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Saturday, May 1, 2021

May Day ~ recalling those lunch hour demonstrations and dreaded strikes !!

Today is 1st day of the month of May – celebrated as May Day.

In Oct 2014,  in  an extraordinary and unprecedented move, West Indies players came  out strongly against the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) president and chief executive Wavell Hinds, who they claim "hoodwinked" them and did not take their inputs while signing a new memorandum of understanding with West Indies Cricket Board last month, under which they would suffer a significant cut in their payment.  .. somehow that ‘strike’ by WI Cricketers could be averted.

Kapil Dev striking hard the leather was always enjoyable – but sadly, many industrial strikes ended up with riots and violence, mayhem.

Half a century or so ago, industrial activities were at their peak at Ambattur – a blooming Industrial estate with mushrooming small scale units. Sadly, strikers broke the backbone of small upcoming entrepreneurs – by those orchestrated strikes by Left Unions, the worst sufferers were the workers themselves, as one after the other Units started closing.  Now the Estate is struggling more so with migrant workers not being available due to Covid 19. A couple of decades ago, in Banks and PSUs – Unions could threaten the management calling strikes too often – all that has changed ! totally.  One would remember witnessing – ‘agitations / demonstrations at lunch or at the start of the day itself – workers shouting – worker’s unity zindabad ! management murdabad !!’.

The right to strike in the Indian constitution set up is not absolute right but it flow from the fundamental right to form union. As every other fundamental right is subject to reasonable restrictions, the same is also the case to form trade unions to give a call to the workers to go on strike and the state can impose reasonable restrictions.

Section 2(gg)(q) in The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 – defines :  " strike" means a cessation of work by a body of persons employed in any industry acting in combination or a concerted refusal, or a refusal under a common understanding, of any number of persons who are or have been so employed to continue to work or to accept employment;

                      Whenever employees want to go on strike they have to follow the procedure provided by the Act otherwise there strike deemed to be an illegal strike. Section 22(1) of the  Industrial Dispute Act, 1947 put certain prohibitions on the right to strike. It provides that no person employed in public utility service shall go on strike in breach of contract:

a.       Without giving to employer notice of strike within six weeks before striking; or

b.       Within fourteen days of giving such notice; or

c.       Before the expiry of the date of strike specified in any such notice as aforesaid; or

d.       During the pendency of any conciliation proceedings before a conciliation officer and seven days after the conclusion of such proceedings.

It is to be noted that these provisions do not prohibit the workmen from going on strike but require them to fulfill the condition before going on strike. Further these provisions apply to a public utility service only.   

1st of May is of importance to many in different ways.  For some  it is the May Day synonymous with International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organised by communists, anarchists, socialists, unionists, and other activist groups.   The Haymarket massacre   was the aftermath of a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration on May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago.  It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour work day, the day after police killed one and injured several workers.  An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at the police as they acted to disperse the meeting, and the bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; dozens of others were wounded. In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy.  The Haymarket Affair is generally considered significant as the origin of International Workers' Day held on May 1  

Back home in India, the  Great Famine of 1876–1878 (also the Southern India famine of 1876–1878 or the Madras famine of 1877) was a famine that swept parts of  India under Crown rule.  The death toll from this famine is estimated to be in the range of 5.5 to 10.3 million people. The famine occurred at a time when the colonial government was attempting to reduce expenses on welfare. Earlier, in the Bihar famine of 1873–74, severe mortality had been avoided by importing rice from Burma. The Government of Bengal and its Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Richard Temple, were criticised for excessive expenditure on charitable relief. The insistence on more rigorous tests for qualification, however, led to strikes by "relief workers" in the Bombay presidency. In Jan 1877, Temple reduced the wage for a day's hard work in the relief camps in Madras and Bombay —this 'Temple wage' consisted of 450 grams (1 lb) of grain plus one anna for a man, and a slightly reduced amount for a woman or working child, for a "long day of hard labour without shade or rest." 

Rather than Haymarket square, Indians should be remembering those martyrs behind the freedom struggle and labour unions involved in freedom movement such as Bombay workers and that agitation at Tuticorin that changed the life of VoC, Subramania Siva, Vanchinathan and more !

On 23 February 1908 Chidambaram gave a speech at Thoothukudi, encouraging the workers at Coral Mill  to protest against their low wages and harsh working conditions. Four days later, the workers of the Coral Mill went on strike. Chidambaram and Subramanya Siva led the strike. Their demands included incremental earnings, weekly holidays and other leave facilities. Chidambaram ensured the strike was widely publicised, and it quickly gained popular support.  The outcome of the strike encouraged the workers of other European companies, who also gained increased wages and better treatment. But harsh measures of British ended in arrest of Subramaniya Siva and Chidambaranar on  12 March 1908.

The arrest was followed by widespread protest. In Thirunelveli shops, schools and colleges were closed in protest, and rioting broke out. The Thirunelveli municipal office, post offices, police stations and municipal courts were attacked. A general strike was declared in Thoothukudi, which was the first political strike in India.  Public meetings and processions were held, and four people were killed by the police. Although his supporters were able to raise sufficient funds for bail, Chidambaram refused to leave the jail without the release of Siva and his other comrades. Subramanya Bharathi and Subramanya Siva also appeared in the court for questioning for the case instituted against Chidambaram. He was charged under sections 123-A and 153-A of the Indian Penal Code for speaking against the British and giving shelter to Siva.  They were  charged with sedition, and a sentence of two life imprisonments. 

The collective force of Bombay’s working class citizens – dock workers, textile mill workers, labourers, small merchants and traders, the informal sector workers – had shaped the city. Their involvement in the freedom movement was natural and, for decades later, their stories became oral narratives of the movement in working class areas. As scholars recorded, workers’ strikes and links between the labour class and nationalist politics were key aspects of the early years of the movement and had become common by early 20th century. The textile mill workers’ earliest strikes in 1892-93 were focussed on payments and working conditions but the general strikes across the industry in 1919, 1920, 1924-25, 1928 had resonances of the freedom struggle. The week-long strike of 1908 had set the tone for mill workers’ involvement.

Thousands of mill workers had grown restive in June 1908 when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested on charges of sedition. A month later, when he was convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, Bombay shut down. “All markets in Bombay city were closed on July 22 and remained closed for a week,” wrote noted historian Bipan Chandra in “India’s Struggle for Independence”, “The workers of all textile mills and railway workshops went on strike for six days…

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
1st May 2021.


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