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Militant Public Service Trade Unionism in a New State: The Case of Ceylon

  • Robert N. Kearney


Rapid growth in the size and militancy of trade union movements has been a common development in the newly independent states of Asia since the end of colonial rule less than two decades ago. In these states, and in the more recently independent African states as well, government employees frequently constitute one of the principal groups of organized workers. Public servants' right of association and right to strike or demonstrate have been among the insistent questions confronting the governments of the new states.

In the areas of Asia formerly under British rule, public servants enjoy the right to form trade unions with some restrictions and, except in Pakistan, trade unionism in the public service has expanded considerably. In India, government employees other than industrial workers are allowed to organize subject to restrictions limiting membership or leadership in their trade unions to public servants and prohibiting political activity by the unions.



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1 Government of India, Ministry of Finance, Commission of Enquiry on Emoluments and Conditions of Service of Central Government Employees, 1957–59, Report (Delhi, 1959), pp. 534538.

2 International Labour Office Mission, The Trade Union Situation in Burma (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1962), pp. 3031, 37, 50–51. The mission commented that the consequences of the March, 1962, military coup d'etat could not then be evaluated. A major strike was staged by Burmese public servants in 1949.

3 International Labour Office Mission, The Trade Union Situation in the Federation of Malaya (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1962) pp. 4243, 56–57, 93–95.

4 No thorough study of the trade union movement in Ceylon exists. Among the more useful sources of information are Goonewardene, Leslie, A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Colombo: Lanka Sama Samaja Party, 1960); Sarvaloganayagam, V., “Trade Unionism in Ceylon,” Ceylon Today, VII, 5 (May, 1958), 2831, and VII, 6 (June, 1958), 13–21; United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Law and Practice in Ceylon, BLS Report No. 227 (Washington, D. C: GPO, 1962); Howard Wriggins, W., Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1960); and the Administration Report of the Commissioner of Labour published annually at the Government Press, Colombo.

5 On the characteristics of Asian and African trade unionism, see Ghosh, Subratesh, Trade Unionism in the Underdeveloped Countries (Calcutta: Bookland Private, Ltd., 1960); Low, Stephen, “The Role of Trade Unions in the Newly Independent Countries of Africa,” in Kassalow, Everett M. (ed.), National Labor Movements in the Postwar World (Evanston, III.: Nordiwestern University Press, 1963), pp. 205222; Millen, Bruce H., The Political Role of Labor in Developing Countries (Washington, D. C.: The Brookings Institution, 1963); Roberts, B. C., Labour in the Tropical Territories of the Commonwealth (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1964); and Sufrin, Sidney C., Unions in Emerging Societies (Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1964).

6 This discussion will deal only with trade unionism among members of the conventional public service, excluding the employees of government-owned corporations, who have a different legal status and are not subject to the same regulations and conditions.

7 Memorandum by the Chief Secretary on Trade Unionism among Public Servants in Ceylon (Sessional Paper VI, 1947), p. 7. The registration of trade unions is compulsory in Ceylon.

8 See First and Second Interim Reports of the Stride Committee (Sessional Paper XIV, 1947), pp. 310.Accounts of the strikes are contained in Goonewardene, A Short History …, pp. 2831; and Sarvaloganayagam, “Trade Unionism in Ceylon,” No. 6, pp. 16–17.

9 Trade Unions (Amendment) Act, No. 15 of 1948.

10 A total membership of 208,456 on March 31, 1963, was reported by 511 public service trade unions submitting compulsory annual reports to the Commissioner of Labor. Administration Report of the Commissioner of Labour for 1962–63 (Colombo: Government Press, 1964), p. 60. Although some unions apparently did not report (622 were registered on September 30, 1963), this failure can result in cancellation of registration and it is likely that most of the delinquent unions were small and ephemoral organizations.

11 See Labor Law …, p. 15. The high proportion of organized workers is primarily due to the relatively extensive unionization of agricultural workers on tea and rubber estates.

12 Joint Programme of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (Colombo: Mahajana Eksath Peramunak, 1956), pp. 45.

13 E.g., as support for the claim that the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike Governments after 1956 had substantially improved the position of trade unions, a 1964 government publication cited the growth of trade union strength from 352 unions with 262,249 members in 1956 to 973 unions with 789,349 members in 1961. Labour Policy Since 1956, Information Brochure No. 3 (Colombo: Department of Broadcasting and Information, [1964]), p. 1.

14 Administration Report of the Commissioner of Labour for 1962–63, p. 60.

15 Ibid., pp. 149–150.

16 Report of the Salaries and Cadre Commission, 1961, Part II (Sessional Paper IV, 1961), pp. 103, 115–130 (hereafter cited as RSCC, II).

17 May Day, 1962 (Colombo: Ministry of Labour, 1962), pp. 2729.

18 Report of the Salaries and Cadre Commission, 1961, Part I (Sessional Paper III, 1961), pp. 1922, 55–70 (hereafter cited as RSCC, I).

19 RSCC, II, 103; Administration Report of the Commissioner of Labour for 1958 (Colombo: Government Press, 1959), p. 181.

20 Reports on the Visit of a Joint Team of Experts on Labour-Management Relations to Pakistan and Ceylon, September-November, 1959, ILO Labour-Management Series No. 10 (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1961), pp. 4748.

21 Ceylon Year Book,, 1960 (Colombo: Department of Census and Statistics, 1961), p. 172.

22 See Kearney, Robert N. and Harris, Richard L., “Bureaucracy and Environment in Ceylon,” Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies, II, 3 (November, 1964), 253266.

23 See Reports on the Visit …, pp. 53, 58.

24 Government Clerical Service Union, 44th Annual Report (Part I), 1964–65 (Colombo, 1965), passim.

25 Figures on 1961 union memberships are from United States Department of Labor, Directory of Labor Organizations: Asia and Australasia (rev. ed.; Washington, D. C.: GPO, March, 1963), Vol. I, Chap. X. Claimed memberships are widely believed to be inflated, although exact membership strengths of unions in Ceylon are often difficult to determine even for officials of the unions. Millen suggests that the dues-paying membership of unions in the underdeveloped countries is not of great significance since, in the absence of other groups and organizations, the influence of a union often extends well beyond the ranks of its dues-paying membership and die union may speak for and command die support of a much larger body dian its formal membership. Millen, , The Political Role …, p. 90.

26 Both federations claimed a 1961 membership of 100,000. See Directory of Labor Organizations …, Vol. I, Chap. X, p. 18. While the figure may be inaccurate for both federations, Ceylonese public servants and trade unionists widi whom die author spoke in 1961–1962 and 1965 frequently credited the PSWTUF widi a very large membership, possibly approaching 100,000. The membership of die GWTUF was generally believed to be considerably smaller.

27 RSCC, II, 103.

28 First and Second Interim Reports …, pp. 5–6.

29 Until 1964, Ceylon contained three Marxist parties, all active in the labor movement. The largest in terms of parliamentary strength and trade union following has been the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), an affiliate of the Trotskyist Fourth International. The others are the Ceylon Communist Party and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). The latter party, then known as the Viplavakari (i.e., Revolutionary) Lanka Sama Samaja Party, joined with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike's non-Marxist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna coalition which won the 1956 election. When the coalition broke up in 1959, the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party assumed the name of the defunct coalition. In 1964, the Communist Party split into pro-Moscow and pro-Peking groups, each claiming to be the legitimate Ceylon Communist Party, and a small group split away from the LSSP to form the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary Section). See my “The Marxists and Coalition Government in Ceylon,” Asian Survey, V, 2 (February, 1965), 120124.

30 Goonewardene, , A Short History …, pp. 4246; Wriggins, , Ceylon, …, p. 134.

31 Goonewardene, , A Short History …, p. 59.

32 Wriggins, , Ceylon …, pp. 267268; Vittachi, Tarzie, Emergency '58 (London: Andre Deutsch, 1958), pp. 2930.

33 Ceylon Observer, December 20, 1961.

34 Times of Ceylon, December 2, 1963, and December 10, 1963.

35 A strike by Indian public servants in 1960 over pay and employment issues was held by the Indian government to be a challenge to its authority and was denounced as a political strike. See Mathur, J. S., Indian Wording-Class Movement (Allahabad: J. S. Mathur, 1964), p. 355. For a discussion of the similar tendency of the British government to view strikes by employees in government industrial undertakings as threats to itself, see Allen, V. L., Trade Unions and the Government (London: Longmans, Green and Co., Ltd., 1960), pp. 171216.

36 Goonewardene, , A Short History …, p. 60.

37 The Prime Minister's statement is contained in Ceylon Observer, January 8, 1962.

38 Ceylon News, March 12, 1964. The emergency powers are provided in Public Security (Amendment) Act, No. 8 of 1959.

39 MRSCC. II, 104.

40 Goonewardene, , A Short History …, p. 56; Ceylon Observer, October 20, 1961, and November 27, 1961.

41 In an excellent discussion, Millen, The Political Role … stresses the general social and economic conditions which weaken the bargaining power of workers and create flagrant social inequalities and the influence of die all-pervasive independence movements as leading to the marked political involvement of unions in the newly independent and underdeveloped countries. See also Lichtblau, George E., “The Politics of Trade Union Leadership in Southern Asia,” World Politics, VII, 1 (October, 1954), 84101; and Tedjasukmana, Iskandar, The Political Character of the Indonesian Trade Union Movement, Monograph Series, Modern Indonesia Project (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University, 1958).

42 This was suggested by statements of ministers in die debate on the bill. House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), Vol. III, cols. 407, 557558. The provisions of this act are similar to and were probably based on Clause V of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, in Britain. The Conservative Government in Britain which drafted this legislation, like the United National Party Government in Ceylon in 1948, was faced with the prospect that the political sympathies of government employees' trade unions would lie with the opposition. The British act was repealed by the Labor Government in 1946. See Humphreys, B. V., Clerical Unions in the Civil Service (Oxford: Blackwell and Mott, 1958), pp. 179181.

43 RSCC, II, 105.

44 Goonewardene, , A Short History …, p. 58.

45 E.g., see Ceylon Observer, August 27, 1961, September 3, 1961, and October 23, 1961; Sunday Times of Ceylon, December 3, 1961; and Ceylon Daily News, November 23, 1961, and June 6, 1962. Statements of three public service trade unions highly critical of government policy were published in an unofficial LSSP periodical. See “Trade Unions Protest!” Young Socialist (Colombo), I, 2 (special issue, 1961), 9497.

46 Ceylon News, March 26, 1964; Times of Ceylon, November 10, 1964.

47 See Ceylon Observer, May 24, 1962, and June 1, 1962; Ceylon Daily News, June 1, 1962, and June 6, 1962.

48 See Millen, , The Political Role …, pp. 5052.

49 These developments are discussed in Goonewardene, , A Short History …, pp. 5861.

50 See Times of Ceylon, September II, 1964; Ceylon News, November 26, 1964; and GCSU, , 44th Annual Report …, pp. 810.

51 E.g., Red Tape, June, 1965 (Red Tape is the monthly newspaper of the GCSU); and a circular addressed to the GCSU membership dated July 23, 1965, and signed by die general secretary, carrying die heading “Onslaught Against Trade Unions?”

52 Based on conversations with trade union leaders and Government and opposition politicians between June and August, 1965.

53 Reports on the Visit …, p. 58.

54 RSCC, I, 48–51.

55 Ibid., pp. 53–54.

56 For discussions of the social and economic position of the clerical workers, see Tambiah, S. J., “Ceylon,” in Lambert, Richard D. and Hoselitz, Bert F. (eds.), The Role of Savings and Wealth in Southern Asia and the West (Paris: UNESCO, 1963), pp. 6162; and Ryan, Bryce, “Status, Achievement and Education in Ceylon,” Journal of Asian Studies, XX, 4 (August, 1961), 470475. The position of the clerical workers in Ceylon seems to be fairly typical of their situation in underdeveloped countries. See Hoselitz, Bert F., “The Recruitment of White-Collar Workers in Underdeveloped Countries,” International Social Science Bulletin, VI, 3 (1954), 433442.

57 On the tensions produced by industrialization and urbanization in newly developing countries, see Knowles, William H., “Industrial Conflict and Unions,” in Moore, Wilbert E. and Feldman, Arnold S. (eds.), Labor Commitment and Social Change in Developing Areas (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1960), pp. 291312.

58 The repeated crises and tensions in Ceylon are traced in Vittachi, Emergency ‘58; Wriggins, , Ceylon …; and this author's “The New Political Crises of Ceylon,” Asian Survey, II, 4 (June, 1962), 1927, and “Sinhalese Nationalism and Social Conflict in Ceylon,” Pacific Affairs, XXXVII, 2 (Summer, 1964), 125136.

59 Computed from Administration Report of the Commissioner of Labour for 1964 (Colombo: Government Press, 1961), Table III, p. 149.

60 RSCC, I, 12–13.

61 See Ibid., p. 3; RSCC, II, 101–102. Also, see Kearney and Harris, “Bureaucracy and Environment in Ceylon,” pp. 261–264.

62 RSCC, II, 100.

63 Ibid., pp. 104–109; Reports on the Visit …, p. 58.

64 Trade Union activity in expressing public service protest in Ceylon appears to be comparable to appeals for judicial intervention as an expression of protest in the public service of Pakistan. See Braibanti, Ralph, “Public Bureaucracy and Judiciary in Pakistan,” in LaPalombara, Joseph (ed.), Bureaucracy and Political Development (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 360440.

65 E.g., in a speech in 1958, Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike lauded public service trade unionism, although he was critical of the tendency of unions toward partisan involvement. Text contained in Bandaranaike, S. W. R. D., The Government and the People (Colombo: Information Department, 1959), pp. 6470.

66 Sharma, G. K., Labour Movement in India (Jullundur: University Publishers, 1963), pp. 145148.

Militant Public Service Trade Unionism in a New State: The Case of Ceylon

  • Robert N. Kearney


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