February 26, 2022

Good morning. Every Saturday, we write about one specific right that you possess as a citizen in our country. In today’s edition of “Know Your Rights”, we look at the rights of workers to unionize in India.


Right to Unionize

When machines were first conceived of as a means of production, the altruistic inventors working on their steampunk contraptions were sure that this would only do good. Unlike the discovery of fire that basically lengthened a person’s day, mechanising the production line was supposed to help shorten workers’ days as the whole process got sped up.

Unfortunately, capitalism does tend to bring out the worst in us. In an attempt to trump the competition, workers were forced to accept drastic pay cuts and endure ungodly hours in horrible environments to keep their job. The only people this system helped was the factory owner. Soon, the idea of “collective bargaining” took flight, and the modern-day trade union was born.

Trade unions have quite a colourful and fundamental place in Indian history. Many Indian trade unions even predated independence like the Ahmedabad Weavers formed in 1895, Bombay Mill Workers in 1897, and the Madras Press Workers in 1903. After independence, political parties could regularly be seen fraternising with the industrial proletariat. And given the word “socialist” in our Preamble, of course, it’s that important to us. But before unionising your coworkers to get that four day work week, let’s see what the law has to say about a union.

According to Section 2(h) of the Trade Unions Act, 1926, a trade union is any permanent or temporary association formed to primarily regulate relations in the workplace. This relation could be between workmen, between workmen and their employers, or between employers and their employees. This association is considered a trade union as long as it imposes conditions on the conduct of a trade or business without affecting the agreements of the trade or business itself.

When it comes to the right to unionise, purely from an employee or worker’s perspective, both the Indian Constitution and the Supreme Court has ensured us the right to do so. According to Clause (c) of Article 19(1), which is a fundamental right, citizens have the right to form associations and unions. It comes under the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The Supreme Court, in the All India Bank Employees vs. National Industrial Tribunal (1961) case, extended the meaning of this right even further. Now, the right includes the workers’ right to hold meetings and openly discuss their problems in the workplace. After which, the workers will get to formulate a common solution, if any, and pitch their views to management without any repercussions.

Trade unions can be of two types – registered and unregistered. The main aim of the Trade Unions Act, 1926, is to provide an established mechanism for the registration of unions. While a trade union doesn’t need to be registered for legitimate recognition, it is highly advised as registered unions get to enjoy the following rights:

  • Since a registered union, as per Section 13 of the Trade Unions Act, is considered a body corporate, it will have a common seal, perpetual succession, contracts, properties, etc. Basically, everything that comes with being a corporate body with a legal existence.
  • According to Section 16 of the Act, a registered union can have a separate fund for political purposes. While members can’t be forced to contribute towards that fund, the union as a whole can contribute to certain political parties.
  • Section 17 and 18 cover the registered unions’ immunity from civil and criminal proceedings. Since all the actions will be done in the name of the union itself, individual members and office bearers get protected from them.
  • They also have the right to change their names, enter into agreements, and even join forces with other trade unions.

Unregistered trade unions can only represent their members before employers without the other perks and immunities. So, if your union includes at least 100 members or 10% of the unit’s employees, make sure to get registered. You’ll need 7 or more members to submit applications to the Registrar of Trade Unions. The applications must include the members’ names, addresses, occupations and details of the trade union concerned. This can be done online or in person; here’s the link to Karnataka’s online form.

Here’s the thing, as of 2020, the Central government replaced our trade union laws with the Industrial Relations Code. This is one of the 4 labour codes that is supposed to replace 29 labour laws in India. Now, don’t worry, all this reading you’ve just done has not simply been a colossal waste of time. You see, the Industrial Relations Code is a mash-up of the three major labour relations laws that India has had, with a few tweaks, of course.

It includes the Industrial Disputes Act (1947), the Trade Unions Act (1926) and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act (1946). Considering they all dealt with the same area of labour, i.e. the trade unions, labour relief and relations part, putting them under one banner seems understandable. Broadly speaking, there are three major changes that this offers:

  1. The definition of a worker has been widened to include journalists, salespeople, and anybody that earns less than ₹18,000 per month.
  2. Instead of the “100 members” requirement for union registration, you will now need 300.
  3. Spontaneous strikes and lockouts as means of protest have been prohibited in all companies.

No union can go on strike without informing their employer at least 14 days in advance. And once they have been notified, it will stand for 60 days, after which another notification will need to be given. A similar rule was provided in the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, but it only applied to “public utilities”. 

This has become quite a contentious point among unions and other socialists as, according to them, it essentially takes power away from dissenting employees. For now, all 4 labour codes are yet to be implemented, as it keeps getting delayed due to the pandemic and other more pressing issues. But, given how most states have bills waiting to be enacted based on these guidelines, we might be in for a change soon.