70th Anniversary remembering the first general strike by K.K.S Perera

2017-06-24 01:12:42

  •  June ’47 general strike neutralised State machinery: Colonial rulers shot Kandasamy dead
  • “We solemnly declare, that we shall not rest until we secure for the public servants full TU rights as are recognised by the Ceylon TU Ordinance and civil liberties such as are enjoyed by the Civil servants of UK and other democratic parts of the world.” -GCSU
  • ‘I will not move a finger to deal with the strike, unless independence is promised’ –D.S. Senanayake

The study of the first general strike in Sri Lanka agitating for recognition of Trade Union rights seventy years ago is an opportunity for present governments, politicians, trade unionists and state officials to learn.

Under British rule the public servants did not enjoy political rights or recognition of Trade Unions. By January, 1947, the agitation of the public servants for trade union rights had assumed such urgency that the Chief Secretary [CS] found it necessary to table a Statement in the State Council on January 21.

The CS, responsible to the Colonial office in London stated that the question “involves issues of such magnitude and complexity” and that the decision on such fundamental questions should be taken by the government under the new constitution.

From the beginning of the Government Clerical Services Union [GCSU] in February 1920, it had to struggle with British rulers and local politicians in order to protect workers’ rights. 

Though not affiliated to any political party most of the GCSU members were inclined towards the thinking of the two Marxist parties of LSSP and CP. Dr. N.M. Perera and Pieter Keuneman supported and guided the activities of the GCSU from mid-1930s. In the 1940s the total number of members was around 21,000 out of 36,000 government clerical workers in Sri Lanka.

Hon. D. S. Senanayake, Leader of the House, making a statement stated, ‘that public servants should not under any circumstances hold political rights and that the State will never officially recognise the trade unions’

More and more unions joined the agitation campaign as it gathered momentum, and by May, 1947, the whole mass of the working population became an explosive unit

– Times of Ceylon-Jan 26, 1947.
Provoked by this statement the Kandy branch of GCSU passed a resolution appealing to the members of the State Council to demand from the Board of Ministers to grant these rights before the next General Elections were held. This appeal irked the Chief Secretary to such an extent that he immediately summoned a meeting of Kandy and Head office officials of the trade union and threatened to ban the Kandy Branch, if that resolution was not withdrawn. 

This high-handed attitude of the CS steeled the determination of the GCSU to secure TU rights by launching an islandwide campaign and if necessary by resorting to strike action.

With this end in view, GCSU organised an islandwide Trade Union Week in the first week of March.
During this week meetings were held all over the country with a massive rally in Colombo to end the campaign.

D. S. Senanayake, Leader of the House, making a statement stated, ‘that public servants should not under any circumstances hold political rights and that the State will never officially recognise the trade unions 

Public Servants’ First ever Demonstration
For the first time in history they marched in procession from the then Secretariat to Town Hall, where they adopted the new ‘Declaration of Rights of Ceylon Public Servants’, [which we have quoted at the beginning.]

Cables and memoranda were dispatched to the Secretary of State for the Colonies and questions were raised both in the State Council and in the House of Commons. The CS like the present day local rulers rose from their slumber and panicked thinking of how to stave off an impending show-down.

Public Services Associations under the leadership of GCSU held several meetings where the LSSP and CP leaders, NM, Colvin and Keuneman were invited to speak on request that, ‘no ideologies or party politics’, but only trade unionism. 

More and more unions joined the agitation campaign as it gathered momentum, and by May, 1947, the whole mass of the working population became an explosive unit. A panicked Minister of Labour, Industry and Commerce tabled a bill, ‘Trade disputes prevention, investigation and settlement Bill’, which however was later withdrawn. [Attempts to rush through legislations but retracting or diluting under pressure happened even during State Council days!]

The organisers purposely defied the permitted route, to go past the Dematagoda Workshop and put the tough guys of port labour to lead the procession fearing an onslaught by the Police

Unmoved by the failure, the government next tabled two bills intended to repress popular mass action, and giving the Police dictatorial powers, called Public Security Ordinance and the Police (amended) Ordinance and rushed through all three readings within one and a half hours. In the mean time strikes erupted in the private sector. Motor engineering, tea and rubber workers of 27 firms, Chalmers Granary, Gas Company too walked out.

Governor, Sir Henry Moore anxious at the momentum and fearing the imminent prospect of the public servants joining the fray, published a statement on May 22, threatening public servants with dismissal and forfeiture of pension rights if they joined the strike. Ignoring all threats public servants affiliated to 18 unions called for a mass meeting at Galle Face Green on May 28. 

The meeting was presided over by T B Illangaratne, [Later SLFP stalwart and minister in the Bandaranaike Governments] in a communiqué issued by the CS stated though GCSU was the principal organiser of the May 28th meeting; speeches were made by outsiders and non-public servants criticising state policies

Statutes on Trade union Rights

Trade union rights had been guaranteed under several statutes. A union could be registered under the Trade Union Ordinance No. 14 of 1935 and Trade Union Act No 15 of 1948. 

In the 14th Article of the Constitution it has recognised the right to form a trade union and become a member of a trade union was a fundamental human right of the citizens. Amendment No 56 of 1999 brought to the Industrial Disputes Act, the Right to Bargain Collectively has been admitted. The Section 32 A of the Industrial Dispute act says, “No employer shall refuse to bargain with a trade union which has in its membership not less than forty percent of the workmen on whose behalf such trade union seeks to bargain. ILO Conventions 87 and 98 guarantee the right to Freedom of Association & Protection of the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining.

The CS issued a communiqué which stated that at the mass rally organised by GCSU on 28th May several non-public servants spoke in defiance of State policy. It further stated that it was obvious that the Union was deliberately conducting a campaign with the object of coercing the government by direct action to undermine its policy. Therefore the recognition of the union would be withdrawn. Some office bearers of the union were interdicted. The unions did not take the communiqué seriously; the strike situation worsened and by May 31st a good 18,000 public and private workers were out on the roads.

Following a meeting with the Governor and Ministers, the CS issued an ultimatum to the strikers that any further activity on behalf of the unauthorised union would be regarded as breach of discipline, and unless they returned to work on June 3rd they would be regarded as having vacated posts. 

He added that he was prepared to consider any proposals for the formation of a trade union with officials who were willing to co-operate with the state. It had opposite effects; more private sector workers joined on 3rd June. Government quickly re-instated six of the union officials prompting more from the public sector, the Post Masters and Railway men to join. 

The State provided free transport, meals and security to those who worked while Mount Lavinia Hotel staff joined the strike.

“We urge the government to settle the strike” –Times of Ceylon -3 June 1947.

The newspaper Editorials attacked the Board of Ministers for their inaction. The Governor chipped in with an extraordinary move issuing a statement ‘diplomatically threatening’ the leaders of unions after which workers from the famous Kolonnawa government factory, Fibre stores, and Railways’ Ratmalana Workshop too joined the strike. The general strike was now complete. 

Authorities sought the help of the Royal Navy to patrol the streets.

A special feature of conflict resolution in the good old days was the participation of citizens in a crises situation. A group of civil society men [not affiliated to NGOs; in fact there were no dollar strings attached then] under the chairmanship of Chief Justice Sir John Howard at Colombo YMCA, while another summoned by R E Jayatillake, Member State Council to request D. S. Senanayake to call for a special session of the State Council. 

By this time DS was patiently waiting for intimation from the Colonial Office regarding independence.
The astute politician’s attitude was, “I will not move a finger to deal with the strike, unless independence is promised.”

He won the day; promise of an early grant of independence came post haste and DS summoned a conference of State Councillors for June 6th as the rest of the port workers came out of the harbour. DS assumed leadership of the situation.

The strike front of the public servants showed cracks; the president and secretary of Public Services League resigned
DS Takes Charge
Board of Ministers met under Leader of the House DSS on June 4th and vested all powers on DS and C. H. Collins, the CS. His first act was to reject strikers call for talks and made an appeal to them promising to treat them fairly and with consideration should they return to work. Public opinion was divided on the issue. 

Student organisations supported the strike while professionals promised to assist the Government.
The unions sensing a crises situation made fresh demands, calling for resignation of Ministers, dismissal of CS and establishment of the interim Government of non-party citizens until the elections were held. DS acted resolutely; a contingent of the Ceylon Defence Force had been ordered out on duty, who paraded streets. State officers compiled a list of helpers to run the essential services. He successfully negotiated with powerful labour leader of the day, A.E. Goonesinghe to issue a statement saying his Ceylon Mercantile Union, [the white collar category] would not join the strike
The strike situation remained the same, though there was considerable activity by the armed forces and police. DS was apparently clearing the way for a final show down. The ‘move-on’ law was rigidly enforced. Isolated strikers were arrested and locked up. Dematagoda railway workers who could have paralyzed the train services were shut inside the place of work night and day and fed by the state. Union leadership failed to get them out. However, the public servants were now reaching breaking point; to their morale something spectacular had to be done, and decided as a last resort to stage a procession along Baseline road to the workshop to induce them to join, which effort failed.

Next, they planned a massive demonstration from De Mel Playground in Slave Island to Kolonnawa factory on June 5, where all the strikers were asked to assemble at 1 p.m. after seeking Police permission to cover the distance and hold a rally at the destination. A ten thousand strong work force commenced the walk singing and dancing the baila. 

The organisers purposely defied the permitted route, to go past the Dematagoda Workshop and put the tough guys of port labour to lead the procession fearing an onslaught by the Police.
For the first time in the struggle a politician, Dr. N. M. Perera with a few Leftists men was to head the ‘show of strength’, which was a unique sight as much as it was a unique event.

Kandasamy killed: Dr. N. M. Perera injured

Truck loads of armed Police left the Maradana Police Complex heading for Baseline Road; DS left all responsibilities with the IGP, who decided on a course of action unlike intrusive politicians and timid, docile ‘yes men’ security heads of present day. 

As planned the police waited until the harbour gangs passed the point of charge, to attack the demonstrators. N. M. Perera who returned to the spot to intervene was attacked too and with head injuries was rushed to hospital. Failing to disperse the crowds even after a severe baton charge it was decided to open fire. Several rounds were fired injuring quite a few and killing Kandasamy, a white collar worker and a native of Jaffna, when a bullet went through his left eye to shatter his brain. The spine of the struggle had been broken by a bullet; the union leaders met the following day and after protracted discussion decided to call the strike off.

Governor, Sir Henry Mason Moore on 18 June summoned a special session of the State Council and announced the grant of independence to the Colony.

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