The world almost came to a standstill due to the outbreak of Covid-19, India being no exception to it. The Indian economy took a tremendous blow due to the lockdown. It drastically affected the aviation, tourism and hospitality industries, but that’s not it. A certain class of the population suffered drastically because of the unemployment created due to the pandemic, this class is predominantly known as the ‘labour class’. The imposition of the lockdown has been nothing less than a nightmare for them and despite the mainstream media covering their plight, nothing much was done to help them cope with their miseries. Numerous NGOs, government agencies and religious institutions worked ceaselessly to provide these labourers with food and water. Well, trade unions do a similar task for these workmen, but their job is a bit wider and distinct than simply providing them with necessities.
Understanding the Complexity of Trade Unions
As per the Economic Times[i], trade unions are organizations formed by workers from related fields that work for the common interest of their members. These unions aid the workmen in issues related to payment of income, good working environment, working hours, employment benefits, etc.
Section 2(h) of the Trade Unions Act, 1926 (hereinafter referred to as the “Trade Unions Act”) reads “Trade Union” means any combination, whether temporary or permanent, formed primarily for the purpose of regulating the relations between workmen and employers or between workmen and workmen, or between employers and employers, or for imposing restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade or business, and includes any federation of two or more Trade Unions: Provided that this Act shall not affect—
(i) any agreement between partners as to their own business;
(ii) any agreement between an employer and those employed by him as to such employment; or
(iii) any agreement in consideration of the sale of the good will of a business or of instruction in any profession, trade or handicraft.”
These trade unions, also referred to as labour unions, create a link between the management and workers. They form an essential component of the industrial work-frame. Generally, in order to form a trade union, it is necessary to first associate yourself with your ‘bargaining unit’. The bargaining unit must then hold elections in order to decide whether they want to form a trade union. And once that is conducted, they must go ahead and form a collective bargaining agreement which can contain a list of mandatory subjects, permissive subjects and maybe even forbidden or illegal subjects. But the registration of the same in India is a different process altogether. The right to form an association or union is a guaranteed fundamental right under Article19 (1)(c) of the Indian Constitution.
Managing a Trade Union in India is not as easy as it sounds. It deals with several complications on a daily basis. At times, this results in inefficient and inadequate functioning of such Trade Unions. Some problems may seem quite petty, but in reality, if such complications are not irradicated from the root, they may hamper the Trade Union’s efficacy or worse, it might even contribute to turning the Trade Union obsolete. Hence, before forming a Trade Union, the member/s of the prospective Trade Unions must take certain factors into consideration.
Challenges faced by Trade Unions in India
Trade Unions in India have never had an easy way around anything. It has been an endless battle to simply get their voices heard let alone have them be acknowledged. The constant pressure that entails this vicious circle of the life of workmen is almost never-ending. These unions are clouded by challenges that are discussed in detail below:
It is a larger known fact that some Trade unions are politically influenced. The trade unions in India are often controlled by politicians and lawyers. Consequently, this acts as a major deterrent as these individuals often have zero to least experience when it comes to physical work. They do not relate to the plight of the workers, due to which it gets difficult for them to run these unions with honesty. Their driving force is quite different from that of the workers as they are usually politically driven. The primary reason for these unions being led by these intellectuals is that the members of the unions are usually illiterate. They have a poor command over language which expressly deems them to be bad orators, which is a hindering factor as one of the requirements of being a leader would be this. Another crucial drawback is that the Trade Union Act does not curtail ‘outsiders’ from being a part of trade unions, promoting outside leadership. This can seriously hamper internal growth.
2. Financial Troubles
As with every other body or association, the trade unions require funds to work smoothly and effectively. This often poses a problem because the unions need to conduct events and programs related to the services promised to the members. A union that is interested in increasing its membership often has a low subscription rate and may not even collect regular subscriptions. It was observed by the National Commission of labour that union organisers often do not claim anything higher nor do the workers feel like contributing more because the services rendered by the unions do not deserve a higher fee. The unions must bear the payment of salaries to office staff, allowances to office bearers, expenditure of annual meeting/convention expenses, rents, printing, stationery and postage etc. It gets hard to balance the expenditure and income.
3. Small Size of Union
Despite the significant increase in the number of unions in India, it was not accompanied by an increase in membership. In fact, a trend of decline in membership has been observed. The formation of new unions has become inversely proportionate to its size. The average membership per union is still at 800, while it is quite large in other nations like the USA and the UK. A contributing factor to the timid size of the unions would be Trade Unions Act. According to the act, a minimum requirement of seven members is sufficient for the establishment and registration of the trade unions. This can prove to be fatal to the existing trade unions comprising of a smaller number of members as they might not have an impact on the management when it would come to put forth their grievances. It is also pertinent to note that the smaller the size of the union, the harder it is to generate funds for legal assistance or union activities.
4. Multiplicity of Unions
The leaders who pledged for the formation of these unions must’ve dreamt of an India where the formation of the unions would multiply gradually leading to better efficacy in collective bargaining. On the contrary, the formation of multiple trade unions at a rapid pace has only proved to be a curse to the Indian Society as comes with it is the politics and the main objective i.e., the welfare of the workers have gotten sidelined. The scenario encircling the trade unions has simply resulted in ‘the survival of the fittest’. The trade union movement is becoming weak due to the constant fight for securing managements support and wider recognition. A humungous problem that cannot be ignored with respect to this is that most unions have always been under the shadow of political parties. And when the parties break up, the unions split too causing a multiplicity of parties. Due to the change in leadership of these parties, there are frequent changes in the leadership and functioning of the unions as well. All these factors may prove detrimental to the growth of these unions as there’s no opportunity for consistency to prevail.
5. Intra Union Rivalry
As discussed above, multiple unions can do no good to the Trade Union movement. Apart from the abovementioned reasons, a grave problem created due to the multiplicity of unions is intra union rivalry. This rivalry shatters the objective behind the formation of unions. They might adopt various approaches which may not prove to be beneficial for the workmen. They might contest strikes by a rival union on baseless and vague grounds just to hinder their activities. This is a potent cause for the weakening of the trade union movement. The employers benefit greatly from intra union rivalry as it is easier to pit one union against the other due to the preexistence of feud. By doing so the crux of the matter is sidelined and the bargaining is either prolonged or put to a halt. This hinders the concept of portraying a united front and instead aids the employers to play divide and rule.
The political influence on Trade Unions is affluent in India and has been intertwined with politics since the Indian struggle for freedom. Initially, the unions benefited under the effectual and beneficial guidance of the political leaders, but in the long run, it defied the purpose of trade unions, the unity amongst the working class. A split in the parent political party due to ideological differences would instantly result in the split in the corresponding trade union. This had been observed several times in the past. This was first observed when the oldest trade union in India, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) split into the All India Trade Union Federation (AITUF) towards the end of the 1920s. A primary cause for the fragmentation and formation of multiple trade unions is the lack of interest by the political leaders associated with their respective trade unions in the primary goal of the union. Frequent fragmentations cannot be considered healthy as they instantly give rise to intra union rivalry and exploitation of the disunity among workers by the employers.
A major problem that setbacks not just the progress of workers, but that of the entire nation is illiteracy. A large proportion of the Indian workers are illiterately resulting in exploitation by the union leaders. Due to their ignorance, they are often manipulated into working for the benefit of the political parties even if it jeopardizes worker unification. They are turned into mere political puppets in hands of outside leadership which not only deters their goal but defeats the purpose of the formation of the trade union. When illiteracy and ignorance of the workers are coupled, they are divided on the grounds of caste, race, religion, gender, etc. by the leadership for their personal political gains. The image of the trade unions will be shattered in the eyes of the masses if their primary goal of formation would be to work for the political parties behind the scenes. It would ultimately lead to the weakening of their bargaining power and not being taken seriously by the employers.
8. Apathy of workers and Role of management
The previous problem leads us to the discussion of the following problem. The workers often juggle between their jobs and working effectively for the trade unions. They are often torn between working diligently either for the trade unions or at their place of work. This is due to the fact that the employment earns them a living while the trade union is an opportunity for them to voice their problems. Due to this, the workers lack showing interest in the union work unless the matter is of grave importance. Many times, the management exploits the workers’ dilemma to their own advantage. The management is of the opinion that the presence of the union simply drives a wedge between the management and the employees. They tend to blame the union for low productivity or efficiency on part of employees, deferment of work, lack of goodwill amongst customers, etc.
The growth of trade unions in India with respect to development is not proportionate to its growth in terms of size. It’s far from reaching its utmost goal of securing unity, peace and harmony amongst the unions and simultaneously battling for their rights, problems and development. A common trend of non-registration of trade unions has been observed in many nations especially in India. This may prove to be a hindrance in the path of achievement of goals of the unions as registration may be considered a bare minimum. Registration has drastic impacts on the working of a union that is still not fully understood by workers. In the case of B. Srinivasa Reddy v. Karnataka Urban Water Supply & Drainage Board Employees’ Association[ii] it was held that an unregistered trade union may not have any rights under Trade Unions Act or even the Industrial Disputes Act. In fact, under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, labour unions are defined as unions that are registered under the Trade Unions Act. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to make workers aware of this criterion as the entire existence of the trade unions depends on their mere existence. Collective bargaining is the primary means of the trade unions to resolve issues amicably with the employers must be laid emphasis on in the coming times. As with the changing laws and constant amendments, this basic ’tool’ of the workmen must not be forbidden.
1. Calla Hummel, How were the first labour unions formed, Classroom Synonym (Posted: September 29, 2017) https://classroom.synonym.com/how-were-the-first-labor-unions-formed-12080939.html
2. Pritom Saikia, A History of Trade Unions in India, Statecraft (Posted: November 22, 2018) https://www.statecraft.co.in/article/a-history-of-trade-unions-in-india
3. Abul Kalam Azad Sulthan, Trade Union related Laws in India (Posted: December 26, 2016) https://spicylaw.com/trade-union-related-laws-in-india/#_ftnref7
4. Trade Union Act, 1926.
5. S Sodhi, Trade Unions in India: Changing Role & Perspective, IJIR, Vol 49, issue. 2, at 169-84.
6. Ravinder Jit, Challenges of Trade Union Movement in India, GJEIS, Vol 8, issue 2 at 20-25
7. Abhishek Gupta and Neetu Gupta, The 21stCentury Trade Unions Challenges in India, J Account Mark, Vol 2, Issue 1,
8. Constitution of India.
9. Preetha S and Ajay Solanki, Indian Trade Unions and Collective Bargaining, Nishith Desai, (November 2019)
[ii]B. Srinivasa Reddy v. Karnataka Urban Water Supply & Drainage Board Employees’ Association, (2006) 11 SCC 731 (2).
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