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During the 25 years of independent Bangladesh, side by side with its peoples’ struggles, the working class and trade union movement has played a significant role. Not only during this quarter of century but also during 24 years of Pakistani rule (1947-1971) and even before that when Bangladesh as part of India was under British rule trade union movement played quite an important role and deserves special study to understand peoples struggle in Bangladesh. The history of trade union movement in Bangladesh dates back to middle of the 19th century when modern industry started to develop in the Indian sub-continent. Like many other movements Trade Union movement in Bangladesh and India has a common heritage. The British rule in India (1757-1974) destroyed its self-sufficient village economy based on agriculture and rural industry with traditional handicrafts. Measures taken by the colonial rulers lead to displacement of peasants from land, increase in number of absentee land owners and middlemen, exposure of villages to the vagaries of market and undermining requirements of biodiversity and ecological balance. All these supply of free labor. A higher but alien form of economy was superimposed fitting not ot national but foreign interest. India was to be the supplier of raw materials and market of foreign manufactured goods. To serve these purpose British rulers constructed railways, developed tea, jute, indigo plantations. Cheap industrial goods were dumped and marketed ruining millions of artisans, craftsmen, spinners, weavers, potters, smelters, smiths etc. In this process no method was undemocratic and inhuman for the British. The world famous Muslin of Dhaka was pushed out of competition not by market mechanism but by simply cutting the thumbs of hundreds of weavers. Even after this British industry had to be protected by imposing 70 to 80 per cent tax on silk goods of India. (History of British India vol. 1. H. H. Wilson). From 1920 to 35 the first textile mills started operation in and around capital city Dhaka and other places. During this time the Jute bailing companies were started. The first railway line in areas now under Bangladesh was opened in 1892; during 1860-1880 the first tea gardens were commissioned. In the early part of this century the first waterways were started.
The formation of modern Trade Unions was preceded by coolies or porter revolt in 1794 leading to signing of an agreement, strike of palki (palanquin bearers) workers in 1827 and several such relvolts and sporadic action. The first Indian Independence Movement in 1857, called as such by Marx but commonly known to us as sepoy Mutiny as British rulers wanted us to call it, made significant impact on mass mood. The railway strike in 1862, workers rally in 1866, formation of working Men’s association in 1870 which undertook social activities like adult education; cooperative Banking, drive against drunkenness, the publication o f Indian workers 1872, under the editorship of Shasipada Banarji and Baranhnagar Samachar 1873, the first Trade Union Newspaper all these were prelude to the formation of Trade Unions. The textile workers strike in Bombay in 1890 was significant event and general strike or Hartal as we call it throughout India for the release of Nationalist leader Tilak was the 1st political strike of the working class in India in which at least 200 people were killed in police firing. These struggles brought militancy in Trade Union movement. The 1917 socialist revolution in Russia had a tremendous impact on the working class in India. Many revolutionaries who are fighting against the British rule came in touch with Marxism and dedicated themselves to trade union and working class movement. 1920 saw the formation of all India trade union congress (AITUC), the 1st National Trade Union which affiliated 64 unions with a membership of 140,854. 43 other unions expressed sympathy. From Bengal one union affiliated with membership of 2,505 and 4 other unions sympathized. The condition of working class during the beginning can only be compared to slavery. Unlimited working hours, poor working and living condition, meager wages and lack of legal protection was the rule of the day. In the beginning workers organized on the basis of religion and castes. Only after prolonged struggles and experience they started to organize into trade unions. In 1921 railway workers went to strike. Tea garden workers fought against physical assault by British employers and went on strike. Many of them were migrant workers coming from Madras, United province and other states of India. Brutal repression compelled them along with their family to leave the gardens and return to their homeland. They were refused railway tickets deprived of other transportations and were stopped by police in different places and fired upon. Hundreds died due to repression and illness during travelling. Solidarity action by railway workers and waterway workers and different sections of the population condemned the
brutalities of employers and the Government. People in Dhaka, Sylhet, Chittagong, Barisal came out in support of the workers. J.M. Sen Gupta of Chittagong, the port city of Bangladesh, who was also Mayor of Calcutta came out in support of the workers. The working class succeeded in drawing the attention of the whole nation. In 1926 Trade Union Act was passed. Trade Union Movement was very closely connected with other mass struggles and particularly popular struggle for national independence. Eminent national leaders participated or sympathized with trade union movement, some more some less. Participation of the working class tremendously increased the militancy of the national movement and counter balanced the vacillations of the national leadership. From the very inception two distinct trends existed in the trade union movement. One fighting and militant trend based on the concept of class struggle lead by left leaning nationalist and communists, and the other reformist and conciliatory trend based on class collaboration. The later trend though patronized by employers and supported by national leaders like Gandhi was in the minority. Inspite of reformist machinations strike wave swept India from 1937. The workers fought for decrease in working hours for higher wages, better working and living condition for trade union and democratic rights. Against atrocities of employers and government and police repressions in 1938 only 399 strikes involving 401,075 workers took place causing 9,198,708 man days lost. The reformist leadership alarmed by the militancy of trade union movement even split the AITUC but failed to control the movement. Waves of struggle rather forced them to merge with AITUC. After the glorious victory of the allies under the leadership of Soviet Union and defeat of fascism working class and nationalist movement in India found new inspirations. India was sin ferment. Powerful strike of about a million railway workers 1, 50,000 postal workers and other workers in different provinces could not be stopped in spite of the fact that hundreds of trade union leaders were kept in prison and hundreds were killed on the street. Peoples struggle against trial of patriots and strike of Army, Navy, Air force and Police in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Karachi and their places and mass solidarity action not only convinced the British rulers that it was high time to quit Indian but also make the Indian bourgeoisie nervous about radicalization of the movement. India was divided on the basis of communalism on 14th and 15th august 1947 Pakistan
and India came into being as two separate states. Special mention must be made about the strike of textile workers of Dhaka and Bangladesh which was mainly led by the communists who pioneered trade union movement in this area. These trade unions were very much organized and disciplined with dedicated cadres. During 2nd world w2ar when famine struck the area trade union leaders and workers took responsibility of distributing rationed food grains to people living around the industrial establishments. Relations of fraternity and solidarity were unique between the workers and local people and peasantry. Pakistani Rule Widespread religious communal riots between Hindus and Muslims took place in different parts of Indian sub-continent and hundreds of thousands of people women, children and men old and young were brutally killed and looted, houses were burned down, women were raped. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from India migrated to Pakistan while Hindus from Pakistan migrated to India. As a matter of fact in East Pakistan which is now Bangladesh the large scale migration fo0 workers particularly trade union leaders and activists changed the socially basis in industrial areas and created big vacuum in the trade union movement. Furthermore the communist parties of India and Pakistan took an adventurist line o farmed struggle which was suppressed ruthlessly. Many were killed and others were either in prison or force underground. As a matter of fact creation of Pakistan, fanatic campaigns, domination fo Pakistani Ideology based on communism and fundamentalism created a new situation. Democratic and progressive political movement had to be built a new.
In 1948 East Pakistan Trade Union federation was formed with Dr. Malek as president and Faiz Ahmed as General Secretary both former AITUC leaders. Communist leader Nepal Nag was elected vice-president and Anil Mukherjee as assistant secretary soon Mr. Malek became a minister. The7y participated along with other T.U. leaders in the labor consultative conference of 1951 organized by the government which declared that since Pakistan was newly born the trade
unions will not raise demands or go on strike. This conciliatory position and other factor lead to several split sin the Federation. The Government of Pakistan decided to develop industries on the basis of private ownership. But private entrepreneurship particularly in East Pakistan now Bangladesh was lagging behind. The Government therefore formed industrial development corporation and other such organizations to establish industries mobilizing capital, knowhow, entrepreneurship, taking initial risks, ensuring stable market and profitability etc. after considerable s5tability was achieved these factories and in industrial units were sold to private entrepreneurs below market price. This the Jute mills, sugar mills Paper mills Cotton mills, Fertilizer factories, Machine Tools, Rerolling mills Match Factories leather, Chemical, Engineering, Ship Building and various other industrial units were established. A new class of entrepreneurs was nursed spoon, fed and brought up by the government. From the very beginning state power in Pakistan was in the hands of Bourgeois feudal alliance backed by U. S. and its western allies. Concentration of wealth, regional disparities, transfer of resources from Bangladesh and disparities in regional per capita income increased. State patronage lead to enrichment of a few and impoverishment of many. During 1962, 43 families controlled 77.3 per cent of manufacturing sector 75.6 per cent of insurance and more than 60 per cent of the banks. (Studies by Lawrence J white) out of these 43 families only one was from Bangladesh. Economically, politically and culturally Bangladesh was turned into a virtual colony of Pakistan Rulers. Modern industrial labor force increased from 580,000 in 1947 to all most 300,000 in 1969. Real wages in industry fell from index 100.5 between 1960-1961 to index 82.3 betweeen 1968-69. During this gross profit in this sector increased form Rs 54.61 million to Rs 156.44 million. The historic language movement in 1952 was the first outburst of Bengalese against the cultural and political domination of Pakistan. Working class participation was significant during final stage of the movement. Trade Union Movement which suffered serious setback during partition of India and communal riots started to pick up. Government Employees, Bank Postal and railway workers went on strike.
In 1954 United Front of democratic and progressive forces in East Pakistan own a land slide victory in election against ruling rightist forces. The 21 point program of the United Front included demand for nationalization of major industries and trade many communist, trade union and peasant leaders were released. Trade union movement utilized the relatively democratic atmosphere. Quarrel with in the United Front Palace intrigues conspiracy of reactionary forces make the situation very tense. Police strike which was brutally suppressed during this time should be mentioned. In 1956 communists initiated National Federation was formed. This was developing into most powerful fighting trade union. Unfortunately splits in communist movement, particularly into Pro-Moscow and pro-Peking factions and differences amongst the left weekend their trade union. During most of Pakistan period like the industries the trade unions were also given state patronage and leaders purchased to support the employers and government with help of Goondas (hooligans) and black legs who used to control the industrial areas. During this period communal riots were provoked in industrial areas; in Adamjee Jute Mills (biggest in Asia) in Naryanganj and Karnaphuli paper Mills in Chittagong. Enemies of the working class some employers and opportunist elements always tried to create division on amongst the workers on the basis of religion, language and region. Regionalism is still a bigh problem in trade union movement. Stalemate in the movement was first broken by the working class. Jute, Textile, Railway, Postal, Telegraph and Telephone and ports and other workers organized several strikes. Meanwhile students also built up united struggle against education policy and for democracy. Political parties also came forward, 1962 saw militant struggle of student’s and industrial workers. In 1964 about one month long strike of Jute Mill workers and 50 days long cotton textile workers strike needs special mention. On 29th September, 1964 there was a successful general strike in East Pakistan for democratic and trade union rights. In 1965 the government pr9omulgated a set of labor laws setting condition of service, working hours, leaves and holidays and trade union procedures and procedures of r conducting industrial disputes. A mammoth workers meeting in Dhaka was organized by the leading trade unions for amendment of those labor laws.
Another wave of repression on democratic forces and trade unions was let loose during IndoPakistan war in 1965. In 1966 Sheikh Mujubur Rahman the founder of Bangladesh at this stage raised 6 point demand detailing autonomy for East Pakistan. On 7th June in support of 6 point demand along with other demand organized. Militant participation of the working class was evident. Support of communist and other progressive forces and an all party unity of students on the basis of 11 point program launched powerful nationwide movement. The 11 point included demands for national rights, nationalization of Banks, Insurance and big industries, withdrawal from US, military pacts etc. this movement lead to mass upsurge in 1969. Working class played a very important role in thi9s struggle. As a matter of fact participation of industrial workers made a tremendous impact on the movement and brought militancy in the overall mood of the masses. Many workers were martyred. Not only strikes took place but a ‘Gherao’ movement started where the workers captured the factories confined the managers and owners in the factory premises until their demands were realized. In this process the conservative government patronized trade union leadership was over thrown and more militant, politically committed to national and mass struggle came into the leadership. Jation Sramik league (National Workers League) workers front of Awami League led by Sheikh Mujib and Trade Union Kendra (center) lead by communist and left elements came into being. The role of the working class radicalized the whole movement. The Ayub Government was overthrown. A more radical Industrial Relations Ordinance was promulgated. An enhanced and national minimum wage has declared. There was an upsuge in trade union movement, workers started to organize themselves in unions. The number of trade unions which was 411 in 1968 increased to 1174 in 1971. Many days lost during this time increased from 154,840 to 366,901. In the national election Awami league led by Mujib, popularly named Banga Bandhu received massive mandate. But Pakistani rulers instead of handling over power to elected peoples representative started to prepare for an onslaught. A nationwide non-cooperation movement was launched. The trade unions and workers played a vital role during this movement. A 23 day road transport strike in Dhaka during this time may be mentioned.
The Pakistani Military ruler cracked down on Bangladesh, perpetuated genocide nad an armed independence struggle for nine months, in which workers, peasants and trade unions played important role, culminated in the emergence of Bangladesh. During the liberation struggle trade unions of Bangladesh along with All India Trade Union Congress and world Federation of Trade union played an important role in mobilizing socialist and progressive forces of the world in favor of our independence struggle. The independence of Bangladesh created a new situation altogether. People of Bangladesh fought a militant armed struggle for 9 months. All through, the working class and the trade unions actively participated in the struggle communists and left forces played a significant role during all the phases of the movement U.S. and other imperialist forces worked against the liberation movement of Bangladesh while socialist Soviet Union and other socialist counties and progressive forces of the world actively supported. All these factor lead to radicalization of the country. Even those who thought otherwise could not ignore radical mass mood and emotions. Sheikh Mujib who was in the peck of his popularity did not hesitate but actually championed the radical mass mood. His government not only nationalized the major industries, large part of external and internal trade but also nationalized industries which were owned by Bengali Bourgeoisie. The nationalized bigger industries were mostly owned by West Pakistani and Refugee Bourgeoisie. May small and varied industries and establishment were abandoned by non-Bengalis who fled just before the victory of liberation war. These factories were also taken over by the government. So Bangladesh with its war ravaged economy, disruption in marketing and other linkages, migration of skilled personnel with a government and leadership which came through a short lived armed struggle but not consolidated enough, a middle strata petty bourgeoisie leadership with a fancy toward popular socialist rhetoric, but not much committed to it, with a clumsy administration sitting on the periphery but suddenly discovering themselves in the helm of affairs, no knowing much about how to run things of a sovereign country was all of a sudden confronted with a gigantic state sector.
Number of registered factories in 1968-1969 was 3,130. Many factories were not registered, the Government nationalized Jute (74 factories), Cotton (44 factories) and Sugar (15 factories) mills and established several corporations to run the 313 state owned industrial enterprises. Naturally nationalization was a welcome decision for the trade unionist working class and the people at large. However high hopes place on the state sector could not be materialized. The already small manufacturing sector which accounted for only 10 of the Gross Domestic Product faced severe crisis. It was not only the failure of the political leadership or Government, administration or management or failure due to various restraints but the trade union generally also could not perform their due role. The ruling party men mostly busied themselves in making quick money. Its trade union front Sramik League also ran after wealth. Machines, fund and industrial products were looted. Many trade union leaders got involved in corrupt deals of the sales and purchases in the enterprises. Sramik League took full advantage of its party rules, organized volunteer corps called “Lal bahini” (red brigade). Large number of trade union leaders and “Lal bahini” people used ot get wages and salaries without working. This vitiated working atmosphere in the enterprise level. To suppress their misdeeds they even raised unreasonable financial demands which the enterprises were unable to fulfill. Other trade unions not belonging to the government backed Sramik League was mostly engaged in the struggle for higher wages and benefits. Unions or workers influenced by opposition used every means to bring out workers on the street and unrest. Bangladesh Trade Union Kendra (Center) BTUK which was backed by communist party (Ban was withdrawn after the liberation of Bangladesh) and National Awami Party a party of progressive democrats, not only declared its support to nationalization but also seriously worked for the success of this policy. BTUK-the restoration of production in many factories which closed down during liberation war, restoration of railway and road transport service. Huge relief materials sent by soviet Trade Unions were handed over to BTUK as solidarity. These relief goods were distributed by the BTUK amongst most effected orders. BTUK organized volunteer corps to protect factories from lootings. Factories and establishments, where there were considerable number of BTUK \activists could not be looted. For the first time in history a situation developed when workers had a feeling that the former owners were gone and they were
the virtual owners of factories. This feeling was further consolidated and developed into conscious patriotic activities in places where the union was under the leadership of BTUK or their patriotic and honest people. In the railways, Chittagong port, Bawni Jute mills, Ujala Match Factory in Dhaka, in some factories in Khulna, Mymensingh and Chittagong the workers under BTUK leadership created examples how the factories could be run efficiently and profitably without the bourgeois. It is interesting to note that union leaders and workers who fought against corruption, for more production and profitability had to face repression, physical assault by vested interest, managerial reprimand and even Government and Police repressions. In most cases looting and corruption was perpetrated by the management in connivance with corrupt union leaders and government and corporation official’s workers were helpless. Whenever the workers on their own instinct and initiative or lead by BTUK or other honest Trade Union leaders built up movement against corrupt coterie they came against fierce reprisals. The corrupt managers and Trade Union Leaders also divided the workers on the basis of districts and regions. Grouping and struggle for power in the unions, factories and industrial areas became so intense that several clashes and riots took place in Tongi industrial area. Adamjee Jute Mills in 1972 and 1973 and also in Chittagong resulting in the killing of many workers and closure of factories. The right reactionary forces backed by imperialism and hegemonision were active both within and outside the government. This was joined by ultra left forces. The government leadership caught in the whirlwind of radical commitment and compulsions against its conservative and lumpen class and social basis vacillated and retreated. Democratic function of unions which began to be practiced during the 1969 uprising and immediately after the independence became difficult because of aggression of ruling party men. Unions were forcibly captured. Political, Administrative and managerial interference make it difficult for independent trade unions to function. In spite of all these and ban on strike in nationalized secvor, struggle for better benefits higher wages and pay commission for ration and fair price shop, against retrenchment, for service security and 8 hour duty, festival bonus etc spread all over the country. Strike struggle of postal workers (14.01.73 to 6.3.73) Jute and cotton textile worker (‘73). Road Transport workers (25.08.72 and others) Railway workers strike in Chittagong and other places in 1974 may be mentioned amongst many others.
However the economic situation worsened in 1974 flood and famine had a devastating effect. Thousands of people including workers died. BTUK and other organizations distributed some relief goods sent by trade unions of different countries. The desperate Sheikh Mujib established one party and one trade union system but was soon (1975) brutally assassinated along with his family members, and the Army ultimately took over power. After the coup the trade unions were virtually banned and it took some time ot rebuild political and trade union movement. The post’75 Government totally stopped the socialist and left rhetoric, started virulent campaign against stage sector and propagated rightist policies. They virtually followed up the retreat of the previous government and advanced it more rapidly decisively. From 1975-1983, 217 factories were privatized, several banks were handed over to private sectors. Banks insurance and industrial sector including internal and foreign trade were widely opened to private sector. Though the main argument in favor of privatization was losses in the state sector yet the profitable enterprises were first handed over to private capital. As a matter of fact de-nationalization in many cases resulted in de-industrialization. Factories which were sold at “through away” price in many cases were closed down dismantled and sold out. Even the through away price was mostly paid from and loans given to entrepreneurs’ major part of which later proved to be bad debt. The private banks were also established by people with the money lent to them by state owned bans. The disinvestment and privatization process could not improve industrial performance, rather in many cases there were deterioration. Rather the whole process was used for enrichment of few with public money, huge retrenchment and social unrest. The government carried the privatization process in phases and working class and the trade unions due to opportunism lack of foresight could not build up united and effective resistance. The political leadership also failed or was unwilling to defend nationalization which was historical mandate of the nation expressed in the 21 point program of the united front in 1954, 11 point program of all party students actions committee during 1969 mass uprising and 1970 election manifesto of Awami League who led the independence struggle.
Main issue of the broad alliance of political leadership including the left parties was removal of the Government. Fundamental socio-economic issues were undermined but the workers unrest was used.
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