Deepa H. Ramakrishnan visits the building that once housed the Madras Labour Union, India’s first trade union, only to find it completely neglected
It is evening in Tiruvottiyur, and the offices of trade unions are buzzing with activity. Over cups of steaming tea, members and office-bearers walk in and out, as they discuss the evening news, chat about labour problems and appraise each other of their day’s woes.
If this is the scene in areas like Tiruvottiyur and Manali, where a number of unions have sprung up, a historic, but now neglected building on Strahans Road in Pattalam presents a picture of desolation. Only a part of its weather-beaten façade is seen, as dense vegetation conceals the rest.
India’s first trade union, the Madras Labour Union, was started in 1918 at this Selvapathy-Ramanuja building, named after its founders Selvapathy Chettiyar and Ramanujulu Naidu. “It is in poor shape now with trees growing all over. Nobody knows who owns it. So many buildings are being protected as monuments… why not this one? Steps must be taken to renovate it,” said S. Purushothaman, an active trade unionist for over 15 years.
With hundreds of industries dotting its landscape, North Chennai has always been the hotbed of the trade union movement. Workers belonging to the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills in Perambur used to perform bhajans at the Venkatesa Gunamrutha Varshini Sabha run by Chettiyar and Naidu. When Selvapathy Chettiyar heard the workers airing their grievances, he is said to have taken them to Annie Besant at the Theosophical Society. Her friends B.P.Wadia and G.S.Arundale helped the formation of the union, said historian V. Sriram.
M.V. Krishnan, district vice president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), who has authored a book titled ‘Chennai Thozhil Sanga Varalaaru’, said the MLU was the beacon light for other workers. “The MLU worked to introduce weekly holiday, eight-hour working days, overtime wages, cooperative society and hike in salary once in three years. Associations were formed for workers in various sectors, including toddy tappers and beedi workers. Beedi-making was a cottage industry then and the workers were paid 2 annas for 1000 beedis. But from that meagre amount, the companies would reduce a portion of their wages as wastage,” he said.
R.Jayaraman, president, Tiruvottiyur, Ennore, Manali Podhu Thozhilalar Sangam, said that though companies know they must give workers their dues, they don’t.
A.Anandraj, who works in CPCL as a contract labourer, said that every time there is a change of contractor supplying labourers, existing contract employees are on the alert. “We have daily meetings during such times as we have to protect their rights,” he said.