieving higher wages and living conditions and better working for the members;
  • Acquiring control over the industry by workers;
  • Mitigating the helplessness of the individual workers by making them stand up unitedly and to increase their resistance power through collective bargaining, protecting the members against victimisation and injustice by employers;
  • Raising the status of the workers as partners in industry and citizens of society by demanding an increasing share for them in the management of industrial enterprises;
  • Generating self-confidence among the workers;
  • Encouraging discipline and security among workers;
  • To take up welfare measures for improving the morale of the workers.
  • The trade unions shall maintain a reasonable degree of peace in industry, Supporting technological change and accepting a growth-oriented wage payment system.
  • Trade unions should maintain a reasonable degree of peaceful industrial relations.
  • It should accept the growth-promoting innovations which improve industrial efficiency
  • It should also support a growth-oriented wage payment system.
  • Participate in the work of any association that furthers the activities of trade unions and its members.
  • Arranging activities for the social and moral upliftment of workers and for printing or publishing facilities for the benefit of workers.
  • Representing workers on different forums.
  • Representing the workers to management in cases of disputes or differences.

Functions of Trade Unions

According to the Indian Trade Union Act of 1926, the most important function of a trade union is to protect and promote the conditions of the employment of the workers and their interests. The interests of the workers rely upon getting reasonable wages, shorter working hours, social and psychological security and improved working conditions.

The basic functions of Trade Unions listed by NCL are as follows,

  1. To secure fair wages for workers
  2. To enlarge opportunities for training and promotion.
  3. Working and living conditions to be improved
  4. Facilities like educational, cultural and recreational facilities to be provided.
  5. Individual and collective welfare to be promoted.
  6. Conditions of service to be improved and to safeguard the security of tenure.
  7. To cooperate in and facilitate technological advance by broadening the understanding of the industry.
  8. To offer responsive cooperation to improve the levels of productions and productivity, high standards of quality and discipline.

Functions relating to trade union members:

  1. The workers must be safeguarded against all sort of exploitation by other members and the head of the unions and also by political parties.
  2. To protect the workers from the trade practices that are unfair and also from the atrocities.
  3. A fair and square deal should be guaranteed and also social justice to the workers.
  4. The workers must be conscious of their rights and their duties.
  5. The day to day grievances should be redressed and dissatisfaction should also be removed.
  6. To raise the status of trade union members in the industrial organisation and in the society at large.
  7. To ensure adequate conditions of work and safe, healthy and conducive working conditions.
  8. The production should be increased both qualitatively and quantitatively and also to help in maintenance of discipline.
  9. To encourage workers participation in the management of industrial organisation and trade union, and to foster labour-management and leader-follower co-operation.

Weakness of trade unionism in India

India has the largest number of trade unions for a single country, but they have developed very slowly. In the beginning, Indian employers, like the British capitalists in India, disliked unionism. Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle at Ahmedabad and B. P. Wadia’s efforts at Madras produced some results. The trade unions in India could not develop into effective voluntary organisations for certain reasons. Some of these are

  1. The unrealistic policies of the government – idealistic and irrelevant notions of morality and democratic niceties have stood in the way of realistic policies.
  2. Modern idealism about goals, optimism about achieving them and malnutrition are endemic in India.
  3. The encouragement by the government to the growth of a large number of weak and dependent unions.
  4. The government set before it, goals which were too ambitions, viz, schemes like the worker’s education, worker’s participation in management etc. without creating an atmosphere for its applicability and the code of discipline which did not make much headway because these schemes did not take into account existing conditions.

They only attempted to push labour schemes faster than they had the capacity to go. In spite of their slow growth, trade unions have brought about some economic, political and social changes for the better conditions of the workers.

  1. Economically, they have improved the working conditions of workers.
  2. Politically, trade unions have produced a mighty secular anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist egalitarian and socialistic force in the country.
  3. Socially, they have emerged as a unique force of national integration in spite of the hindrances of illiteracy, the rural background of workers and their migratory character, on the basis of communalism, casteism and linguism.

In fact, it has been observed that external leadership, including political interference, multiple unionism, union rivalry, compulsory adjudication and arbitration instead of collective bargaining and a low literacy rate among the workers are some of the commonly attributed factors responsible for the weakness of the trade union movement in India[4].

  1. Uneven growth of Trade Unions – The degree of unionisation varies from industry to industry. In the coal industry, it is 6 per cent, cotton textile 56 per cent, tobacco manufacturing 70 per cent whereas in transport and communication, electricity and gas it is 39 per cent. Hence, it can be said that in India trade union activities are concentrated in large scale industries but in small scale industries, it is nominal.
  2. Low membership – Though the number of trade unions in India has considerably increased but membership per union has declined. In 1927-28 there was an average number of members per union near about 3500. It was reduced to about 1400 in 1946-47 and further, it again decreased to 675 in 1985. This is because of this reason that under the trade union act, 1926 any 7 workers can form a union and get registered the union. The union having low membership would not be more effective.
  3. Weak financial position – In India, most of the trade union’s financial positions is very weak because their average yearly income is inadequate. Subscription rates are very low and they vary from union to union. The reason for the weak financial position is also the multiplicity of unions. The leaders of different unions try to attract workers towards their unions comparatively at a low rate of subscription. It is the wrong union notion that the Indian workers financially are not too good. Over the years the average income of workers has been on increase. Hence, it is the wrong plea that they cannot afford a higher rate of subscription.
  4. Multiplicity of trade unions – It is also a major problem of trade union in India. It has been generally seen that there are many trade unions in the same industry. There are sometimes as many as 20 unions in the same plant. As the Trade Union Act, 1926, permits that any association of seven workers can be registered as unions. The multiplicity of unions instead solving the problems of workers or fighting with employers that quarrel among themselves with rival unions. So, the purpose of trade unions fails.
  5. Outside leadership – In India trade unions have been dominated by outside leadership. It is a notable feature of trade union in India. Nowadays these leaders are professional political leaders. Hence, they exploit the sentiments of worker’s for their political purpose. They are not generally interested to solve the problems of workers but exploit them for their political benefits. Most of the negotiations with employers fail due to such political leadership. The interests and welfare of labours are generally ignored. Therefore, outside leadership is a major weakness of trade unions in India.
  6. Absence of paid office-bearers – In India, the majority of trade unions do not have whole-time paid office-bearers. Many of them work honorary basis. Since they are not paid, they devote only limited time and energy to trade union activities. In the absence of full-time union office bearers, generally, political leader dominates unions. Moreover, the office-bearers are not trained properly
  7. Lack of interest – In India, a large number of workers have not joined any union. About 2/3 of the workers have to link with any union. Moreover, all the members of the trade unions do not show interest in their affairs. Their attendance at the general meetings of the unions is very low. Under such circumstances, trade unions can not be expected to make much progress. In order to make the trade unions movement successful, the members of trade unions should take a keen interest in union affairs.
  8. Lack of public support – As most of the trade unions believe in pressures tactics such as strikes and demonstrations, they give limited attention to peaceful methods for the settlement of demands and disputes. The general public is affected due to strikes, go-slow policy and other practices of unions. As a result, public support or sympathy is not available to the unions.
  9. Limited stress on welfare – Most of the trade unions in India undertake only limited welfare activities like opening cooperative banks, stores, provision of educational and medical facilities and other welfare facilities or activities etc. They feel that their major activity is to fight with the employer for more wages and allowances.

Steps for making trade unions strong

The working of trade unions can be successful if the following steps are taken –

  1. There should be a strong base to develop the trade union by safeguarding the interest of the members and by achieving the target of production.
  2. To make effective unionism there should be one union in one industry.
  3. As most of the unions are influenced by political parties, their interference should be eliminated.
  4. There should be a complete training programme to develop internal leadership.
  5. It will be more effective if office bearers of the trade unions are well paid.
  6. As most of the trade unions in India are financially weak. This problem can be solved by raising membership and collecting more funds for unions.
  7. Unions should undertake economic, social and cultural activities which are equally important for raising the welfare of the working class.
  8. As a considerable number of trade unions are not recognised. Hence, the proper recognition of unions will make them more effective.


Trade unions have emerged as a result of the industrial revolution and modern industrial development. Trade unions occupy a crucial place in the socio-economic and political transformation of a country. However, trade unions can contribute to the socio-economic transformation of the country only if they are organisationally strong. Effective trade leadership is the crucial factor behind the growth, strength and effectiveness of the trade unions.

Any reform in the trade unions has to be preceded by a change in the attitude of the various connected groups. The change in attitudes is possible only in the long run. However, some measures are suggested as –

  1. In order to arouse the awareness of the workers about the defects of the trade unions and the causes behind them, it is better than the existing workers’ education programme contains a course on the trade union movement.
  2. It is unfortunate that the political parties exploit the workers and their unions for their partisan aims. Self-restraint on the part of political parties, though a highly theoretical possibility at this stage, is the only remedy for preventing them from meddling with the affairs of the workers.
  3. Trade Union Act should be amended where the number of members for registration of union should be raised.
  4. It will be more effective if office-bearers of the trade unions are paid extra allowance out of union funds.
  5. Efforts should be made to increase the participation of the union in economic, social and cultural activities which are equally important for raising the welfare of the working class.


  1. Koshal, M. (1971). Trade Unions and Politics in India. By Harold Crouch, Bombay, India: P. C. Manaktala and Sons Private Ltd., 1966. Pp. 315, Appendices, Bibliography, Index. Modern Asian Studies,5(4), 404-405.
  2. Agarwal R D (Edi), Dynamics of Labour Relations in India, a book of readings, Tata Me Graw Hill, Bombay-De1hi, 1972.
  3. Abu Taher, ‘Politicization of Trade Unions: Issues and Challenges in Bangladesh Perspective'(1999) pp.403,420
  4. 2.pdf
  5. Bhandari, A. (2010), Does Union Membership Pay off? Evidence from Organized Indian Manufacturing Industries, Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, 45(3): 459-469, January.
  6. Bhattecharjee, D. (1987), Union-Type Effects on Bargaining Outcomes in Indian Manufacturing, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 25(2) : 247-266, July.
  7. Dasgupta, S. (2002), Organizing for Socio-Economic Security for India, Published by International Labour Office, Geneva, October.
  8. Madheswaran, S. and K. Shanmugam (2003), Wage Differentials between Union and Non-union Members: An Econometric Analysis, Far Eastern Meetings of Econometric Society, Seoul.
  9. Mamkoottam, K. (2006), Emerging Trends in the Trade Union Movement. The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 49(6), 893-901.
  10. Sarkar, A., and B.Varkkey (2008), Union Imperatives from White-collar Employees’ Perspective: The Case of Tata Employees’ Union, Working Paper Series, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, March.
  11. Srivastava, D. (2006), Trade Union Response to Declining Membership Base: Best Practices from Mumbai-based Trade unions, Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, 41(4): 355-374, April.
  12. Williams, R. (2013), Using Stata’s Margins Command to Estimate and Interpret Adjusted Predictions and Marginal Effects, September,

[1] Richardson J.H.: An Introduction to the study of Industrial Relations 1961, page 137.

[2] Agarwal Dharma Vera, Industrial Relations and Collective Bargaining, Deep Publications, Delhi, 1986, P. 68.

[3] Clegg H A & Flandra Allen, “The System of Industrial Relations in Great Britan”, London, P. 192.

[4] K. Mamkoottam, “Politics of trade unions: a case study in Jamshedpur”,

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Updated On 28 Dec 2020 7:43 AM GMT
Aparna Ramamoorthy

Aparna Ramamoorthy

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