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The Industrial Revolution, which started in Britain in the 18th century and spread around the world, is what gave rise to trade unions in general. The construction of massive factories, new methods of mass production, mechanisation, and swift economic growth define the Industrial Revolution. Naturally, there would be a demand for manpower when many factories are established. As a result, both expert and unskilled employees were in greater demand. The employers at the period were focused on maximising profits and the industries were poorly organised, which resulted in the exploitation of the working class, which was ignorant and underprivileged.

The workers first believed that their need for money was greater and that their employers could easily replace them if they complained about the unfair terms and conditions and low pay set by their employers. But throughout time, the working class understood that while a single worker’s outcry against the exploitative conditions of his employees may not have any effect on the industrial organisation, a collection of workers—a “Union”—will have a greater influence on their boss lords. Workers were given the ability to collectively bargain for themselves after being organised into unions. Consequently, this idea inspired the creation of trade unions.

Law and Amendments

Trade unions development in India is significantly influenced by labour legislation. All Indian labour law has as its guiding concept the establishment of social justice. The necessity for carefully crafted labour legislation in the nation was further fuelled by the creation of the International Labour Organization to improve the status of labour worldwide. A number of other internal forces, such as the Swaraj movement of 1921–1924 and the Royal Commission on Labour, also prepared the way for numerous labour laws and persuaded the constitution’s writers to include such rules that will benefit workers. Labor is a concurrent list issue under the Indian Constitution, meaning that both the centre and the states have the authority to pass laws on the matter.

The inability of the labourers to bargain, especially those who work in the unorganised sectors, becomes a crucial factor in their exploitation. The only registered trade unions that have access to collective bargaining rights are them. Although, there is no specific law governing the registration of unions in India; there is legislation surrounding the recognition of unions. The Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Act was passed by the parliament in 1947 as it became clear that there needed to be centralised regulation for the registration of unions. The aforementioned Act attempted to insert Chapter III-A, which listed the prerequisites for the mandatory recognition of any trade union, into the Trade Union Act, 1926. This Act, however, was never put into effect. Therefore, the mandatory recognition of trade unions is not present under any law in force in India.

Challenges of Trade Union in contemporary India

Some of the major problems faced by trade unions in India are as follows:

1. Small Size:

According to the veteran trade union leader V.V. Giri, “the trade union movement in India is plagued by the predominance of small sized unions”. To quote there were 9,023 trade unions submitting returns during the year 1992. The total membership of these unions was 57.4 lakhs, with an average membership of 632 per union. Nearly three-fourths of the unions have a membership of less than 500. Smallness in size of the union implies, among other things, weakness in bargaining power.

2. Poor Finance:

Small size of unions has its direct bearing on its financial health. Total income and total expenditure of 9,073 trade unions with a membership of 57.4 lakhs were Rs. 3,238 lakhs and Rs. 2,532 lakhs respectively in 1992. The per member income and expenditure, thus, come to Rs. 56.4 and Rs. 44.1 respectively”. These are, by all means, very low. It is the small size of trade unions accompanied by small subscriptions; the trade unions cannot undertake welfare activities.

3. Politicisation:

A serious defect of the trade union movement in India is that the leadership has been provided by outsiders’ especially professional politicians. Leaders being affiliated to one or the other party, the unions were more engrossed in toeing the lines of their political leaders than protecting workers’ interests.

Ironically, in many cases, the political leaders possess little knowledge of the background of labour problems, fundamentals of trade unionism, the techniques of industry, and even little general education. Naturally, unions cannot be expected to function efficiently and on a sound basis under the guidance of such leaders.

4. Multiplicity of Unions:

Of late, trade unionism in India is also characterised by multiplicity of unions based on craft, creed and religion. This is well indicated by the socio-political realities after the mandalisation of polity and heightened sectarian consciousness after the demolition of the disputed structure of Ayodhya.

As noted earlier, the multiplicity of unions is mind-boggling in the DTC (50), the SAIL (240) and the Calcutta Corporations (100). The implication of multiplicity of trade unions is that it leads to union’s rivalry in the organization. Obviously, multiplicity of unions contributes to fragmentation to workers leading to small-sized unions.

5. Lack of Enlightened Labour Force:

The lack of an enlightened labour force capable of manning and conducting the movement efficiently, purposefully and effectively has been a major problem in the development of trade unions in the country. Lack of education, division by race religion, language and caste, migratory nature, lack of self-consciousness, and non-permanent class of workers have been attributed as the causes for the lack of enlightened labour force in India.


Trade unionism has advanced significantly in India. Trade unions in India have gained a remarkable status/standing in the labour movement, going from initially having no legal support to criminalising “strikes” by the unions to allowing them registration procedures and mandatory recognition to now having full-fledged legislation and special courts. However, there are still a few obstacles that the trade unions must overcome, such as a lack of funding and assistance from the government. Therefore, there is still room for trade unionism to grow in India.


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May 2024