What are trade unions

Updated: Aug 1 2005, 05:30am hrs
Post the 1991 liberalisation, trade unionism in India has come to be discredited. The number of strikes has plummeted, as also the number of mandays lost to strikes. However, recent incidentsbloody conflict at the HMSI factory in Gurgaon and labour unrest at the Toyota-Kirloskar unit in Bangalorehave brought into focus the rights of workers to form trade unions (TUs) to improve their collective bargaining position and organise legal strikes.

There may not be anything intrinsically amoral, or illegal, in either forming a trade union or participating in a labour strike. Even Mahatma Gandhi successfully led the 21-day strike in Sarabhai mills in Ahmedabad, supported by mill-owner Ambalal Sarabhais sister, Anasuyabai.

However, the legal right to participate in trade union activities is circumscribed by various limitations. In view of the revival of the classical labour-capital debate and increasing labour unrest, FE takes a Closer Look at the legal rights of TUs :

Why have a trade union

The basic purpose of a trade union is to prevent exploitation of workers.Under the doctrine of laissez-faire, in vogue during the 19th century, a worker was pitted against the management. Although he had the freedom to enter into a contract with the management, in practice, it had no meaning for the worker. The rule of hire and fire made the workers position even more precarious. A worker had neither the knowledge, nor the resources, to demand even legitimate dues from the management. As laissez-faire yielded place to the concept of a welfare state, trade unionism came to be recognised as a legitimate instrument for preventing explo-itation and promoting worker interest.

What are the legal provisions governing trade unionism in India

The trade union movement here is governed by the Trade Unions Act, 1926, passed by the Central Legislative Assembly, due to the efforts of NM Joshi, the then general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (Aituc). The right to organise strikes and industrial disputes is regulated by the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. In addition, Article 19 of the Constitution empowers citizens to assemble peacefully without arms and also form associations or unions.

Who can form a trade union

Under the Trade Unions Act, 10% of workmen or 100 workmen (whichever is less) of an establishment/factory can form a TU and then apply to the registrar for registration. Any TU seeking registration must have a minimum of seven members. An establishment can have any number of TUs. It is essential that the workmen are engaged in the trade, i.e., everyone cannot form a TU.

The purpose of forming a trade union, as per the Act, should be to impose restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade, or business, or regulate relationship between employees and employers. One way of doing so is by organising strikes. A TU cannot be formed for any other purpose. There is also a provision for the formation of a federation of two or more TUs.

Is it necessary to register a trade union

There can be an unregistered trade union. However, to carry out TU activities fearlessly and legitimately, it is necessary for a union to be registered. After registration, a TU becomes a body corporate, a legal entity. It becomes entitled to acquire a common seal and possess movable and immovable property. It can also enter into contracts, sue others and be sued.

A registered TU and its office-bearers enjoy certain immunities from criminal and civil liabilities that are not available to unregistered unions. Neither the TU, nor its office-bearers, can be charged with criminal conspiracy for doing anything in furtherance of TU objectives.

This immunity, however, is not available for an agreement to commit an offence. They are also not liable for any unlawful act done by a worker, provided he acted without the knowledge, or contrary to the instructions of the TU executives. They are also not liable for prom-pting workers to break the contract with the management.

Can managements prevent formations of TUs

Forming a union is the legal right of workmen and cannot be taken away by any management. In fact, it would be unlawful on the part of the management to prevent the formation of a trade union. Under the Industrial Disputes Act, threatening workmen with dismissal if they join a trade union, is an unfair labour practice. Similarly, threatening lock-out or closure if a TU is organised is an unfair practice. The law even prohibits wage increase to workmen during crucial periods of TU organisation.