Trade Unions, Statistics & the Data Lag

KR Shyam Sundar

As per Section 27 of the Industrial Relations Code passed in August 2020, if the appropriate government (the Union or the state government) is of the opinion that it is necessary or expedient that a trade union or federation of trade unions is to be recognized as Central- or state-level trade union, it may do so according to the prescribed procedure. This means that what was a voluntary process arising out of tripartite consultations will become a legal measure once the Code is in force. Thus, it is important to know its history as well as the current controversies over the same.

There are two types of verification of trade unions’ membership to determine their representativity. One is general verification, which is done by the Chief Labour Commissioner (‘CLC’) of the Union Government. This verification is done to identify the central trade unions (‘CTUs’) for their participation in various national and internal fora. The second is verification done by employers for the purposes of collective bargaining. This piece discusses the former.

Evolution of the union general membership verification process

The general verification process began owing to the multiplicity of national-level trade unions. Indeed, the International Labour Organisation (‘ILO’) is tripartite in character, involving representatives of labor, employers, and government in its proceedings.

The birth of the All India Trade Union Congress’ (‘AITUC’) was indeed hastened due to the stalemate over sending a labor representative to the first International Labour Conference conducted by the ILO. The British Colonial Government nominated theosophist and labor activist B.P. Wadia to represent Indian labor. But the nomination process was fraught with conflicts. In 1920, trade union leader N.M. Joshi was nominated by the government to represent India, with the teacher and independence activist Lokmanya Tilak as his advisor. Tilak did not attend the meetings as he was the leader elected by workers, while Joshi was selected by the government.

Workers in India condemned the unconstitutional nomination process and the cold shoulder is given to leaders elected by the workers. Soon after this, the AITUC was born. Thus, the ILO episode played a significant role in the establishment of AITUC.

In fact, the representation of workers at the ILO often became a cause for conflict in the trade union movement. After the first split in the AITUC, the Indian Trade Union Federation, a right-reformist federation, was keen to represent India in ILO proceedings. On the other hand, leftist-oriented workers saw the ILO as an imperialist body and dismissed it as of no value for labor in India.

This issue merited serious attention, and the AITUC made attempts to forge unity between the factions in the union movement. The executive committee of the AITUC decided, among other things, a principle that the issue of labor representation to ILO must be decided annually and be binding on trade unions. The AITUC protested against the nomination exercise of the government in 1944, to which the government replied that it was difficult to determine the representativity of the two trade unions, viz., revolutionary, radical activist, and political theorist M.N. Roy’s Indian Labour Federation and AITUC.

After Independence, CTUs increased in number from three in 1947 to a dozen or so. So the government had to devise a method of determining the representative character of the existing CTUs. This gave birth to the general verification of membership in trade unions.

Thus, the issue of favorable nomination of labor representatives always existed and was a controversial issue. In fact, after Independence, CTUs increased in number from three in 1947 to a dozen or so. So the government had to devise a method of determining the representative character of existing CTUs. This gave birth to the general verification of trade unions’ membership.

It was around the early 1940s that the colonial government constituted the Indian Labour Conference (‘ILC’) which is tripartite in character. Again, the issue of which CTUs to invite to the ILC among the numerous existing ones became a huge bother.

Post-Independence complications in general verification of union membership

According to the government, general verification of union membership is an essential requirement for granting representations to workers’ organizations in international and national conferences, committees, councils, wage boards, and so on. Thus far, general verification is done at the national level and not at the regional level. It is a voluntary exercise commissioned by the Union Government. Now the Industrial Relations Code is set to change all of this.

Both due to political and non-political factors, the number of trade union federations, political or otherwise, increased substantially in India during the post-Independence period. As trade union consciousness and political activity developed, more organizations mushroomed. Article 19(1)(c) of the Constitution made the right to form unions and associations a fundamental right. This was in consonance with the pluralistic and democratic polity that India has been developing. Trade unions and collective consultations are important democratic institutions and procedures. They have tremendous significance as workers, through their organizations and procedures, participate in not only issues concerning their welfare but also in the country’s economic development.

During the heady days of the command economy in India, the ILC performed a significant role as being the most consultative body in determining the policies, laws, and other aspects of the governance of the industrial relations system. The National Commission on Labour elaborated on the ILC’s contribution in its 1969 report. At much a later date, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee likened ILC to a “Labour Parliament of India”.

The first general verification was done in 1946 by the CLC for the central sphere. (It may be mentioned here that for labor administration purposes, the labor sector is divided into two, the central and the state. The former comes under the Union Government and the latter under respective state governments as state labor departments.) The 1946 procedure suffered from several shortcomings, the major being that the four CTUs then were not fully active during the various stages of verification.

In the ILC held in 1958, the delegates came up with several guidelines regarding the general verification process. These guidelines were accepted by the government for implementation. For example, the government set up grievance redressal procedures related to verification. In fact, S.B. Kale, who was the Deputy CLC to the Union Government, wrote that the verification procedures evolved over the years through a trial and error processes.

The general verification process provides two sets of basic information by industry and states: the number of claimed registered trade unions and claimed membership therein, and verified unions and membership.

The general verification process provides two sets of basic information by industry and states: the number of claimed registered trade unions and claimed membership therein, and verified unions and membership. The 1958 procedure involves three stages: first, submission of claim lists by CTUs, taking a decision regarding the selection of trade unions for spot verification which involves a detailed examination procedure, and the scrutinization by the CLC of the objections raised by unions via spot verification. After this, all CTUs are invited to discuss pending issues and finalize the verified results. Then, the final data are disseminated by the CLC’s office.

During those years, more than 3,500 trade unions underwent membership verification. Officially, only 25 officers were supposed to conduct the verification, though in practice, during the peak times, more field officers were involved. The fact that CTUs largely accepted the eventually verified membership attests to the credible and gigantic efforts put in by the central labor department officials.

Non-participation of powerful unions for whatever reason or non-cooperation at any stage by any of them affects the validity of the data. The normal verification process then took eight to nine months. During the aforementioned period, the average cost of verification was Rs. 2,50,000–3,00,000 per trade union. During the 1950s, only four trade unions were declared as CTUs: the Indian National Trade Union Congress (‘INTUC’), the AITUC, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (‘HMS’), and the United Trade Union Congress (‘UTUC’).

During the 1970s, verification of membership exercises was conducted in December of 1970, 1972, 1974, 1977, and 1979, but they could not be completed owing to the “absence of consensus” amongst CTUs even after protracted discussions with them. By 1980, 12 CTUs had come into existence. On November 27, 1981, the CLC called trade unions to submit data from CTUs for verification as on December 31, 1980. The AITUC and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (‘CITU’) did not submit their returns. But the CLC’s office culled the necessary data from the Registrar’s office as “claimed data” and verified it to come up with estimates of the two CTUs.

After numerous consultations and exercises, the CLC’s office published the claimed and verified data on August 14, 1984. What was almost an annual issue had taken three–four years due to a higher number of CTUs and their membership, probably a slender secretariat of the CLC, and numerous rounds of consultations to resolve the grievances of the participant CTUs. Ten trade unions were recognized by the CLC office as CTUs.

After the 1980 round, verification exercises were conducted twice, for membership on December 31, 1989, and December 31, 2002. The latest exercise initiated after consultations with the Standing Committee on General Verification pertains to membership as on December 31, 2011.

On January 25, 1991, the Union Government decided to conduct membership verification as on December 29, 1989. As decided by the Standing Committee, a trade union must have at least 500,000 members spread over at least four states and four industries, including agriculture and rural sectors, in order to be recognized as a CTU. By 1994, the exercise was completed. Twelve trade unions were recognized by the CLC as CTUs.

What was almost an annual issue had taken three–four years due to a higher number of CTUs and their membership, probably a slender secretariat of the CLC, and numerous rounds of consultations to resolve the grievances of the participant CTUs.

Later, in compliance with a Delhi High Court order, the Union Government decided to conduct general verification of trade unions on December 31, 2002. The criteria adopted for designating a trade union as a CTU was the same as was followed in the 1989 exercise. The verification exercise got over by December 31, 2007: thirteen unions were declared as CTUs.

Analysis of data on membership of CTUs

We have scanty information on the general verification of CTUs, as the Labour Bureau has discontinued the practice of publishing it, as was done during the 1940s and 1950s. Additionally, during the 1970s, general verification was carried out in a manner discussed previously in this piece. Here, I am going to analyze data only at the macro level.

Table 1: Proportion of claimed number of trade unions and claimed membership during 1952–53 to 1961–62

CTUPercent of claimed in verified
 Trade unionsMembership
Source: S.B. Kale

Note: During the 1960s, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) also demanded to be included in the verification exercise.

Table 2: Details of claimed and verified data for several years

CTU% of claimed in verified 
 1951-52 to 1961-62198019892002Average verification rate (%)
All India United Trade Union Centre (‘UTUC-LS’)87.0150.0185.6567.83
National Labor Organization (‘NLO’)69.0860.85
Trade Union Coordination Centre (‘TUCC’)35.7145.2010173.1
National Front of Indian Trade Unions – Dhanbad (‘NFITU-DHN’)48.1915.9513.4114.68
Self-Employed Women’s Association (‘SEWA’)99.80
All India Central Council of Trade Unions (‘AICCTU’)95.08
Labour Progressive Federation (‘LPF’)82.84
National Front of Indian Trade Unions – Kolkata (‘NFITU-KOL’)1.55
Source: Union Ministry of Labour

* The figures shown as claimed membership of AITUC and CITU were taken from the records of the Registrars of Trade Unions as these two unions failed to submit the same.

The union leaders, known for their commitment to the union cause, were clueless about data availability. The very dull reception I received from them spoke of the extent of frustration that labor is facing during these times as nothing is going in their favor.

By 2002, NFITU split and we have NFITU-DHN and NFITU-KOL. Additionally, the UTUC-LS also came to be known as the All India United Trade Union Centre (‘AIUTUC’).

Table 3: Trends in verified union membership of CTUs, 1952-53 to 2002

Name of the CTU1952-531962-63198019892002
UTUC (LS)6,21,3598,43,25613,73,268
NFITU-KOL 33,620
HMKP 3,516
Total20,98,336 27,68,66461,26,8161,23,34,1422,48,84,802
Source: Union Ministry of Labour

Until the 1980s, INTUC was the leader of the pack, after which the BMS’s membership rose meteorically. In 1989 and 2002, BMS was the numero uno, which position it desires to hold on to in subsequent exercises also.

In the meanwhile, the Union Government issued guidelines for general verification of CTUs keeping the date of reckoning as December 31, 2011. The criteria were revised. It was decided in consultation with the Standing Committee that those trade unions whose affiliates have at least a combined membership of eight lakhs spread over at least eight states and at least eight industries would be eligible. The verification was to begin after January 2013.

Since the CLC office has not completed the verification, I have calculated probable estimated membership data.

The reasons for not completing the process are diverse. One trade union observed that the process has been stopped due to factional disputes within the INTUC at the end of the verification process as to which faction should claim the membership. Another said that the BMS has filed a case in court, stalling the verification procedure. Similarly, BMS has played a role in the stoppage of the verification process as whatever enumeration was done, it significantly favored the INTUC.

I have had difficulty getting some data from the CTUs for the 1989 exercise. The union leaders, known for their commitment to the union cause, were clueless about the data availability. The very dull reception I received from them spoke of the extent of frustration that labor is facing during these times as nothing is going in their favor. Workers have been waiting for minimum wages since 2019 and are awaiting the implementation of the four Labour Codes. They cannot be blamed either, I reckon.

We are in early 2023, and we are still using the verified membership data of CTUs issued for 2002!

Looking at the claimed membership for 2011, we see that INTUC is the tallest union with a claimed membership of 33.35 million. The gap between its claimed membership and that of BMS is rather large — nearly half of the INTUC’s membership is BMS’s claimed one. But the chasm reduces somewhat significantly when probably verified membership is calculated.

I have taken the average of the “verification rates” of the earlier exercise and estimated what could be probably verified membership of CTUs. The exercise is crude but gives some indicators. Conventional CTUs like AITUC, HMS, and CITU, rotate their positions among the top five. It is the first position that is up for taking between INTUC and BMS. But will we get to see it actually?

Table 4: Claimed membership of CTUs for 2011 and probably verified membership

CTUClaimed membershipPercentageProbable verified membership
Source: INTUC.

* This data is suspect as this membership is higher than that for UTUC.

What is striking is the fact that all CTUs have mobilized membership many times the eligibility criterion of 0.8 million, unlike in the earlier exercises. It is possible, if not probable, that they have enrolled lakhs of workers in the informal economy. For example, almost all CTUs have domestic workers’ wings. Some have mobilized forestry workers.

Let us come to the crux of the matter. The administrative data released by the Labour Bureau on trade unions with a lag is absolutely unusable. There are no all-India statistics. Registered trade unions fail to submit complete returns in time.

Secondly, the state labor departments take their own time to compile and send the data to the Labour Bureau. The Labour Bureau, the apex center, compiles and publishes the data, waiting till the cut-off date for filling in or responding to clarifications pertaining to data. So major industrialized states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat often fail to submit their returns, thereby hurting the national figure. If the same states fail several times, then a reliable data set for that period could be formed. But non-compliance is unpredictable.

The second option is to rely on the general verified membership of CTUs, which we have been discussing above. We are in early 2023, and we are still using the verified membership data of CTUs issued for 2002! Based on this data set, the representations have been made all these years by the government.

The leadership of the top CTUs enjoys their annual vacation of attending the International Labour Conference by going to Geneva every June! At home, the ILC has not taken place since 2015. The whole tortuous business of verifying membership of CTUs hardly appears a welcome job, so this exercise has, for whatever reasons, been pending for years.

As a union leader woefully exclaimed, “Where is labor nowadays? Do they count (pun unintended) during these times?”

This post was first published in The Leaflet as Are 2002 trade union membership statistics time-frozen for years to come? on Jan 17, 2023.