The beginning of the Nepali trade union movement goes back slightly before 1951. While the historic workers' movement started on 4 March 1947 in Biratnagar, the workers themselves did not know what a trade union was and what it would contribute to. They were unknown about collective bargaining and industrial relations. The main concern of the workers then was to attract more and more workers to the political movement. The then leaders – Girija Prasad Koirala, Manamohan Adhikari and Tarani Prasad Koirala – entered the area of Biratnagar Jute Mills with this purpose in mind – to mobilise the workers in the political movement to follow.
In an interview, Girija Prasad Koirala says, "Manamohan went to the Chemical Industry; assigning clerical jobs to Tarani Prasad and Yuba Raj Adhikari. Gehendra Hari Sharma was sent to jute mills area and I was sent to cotton mills area by giving a work to count jute ropes. The internal motif was, however, to start a political movement from there."
The four year long duration from 1947 to 1951 sustained through a number of ups and downs. Girija Prasad Koirala thus clarifies the then dilemma of the labour movement: "We used to gather together during off hours at night. I was not confident enough about the workers' movement and politics. What I knew was we have to do something, that is, movement. Amidst this, we decided to call a strike at 7 am on 4 March 1947. We decided to operate the mills only for 7 minutes, and then close all functions. We asked the workers to suggest their demands from which to make a list of common demands. Manamohan was quite familiar with the labour movement. He had experience from Indian Trade Union movement, but I was totally ignorant on it.
Regarding demands, BP Koirala reminded us to put only a few demands, the main one being the wage increase by a half. It was easy to be addressed, and with it we could also further inject our political work.
In this way, the leaders involved in the movement tried to convince the workers relating them to their problems and educating them about the importance of forming unions. However, this campaign could not include all the workers. As Girija Prasad put, "In the beginning, only the leaders were involved, the workers took some time to join.”
The ruling Rana oligarchy took the movement as an 'unruly behaviour of the Koirala family', and decided to imprison the leaders of the movement. But the regime was also forced to respond to the workers’ demands. On the 23rd day of the movement, the labour wage was increased by 15 percent as per 'the directives of the Shree tin maharaja (Rana prime minister)’. The regime also announced to give the full wage of the workers for the strike period.
Repressions notwithstanding, the workers involved in the movement had a great impression of it. The way of launching the movement, organising demonstrators, and the arrangement of flag and leadership were similar to the Indian trade union movement, which had a strong influence on the participants of the movement.
BP Koirala, the first elected prime minister of Nepal, had this to say about the movement, "This was the first movement launched from Nepali soil. It really touched the spirit of the workers. I was also invited to lead it. This was a political movement to suppress which the government and the mill owners were united. The people had however a great support to the workers. …At that time, General Ram Shamsher was a senior officer [badha hakim].
We fully supported this movement on behalf of the Nepali National Congress. Around 5-7 thousand workers were involved in it disobeying the order of the government, the first time in Nepal’s history. The people spontaneously helped the agitating workers providing food, water and money, and thus saw its success. Padma Shamsher was the prime minister at that time."
People's Leader Madan Bhandari’s take on the movement is the following: "the main demands of the movement were provisions of appropriate shelters, a wage system addressing livelihood needs, and recognition of the workers' organisation. Thus the movement had raised various issues related to direct and long term concerns of the workers. ... Although the Rana Regime seriously suppressed this movement, it was equally fearful too. As a result, in 1947, an act was promulgated banning the right to organisation, on the one hand. On the other, this act proposed to appoint a worker's leader in the 'national assembly'"
The labour movement of 1947 -1951 developed two parallel streams, namely communist and socialist streams. The main points of debates between these two schools of thought were about what name and flag to be used for the movement. Manamohan and BP both were inclined to the communist stream and socialist parties established in India.
Girija Prasad says, "I was also a communist in the beginning. Later on, I left the (student) federation and joined another line, while Manamohan remained in the same federation."
The labour politics during this period followed the 'top to bottom' character, and no the vice versa.
A haphazard period of union expansion
The duration from 1951 to 1959 was one of expansion period of the Nepali trade union movement. The political change in 1951 did also change the role of the leaders established in 1947. After 1951, Manamohan Adhikari’s role changed to one of a communist leader. Afterwards, the evolution of the trade union movement can be analysed trough the expansion of All Nepal Trade Union Congress. After the ban on communist party in 1950, the most active affiliates of various mass organisations the ' Jatiya Janatantrik Morch or mass organisation's front' formed on 7 July 1951 was the All Nepal Trade Union Congress. Around 6,000 workers were organised under this.
There is no uniform viewpoint as to who were the established trade unions and their leaders between the duration of 1947 and 1951. Girija Prasad Koirala says, "At that time, the union's name was 'Biratnagar Mills Workers' Association'. The union was only one. The division appeared only after the political change in 1951. They [Manamohan's group] changed the name of the union. They renamed it as All Nepal Trade Union Congress and we did it as Nepal Trade Union congress."
Girija Prasad Koirala has claimed him to be the president of the Biratnagar Mills Mazdoor Sang in his letter Asian Regional Secretary G. Mapara of ICFTU-ARO for affiliation with the then ICFTU in 1959. The historic fact shows that National Conference changed the name of the union as All Nepal Trade Union Organisation. Koirala further writes,
"Our organisation is not at all affiliated to any other Foreign trade union organisation; ... Our trade union organisation is wedded to Socialism and Democratic way of life both the ideals being equally dear to us. ... It was this organisation which launched the first Democratic movement in the country in the year 1947 and then subsequently was vanguard of the Democratic movement throughout under the inspiring leadership of the Nepali Congress."
In a query, whether any other union centres in the country, Koirala says-
"All Nepal Trade Union Congress (controlled and directed by the Communist Party of Nepal); address- Kathmandu, Nepal; membership not known. But they are quite potential and have some strongholds."
During this period, the trade union movement in Nepal got polarised as 'leftist and non-leftist', influenced by 'cold war' politics. Instead of the issues and interest of the world of work, the labour politics was rather influenced party politics, and was a carbon copy of the Indian movement.
Nepali Trade Union Movement during Extreme Oppression and counter-offence
On 15 December 1959, King Mahendra assumed power by staging a coup d’état. He dissolved the then constitution, banned all the political parties and organisations, including the two decade long trade union movement. Then, between 1959 and 1979, the trade union movement could not build a 'national centre of trade union'.
However, the labour movement was not fully collapsed. The workers were involved in a series of local level movements. A case in point was the 1973 labour strike in Biratnagar Jute Mills, which prepared a base for the progressive trade union movement as an alternative to the then regime-backed 'Nepal Labour's Organisation.'
In 1976, some new possibilities appeared in the Nepali politics with students’ movements gaining momentum. The students' movements picked up following the imprisonment in Kathmandu of the leaders involved in the Peasants' uprising in Jhapa accused of killing, robbery, and others. The students wanted them to be recognised as the prisoners of conscience. Then came a point when a number of student leaders were also kept behind bars. The imprisoned students got an opportunity inside prisons to meet face to face political leaders. These meetings bolstered them to intensify the movement for freedom. As soon as out of the prison, the student leaders started to organise the workers in Hotel Crystal and Hotel Shankar.
After the students' movement of 1976, and following student leaders’ interactions with political parties, Pradip Nepal, Gopal Shakya, and Madhav Paudel established an organisation 'Muslo Paribar' to impart Marxist Education among hotel workers. The classes – known as Adult Literacy Classes – used to run at night. And these classes also resulted in the participants being organised. Amidst this, a May Day committee was formed for the celebration of the May day as a political movement. As part of celebration, it was decided to distribute pamphlets against the then ruling system. And, the major centres for the pamphlet distribution at selected colleges.
The pamphlet campaign triggered a harsh state response. All the leaders of the campaigns were arrested. Among them, Pradip Nepal, Gopal Shakya, and Madhav Paudel were sentenced to 10 years in prison with a fine of NRs 10 thousand. Bir Bahadur Lama was sentenced to a five-year jail term and a cash fine of NRs 5,000. All others were given a six month imprisonment. This incident was a new strategy to organise the workers after the dissolution of the national centre on trade union. The 1979 movement assisted in launching of the "Second edition" of the trade union movement.
Establishment of Nepal Independent Workers' Union as the Second Edition of the Nepali Trade Union Movement
By 1979, the workers were already in the labour movement spontaneously. In October 1979, the striking workers of the various factories at Balaju Industrial District realised the importance of the national trade union and formed a preparatory committee for onward preparations. The committee organised a wider meeting of the workers at Balaju Industrial Districts on 29-31 January 1980, which resulted in the constitution of the 'Nepal Independent Workers' Union.'
Between 1980 and 1990, the Union organised workers in sectors other than manufacturing industries to encourage them to form their own unions to assert their rights. Then, independent unions started to be formed in hotel, trekking, transportation, and printing-press and publications sectors. These unions soon involved in various movements in coordination with underground political parties. These movements built on the principles of class struggle, but also had trade union rights and social justice in the agenda of the movement.
Till this period, parties did not have a strong popular base. As such, the trade union organisations – the Independent Transport Workers' Association of Nepal, 1979, Nepal Independent Workers' Union, 1979, Nepal Independent Hotel Workers' Union, 1980, Trekking Workers' Association-Nepal, 1984, and Independent Press Workers' Union of Nepal, 1979 – acted as the vanguard of the movements. It was during this period that the Nepal National Teachers' Association started to organise teachers across the country to provide intellectual back up to the movement.
Amidst this, the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) was established on 20 July 1989 by the collective attempts of the Nepal Independent Workers' Union, Independent Transport Workers' Association of Nepal, Nepal Independent Hotel Workers' Union, and Trekking Workers' Association of Nepal, 1984. Established under ground, GEFONT declared its mission as being to coordinate existing trade unions, assist in their struggles, and organise, mobilise and give directives to unorganised workers.
In this period, the trade union movement was formidable. But the way of struggle was however like the one it was before 1950s as labour politics had not had its own shape. It was still influenced by 'top to bottom' approach. Now came a point in which the cadres started to fight each other, influenced by divisive politics at the centre. The teachers’ and civil servants' organisations broke and divided.
Social and Political Recognition to the Union Movement
In 1992, with the enactment of trade union Act, the state formally gave recognition to the trade union movement. Then an exercise of enterprise unionism started with the provision of registering local unions if 25 percent of workers chose to be its members. The state gave recognition as Confederation to those trade union centres having 10 National Federations; the association established both based on individual members in informal sectors; and federal association established by at least 50 enterprise level unions in formal sectors.
A right to collective bargaining was given for two years. The authentic union for bargaining is determined through election if there is more than one union existed at enterprise level. By this, on the one hand, the union movement started to function under legal and legitimate procedure of bargaining with the management as and when needed. On the other, the unions started to polarise politically. By 1996, only GEFONT and Nepal Trade Union Congress (NTUC) satisfied the provisions to be recognised as Confederations.
The Period of Violent Conflict and Turn in Direction of Unionism
In 1997, the Democratic Confederation of Nepalese Trade Union (DECONT) was formed splintering from the NTUC. Until November 2006, DECONT remained as the third National Centre. The formation of DECONT communicated a negative message of breaks and splinters in the trade union movement. However, this also gave a pressure to the NTUC to dialogue with GEFONT. Thus, the formation of the DECONT created an environment of mutual cooperation between the largest two trade union centres at the very least.
In 2000, GEFONT held its Third National Congress raising the slogan of 'one country, one union' under the policy of 'one union'. It adopted the principle of forming a labour senate by collaborating with other unions. In response to the initiatives that followed, the NTUC accepted to dialogue at the General Secretary level of each of the two centres for the formation of Single Union. Afterwards, multilateral structures were created for the same purpose.
What the Trade Union Act-1992 says?
The Trade Union Act-1992 has classified unions in three structures such as -
The process to form such unions has also been regularised in the law. To form enterprise level union, at least 25 per cent of the workers of the enterprises should be signatories. The law has been formulated making compatible to the multi-party system and with high honour one's freedom of association as well. But it is equally aware on division in labour movement and problems of multiplicity of trade unions. Thus, a provision of Authentic Union has been made. It will be decided holding an election between registered unions (there may be 4 unions in maximum in an enterprise) to identify CBA Agent.
Trade Union federation can be formed under three conditions, which is as following:
Likewise, co-ordinating 10 or more federations can form a confederation. However, it is mandatory that there should be at least 6 federations, which is formed as per process 1 and 2 mentioned in above paragraph.
There have been mentioned different roles and responsibilities of trade unions in all levels. The Confederation shall represent all labourers in National tripartite committee. It will provide policy inputs to the competent authority. To fulfil member's demands, it will hold various legal measures to pressurise government as well as the employers. Further, Confederation is entitled to launch highest means of peaceful struggle-strike to meet its demands. Confederation shall participate in every labour related forum including the minimum wage board and the ceremonial forum. Maintaining international relationship & policy intervention in National level comes under the Confederation.
Federation shall work same as the confederation. The only difference is Federation cannot participate in tripartite body like Central Labour Advisory Committee and the Minimum Wage Board. Federations are responsible to maintain industrial relation with in their line of industries.
Trade Union Movement after the Safe-Landing of Maoists Immediately after the April Uprising of 2006, the All Nepal Federation of Trade Unions (ANFTU) was formed as a by-product of the Maoist 'People's War'. Through the ANFTU, the Maoists pursued the policy of forceful intervention in the labour market, and entered the workplace with a slogan to "discard the old one". Wild-cat strikes were organised to fuel dissatisfaction of the workers accusing the trade unions like ours of being a "yellow", NGO-ised, Economist and luxurious. Just until four years back, tagged as a 'fax-union' (the meaning is they never appeared before management but threatened to collect extortion through fax and e-mail from jungle) by the entrepreneurs, this union became a group of 'shutting enterprises by force' labelling what they did as a 'labour action' by the workers. After the establishment of Loktantra, the Maoists adopted a policy of entering factories without a prior notice to advocate the ‘principle of the existence of two states’ and, on the basis of the principle, forced the factories to pay food and cloth for the 'people's army’ and address their other needs. To get their demands fulfilled, they closed all the industries of Pathalaiya-Simara Corridors, Pokhara and Biratnagar, launched armed attacks in areas like Bara-Parsa, Pokhara, Butwal, and Biratnagar. They resorted to a wave or terror to expanded organisation under its influence. A new 'war' was declared against the mainstream trade unions accusing them of ‘bringing in dollars from NGOs and INGOs in the name of workers’ and claiming them to lead an authentic movement. Adopting the colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’, the Maoists targeted GEFONT primarily, maintained a softer approach towards ANTUC and terrorised DECONT. The Special Central Command of the Maoist trade union issued on 11 September 2006 a special circular communicating two messages: (a) "...distribute 100 thousand memberships within a month; and (b) “…wipe out' GEFONT within four months”. These two were their strategic objectives. The union launched a spree of "abduction, vandalising offices, forced occupation of offices, production of a separate demand letter and a set of actions against authentic agreements" in the pretext of implementing the agreements. Despite these, the campaign on single unionism continued. Frequent agreements and declarations were made on 'mutual cooperation, non-attack, fair competition, and mutual respect' with the ANFTU in where the CPN-UML & CPN-Maoist; the Nepali Congress &, CPN- Maoist and the ILO was witness. After two years of continuous initiation First National Trade Union Conference was organised on 26 -27 October 2008, which Maoist Chairperson and the then Prime Minister Puspa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' graced as the chief guest. The Conference formalised a Joint Trade Union Coordination Centre (JTUCC), which was declared on 1st December 2007. This conference developed a code of conduct to operate the centre. The deliberations made on “Code of Conduct for Collaboration”, “Proposal for Amendment to Labour Laws” and “Trade Union Issues in the Constituent Assembly” have created a groundwork and tactical line for the future trade union moment.
Existing Tradition and Different Exercises in
Division and fragmentation is also the reality in Nepali trade union movement. This division has two-fold adverse effects. First- high union density, multi-unions and unhealthy competition among each other in traditionally organised enterprises; Second- low union density and poor unionisation in vast agricultural and non-agricultural informal economy. This demonstrates the reality why the unions fail to raise collectively the voice of 11.79 millions workforce in Nepal.
In Nepal different types of workers organisations are active in manufacturing, service and agricultural sectors both in formal and informal economy. We have exercised various experiments in our history such as -"Each Party, One Union", "All party FRONT of Trade Unions" and apolitical or politically indifference professional groupings. Within the practices, some are in the existence just as the "labour wing of political parties".
Before April Uprising of 2006, three trade union confederations- GEFONT, NTUC and DECONT were known as recognised trade union centres under the Trade Union Act- 1992. Employees associations active with in the Professional Alliance for Peace and Democracy (PAPAD) are functioning under the National Directive Acts and similar types of other acts. Confederation of Nepalese Professionals (CoNEP) affiliates is recognised as per both sets of these acts. Unions associated with a network- Joint Labour Movement Coordination Committee created during the April Uprising- 2006 are known as political groupings. Besides these, the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Federation of Trade Unions (ANTUF) has surfaced in existence as the by-product of CPN (Maoists)’s ‘People’s War’ after the success of April Uprising- 2006.
Experience shows- the exercise of "Each party, one union" has limited unionism in a narrow domain. Because of partisan prejudices, the exemplary gains achieved by some of the trade unions have been even overshadowed so far. Antagonising very spirit of the working people "Unite" there has always been a permanent line of division in the trade union movement.
"Frontal Unions" naturally rest as a 'directionless' movement; workers have been misused to follow party-directives no matter that was politically motivated or the apolitical one. Further, 'game-plan' such as to capture major post of leadership "citing patron-parties strength" has been instigated. Sad to spell out here, many "unions" in existence as the 'political groupings' are just limited to the 'cosmetic organ' of concerned political parties.
Thus in post-2006 period, an argument to review our past citing pros & cons of all above mentioned trends & exercises in order to launch a genuine and powerful trade union movement is started. The out come of the day is formation of JTUCC.
Joint Trade Union Coordination Centre (JTUCC) is the common platform of Nepali working class. It serves as the coordinating mechanism of all 13 recognised National Trade Union Centres affiliated on it. It is a confederation of confederations, which has over 2 million dues paying members.
Nepal, like other South Asian Nations, has a tradition of multiplicity of unions. Realising the adverse effects of unhealthy competition, rivalry and splits witnessed during the deacde from 1990, GEFONT and NTUC agreed with commitment to freedom, equality and social justice, and formed a high level Task Force in 2000, comprising of senior leaders from both confederations. That was the departure point for the unity process of Nepali trade union movement.
Joint action during April Uprising of 2006 built mutual turust among GEFONT, NTUC, DECONT and CoNEP. With the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 21 November 2006 and with the commitment of forward transformation of existing political, socio and economic system, the 11-year conflict has ended and Nepal entered into a new era of peace and prosperity. GEFONT, NTUC, DECONT and ANTFTU, all of which played a prominent role in restoring peace and democracy in the country welcomed the Accord through Lahan Declaration signed in December 2, 2006.
These two events became watershed for formation of JTUCC.; which was launched with the sole objective of identifying workers' genuine issues, developing policies, making coordination among Trade Unions, and forming a joint voice to address their issues. Seven National Trade Union Centres founded the JTUCC in December 1, 2007. The First National Trade Union Conference held in October 26-27, 2008 formalised it.
The Third National Trade Union Conference: Further Institutionalising JTUCC
In 28 December 2014; over seven hundred delegates including leaders of member-confederations of JTUCC converged in Third National Trade Union Conference. Like our plural society, multiplicity of political parties based on diverse ideologies-philosophies and political systems 20,92,790 of us, the dues paying members are also of different political orientations and believe in different philosophies. Some take this diversity as difference. And, we the JTUCC affiliated confederations believe, this is Strength; the Unity in Diversity.
JTUCC has taken this platform to participate based on our own policy and decision, come to common understanding on the issues through dialogues; continue dialogue in dis-agreed issues and take decision from consensus. Our formula of unity is to form united opinion regarding issues of labour movement and take this common stand vis-a'-vis our counterparts with opposite interest, and to think and carry creative campaigns independently on the disagreed issues without hampering the unity of the centre.
From this Third National Trade Union Conference and based on the theme- “Unity in Diversity” we the member confederations declare- now JTUCC is institutionalised!
GEFONT President Bishnu Rimal is elected first President of JTUCC from this conference.
(Text prepared by: B.Rimal)