The closed tin factory at Palluruthy is where the first organised industrial strike took place in Cochin State and perhaps in Kerala.
Much before the Gammon Bridge came up and changed the face of Pyary Junction in Palluruthy, the current turnpike was the site of busy oil mills in the 1920s. As the demand for coconut oil used for soap making dipped the mills began to close. In 1935, a tin factory started by “a Telugu speaking Naidoo from Madras”, came up on one of these closed mills. It became the site of Cochin State’s first organised strike, 1936-37, and perhaps Kerala’s first industrial strike. Today, the ramshackle factory stands as a symbol of struggle for worker’s rights. Its decrepit state bemoaning the loss it brought to the lives of its workers and the owners. It remains a heroic relic with a sense of loss.
Once upon a time the tin factory was abuzz with hope and banter of workers who cast tins to can oil. Old timers recall with romanticism the roller coaster fate of the factory when “over hundreds of workers” struck work. The factory worked sporadically finally shutting down in 1985. Nearly three decades later its premises are camouflaged by overgrown foliage and drowned by the noise of heavy traffic that slowly winds past its locked gates.
From behind a door in the closed staff quarters of the factory, Ramlath peeps out furtively. Any query is met with a shake of the head and a terse reply that nothing is known about the owner, the strike or the future of the factory. She came to live here in 1982 as a new bride to Akbar who worked at the tin factory with his three brothers.
“This was the engineering section called Coastal Engineering. The tin factory was where the present Gammon Bridge is. It was shifted here,” she says rather hesitantly. Except for the first three years that she saw work on in the factory, it has remained closed. “Nobody knows and nobody cares, it has been like this since,” she says, closing the door.
Details of the strike are sketchy but memories of a heady time abound. “It was a time when workers’ rights were being discussed the world over,” says 85-year-old K.M. John who used to read the news aloud to the workers while they sat rolling beedis. As a young boy he found the stir for rights intoxicating. He joined the Communist Party in 1964.
Later, John working as a tally clerk in the Cochin Port, was aware of world news that ships brought in. “The workers at the tin factory were protesting against the 12-hour shift and for more wages,” he says.
Nobody has clear information about the original owners of the factory. Sudhir Master, a teacher from Palluruthy with a keen interest in history, has collated facts and tales about the area. He says that Naidoo worked in the oil company Burmah Shell before starting the factory. He knew about the demand for tin casks. The factory ran barely for a couple of years before the strike shut it in 1983. It then reopened, ran intermittently, but has been shut since 1985 due to a family dispute. The strike was led by writer P. Kesavadev, P.S. Namboothiri and George Chadayammuri.
M.A. Aboobacker, a former state government official and a history buff, quotes from Thiranjedutha Lekhanangal (Collection of Selected Articles)by N. C. Sekhar, one of the founders of the Communist Party in Kerala. Edited by C. Bhaskar, the book states that the strike apparently turned violent with high-handed police assault.
Local historian V.N. Venugopal quotes from K. Ramachandran Nair’s History of Trade Union Movement in Kerala, which corroborates the violent nature of the strike. He says that The Travancore Labour Association from Alleppey was trying to establish links with the Cochin State. P. S. Namboothiri organised a red flag demonstration demanding an increase in wages. The book graphically describes the strike. The strike led to great unrest in Cochin State. Following this the Diwan of Cochin R. K. Shanmukham Chetty ordered the arrest of P. S. Namboothiri, (p 206, 2006 edition). The book also names Cherian Manjooran and P. Gangadharan as leaders of the strike.
Sudhir says that locally the strike is remembered as one where police broke down the protest violently. As most workers were from Kollam and other parts of Kerala, they left and the factory closed down for a year. P.S. Namboothiri was imprisoned for six months.
Strike and aftermath
Another mention of the strike is found in NBS Vishva Vigyana mKosham. It speaks about the agitation that followed the arrest of P.S. Namboothiri. It was led by P. R. Iyunni, a trade union leader who was heading an agitation at the Thrissur Electric Corporation around the same time.
John talks spiritedly about the days of the strike and its aftermath. The mode of protest, he says, was through songs— about eight hours of work, rest and sleep. There was a general demand for an eight-hour shift. “This was the global refrain. Workers started meetings and even May Day Celebrations were held.” Seetha Lekshmy, novelist and wife of P. Kesavadev, says that it was perhaps the first time that the slogan Inquilab Zindabad was used by the workers.
The success of this strike soon led to a second strike adjacent to the tin factory at Pyary and Company, a fertilizer unit over the labour contract. It led to the formation of a labour department in Cochin State. When the details of the Pyary strike were offered to them, the order came in favour of the workers.
And so, from the closed tin factory, began a long history of strikes and agitation, of protest and workers’ struggle. Today the factory stands silent, its machines idle and its roof imploded. It stands oblivious of the crucial role it has played in the social and political history of the State.