Working class unity vital to face challenges - D.E.W. Gunasekara
*Objective meaning of May Day important
*Trade unions fought for promotions and
*Despite differences in political
ideologies, all belong to one class
The struggle of the working class started in May 1886. It was the
historic struggle of American workers for an eight hour working day
where nine people were killed in the demonstration. Internationally this
is known as the Haymarket Massacre.
“Nine people died and after that there were police repressions and
eight people were indicted. Of them four were executed. One committed
suicide before the execution. Another was sent for 15 years of
imprisonment,” explained a stalwart in Sri Lanka’s labour struggle,
Senior Minister for Human Resources D.E.W. Gunasekara. Following the
Haymarket Massacre, America’s working class started holding
commemorative demonstrations on the day, laying the foundation for the
International Workers’ Day.
According to historical statements, the eight hour working day
campaign was initiated internationally with the 1889 Second
International. In 1889 Europe’s socialist parties joined together to
create the Second International, with Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s
co-founder of socialism and communism, as its honorary President. This
was the first Socialist International, an organisation of social and
labour parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889.
Among the Second International’s famous actions were its 1889
declaration of May 1 as International Workers’ Day and its 1910
declaration of March 8 as International Women’s Day.
May Day was formally recognised as an annual event at the
Internationals second congress in 1891.
“This is the only occasion on which people belonging to various
communities, ethnic groups, religions and colours come together
throughout the world,” said Senior Minister Gunasekara. “We hold this
day to remember those who sacrificed their lives for the working class
and respect and honour them and to demonstrate the unity and solidarity
of the working class. This is the day on which the working class present
their demands to their employer or the Government. These were the three
main issues for which the May Day came in to being,” he added.
Armed with enormous experience gained over the years as a key trade
union leader, D.E.W. Gunasekara explained how the May Day came in to
being in Sri Lanka. It was in 1933 that Sri Lanka held its first May Day
led by the Ceylon Labour Union under A.E. Gunasinghe according to the
historical records. There is evidence that in 1934 the Marxist Group had
conducted a demonstration regarding May Day. And in 1934, as it is
recorded, Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe, the first state counsellor of Sri
Lanka, had been the key-note speaker. Prior to the formation of the
Lanka Samasamaja Party in December 1935, they had held a May Day
meeting. And this has been Sri Lanka’s first collectively organised Left
May Day with the participation of Leftist parties.
The Sri Lankan May Day had comprised solely Left Movements such as
the Ceylon Labour Union led by A.E. Gunasinghe and the demonstrations
led by other Left parties (at that time there was only one party – the
LSSP) and later the Communist Party set up in the 1940s until the
formation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). “In 1956 the SLFP came
in to power and they celebrated May Day for the first time in that year.
It was there that May Day was declared a public holiday,” Gunasekara
“The Left Movement continuously demanded the Government to declare
May Day as a public holiday because the rest of the world had already
declared it as a holiday and by then the International Labour
Organization had also recognised May Day as an international workers’
day,” Gunasekara added. And in the 1970s the United National Party
started forming trade unions and holding May Day demonstrations.
It is a day on which workers should get on to the streets and
demonstrate their unity and solidarity parallel to their counterparts in
other countries and a day on which they make their demands to their
employer or to the Government, Gunasekara continued to emphasise. Yet,
unfortunately, today its meaning and content are all diluted, he said.
“Today few people remain with the trade union movement. Only around
10 percent of the total working class is thus organised according to
Labour Department statistics. That it at the lowest ebb. Except for a
few unions, others have no bargaining power,” he said.
“May Day has today lost its glamour, its content and its objectives
that the founders of the May Day movement expected. It has lost its
vigour. Now it has become a day on which political parties test their
strength. The themes are different, but May Day is really the workers’
day irrespective of their political ideologies,” said Gunasekara.
“Now it is needed to revive and restore the original content, meaning
and objectives of the May Day,” he emphasised, adding that there should
be unity among these groups that are too politicised. “Every trade union
has the right to have their own political view, but they should not use
the May Day as a strength testing ground, because eventually it is the
entire working class that gets negatively affected,” he stated.
“Generally, we can see that throughout the world the trade union
movement is getting weak,” he explained.
Today the working class is facing many new challenges under the
neo-liberal economic policies. The bargaining powers of the workers are
lost. A large number of trade unions has lost their strength with the
introduction of the contract system, explained Gunasekara. Without
having all the workers under one roof employers assign certain jobs to
outsiders – contractors. This happens with changes in the management
structure of such companies under the neo-liberal economy.
New crises are emerging. The world is facing a series of crises in
deficit, debit, credit, purchasing power, saving and housing. In this
background, facing a series of crises in the modern world and
globalisation of the working class, it is necessary that there is
solidarity among the working class in a world. That is the only way
through which the working class can strengthen their bargaining power.
Unity among workers
It is absolutely necessary to promote unity among the working class.
They may have different political ideologies and affiliations, but unity
should still be there. Our working class is entirely split and as a
result the working class is suffering. Except for a few unions which
have greater bargaining power all others have lost their bargaining
power, he added.
“Other trends have also crept in – for instance chauvinism and
communalism. People have started building trade unions on the basis of
community- forming trade unions for Sinhala, Tamil and other
ethnicities,” said the Senior Minister. “We can see the trade unions
also split in to segments based on ethnicity, he said adding that
opportunism, privilege and patronage have crept in emphasising the
split. Some join trade unions of a ruling party to get a promotion
through MPs and ministers.
“Earlier, it was not like this. It was the trade union that was
strong. It was the trade unions that fought for promotions and
privileges. Today they find an easy way through the privilege system,
through patronage. Due to these factors trade unions have become weak,”
“That’s why we as the Left parties try to revive and restore the lost
spirit of the May Day,” he said. To face the challenges of the modern
world there is absolute necessity for the unity of the working class.
Benefits for employers
If there is going to be peace among the working class it will benefit
the employer. Today, certain institutes that were used to be on the hot
bed of labour unrest have become calm with more benefits to the workers,
higher salaries, technologically advanced operating systems and through
educating the workers on technological advancements. Today one cannot
find load-carrying workers in a miserable state,” The institutes have
advanced, benefiting both employers and employes.
The ILO has set up a mechanism called Tri Party system – the
employer, the employee and the government. This is a mediation process.
After this was introduced, a lesser number of strikes was observed in
the world. Earlier, when the employer did not care about the employee,
he or she had no other option. However today the employee has the chance
to make a complaint against such misconduct to the Labour Department,
Labour officers and Industrial Courts even to take legal action. This
has made employers less aggressive than before.
The miserable issue is in the private sector. There are 1.3 million
public servants in the country, there is not even 100,000 trade unions.
To strengthen the working class those who are not in trade unions must
join them and the trade unions need to shed petty politics, Minister
Gunasekara explained. “Otherwise, in the long run, they are going to
lose,” he said, stressing the importance of the immediate joining
together of the still disconnected movements.
“When I was a public servant, I remember that May Day was not a
public holiday; at twelve noon we walked away to join the
demonstrations. We were never bothered about whether we lose our
half-pay or not.”
“But as I see now, after May Day was made a holiday, the workers take
it as a day to relax at home. They don’t make use of the day properly.
It was made a holiday for the working class to demonstrate their
strength and solidarity. We had to carry out a big struggle to make it a
holiday,” said the Senior Minister.
“1945, 1946, 1947 would be the most decisive years of the Sri Lankan
labour struggle. We were students then, but as we remember and as
written records state the trade Union movement then was very militant
and they were fighting against the colonial government. The struggles
were combined with the independence movement as well”.
In 1953, the strike-turned-Harthal was another turning point in Sri
Lanka’s working class history.
People agitated as the prices of main commodities rose – i.e. rice
went up from 25 cents to 75 cents. Initially it was 24-hour token
strike, but turned out to be a harthal because not only the public
servants and private employees but shop owners also closed their shops.
Farmers and everyone joined in it. Irrespective of political
affiliations all trade unions joined leaders such as A.E. Gunasinghe and
Philip Gunawardane in the struggle. The then Prime Minister Dudley
Senanayake had to resign and a new government came in to power.
The 1956 General election was another turning point. It was then that
the 1947 strike leaders became ministers. Leaders such as T.B.
Ilangarathne who led the public servants in 1947 became the labour
minister. He was most instrumental, I think, in making May Day a
holiday. And also during period of 1945 to 56 workers won a lot of
demands. Earlier they had no casual leave or medical leave, they had to
work 12 hours or more. A large number of rights the present working
class is enjoying today was won during this period. In 1970 a new
government came in to power when workers benefited.
Then, in 1977, one would find another turning point in history and
yet another in 1980. It was the general strike which was crushed by the
Government. Hundreds and thousands of workers were sacked. And these
were the turning points in the downward march of the working class. The
fall started with the beginning of the 1980s and the fall seems to
There was complete unity among trade unions in the past. There were
different trade unions such as for teachers and clerical staff, but it
was a completely disciplined unit. As for teachers there were Sinhala,
Tamil and English medium teachers, but all formed one union. There were
differences in political ideologies yet it should not be forgotten that
we all belong to one class.
Irrespective of party affiliations there was unity. The working class
should exercise their independence. Trade unions should not tail behind
political parties. Political parties can give directions and advice, but
trade unions must act independently. It is the workers who should decide
The aggressive and destructive nature of trade union action is a
recent phenomenon. It was absent earlier.
This is solely because of the weakness of the trade union leadership.
I can remember in 1958, there was a general strike where the trade union
leaders did not pull out workers in the health sector, but fought on
their behalf too. It was for the interest of the sick people.
Other unions told the health sector workers that “they will fight for
your cause, but you work and look after the sick people.” We are missing
that spirit at present. Even in the 1947, and 1956 strikes and all other
major strikes, trade union leaders took the decision not to take health
sector workers, into the struggle taking in to account the interest of
the sick people. Today that consciousness is not there.
“There was general acceptance those days that a strike is the last
weapon. First you write, and then you picket, demonstrate, meet the
Minister and then the Prime Minister and so on. And exhausting all the
processes then finally they resort to strike. Today it is not that.
Today we see strikes everyday. That is not correct,” he said.
Quality and discipline
These showcase the quality and discipline of the leadership.
In 1958, during communal disturbances after the introduction of the
Sinhala Only Bill, a general strike was to be staged. But the trade
union leaders immediately decided to call off the strike because they
saw that communalism is coming up, that was against the interests of the
working class. They stopped it and went back to work, allowing the
Government to handle communalism. To name a few top trade union leaders
of those days; Jack Perera the leader of the Postal Union, S. Chellaiah,
Regi Godawela, K.C. Nithyanandan, I.J. Wickrama, T.B. Dissanayake and
many other trade union leaders and members took these decisions. They
were top leaders. When they saw communal disturbance coming up, they
immediately called off the strike in the interest of the country.
The indiscipline, lack of consciousness we see in many segments of
the society, in the political, judicial and social spheres, has crept in
to the trade Union leadership too.
I see today a lot of frustration setting in among the working class.
For example, if we take the public sector, appointments, dismissals,
disciplinary control and everything should be handled by an independent
body such as a commission. I personally think appointments should not be
politically made, but made solely on merit. The best option would be to
independently select the best suitable people through conducting exams,
interviews and properly evaluated. In this background opportunists would
look for greener pastures by becoming favourites of politicians.
This is one of the reasons we don’t find independent leaders in the
Trade Unions. Trade union leaders must be upright and take independent
decisions. I can remember when I was a trade union leader, the heads of
institutes had great respect for us. Trade unions should not tail behind
political parties. Otherwise it will lead to the degeneration of the
Today every party has a trade union. They all should be allowed to
meet together and work together for the best interest of the working
Karl Marx once said that revolutions will be made by the majority. In
it Karl Marx said, “No revolution can be made by a party, but by a