Features
Governor Chalmers Exiles Railway Union Activists - A Flashback
by T. Perera

Ninety years ago Governor Robert Chalmers ordered the deportation of thirty CGR union activists from the locomotive workshops in Colombo to Batticaloa, then a remote town on the eastern coast. After the Riots of 1915 the pan ic-stricken colonial government, which viewed with alarm the threat of an island-wide railway strike, took the decision to put an end to the Ceylon Workmen’s Provident Association (CPWA), the first trade union among the railway workers.

H. L. Dowbiggin, the Inspector General of Police who became very apprehensive said: "The talk of a railway strike shows that the recent disturbances were not solely religious and further shows that since the disturbances agitators have been again conspiring to cause trouble. These agitators, it is clear, should not be any longer at large." (Incidentally when an announcement was made that Dowbiggin was leaving the island on retirement he received a bizarre send-off when a protest meeting was called by the LSSP in 1937 to condemn the IGP for the police excesses during the 1915 Riots).

The locomotive superintendent was asked to name the militant railway employees. His blacklist included skilled workers, some of them earning the maximum salary for their grades. They included overseers, fitters, boilermakers and carpenters. Nine of these workers were committee members of the union. Under a Martial Law order, between the 21st and 27th June, the union activists were arrested and detained for fourteen days at the jails at Welikada and in the premises of the Old Royal College before being transported by steamer to the Eastern Province port. 140 workers, described as "the most disaffected men" were also dismissed from the railways.

The exiles had been marked men ever since they led the first island-wide railway strike three years earlier, in 1912. The management maintained a close watch on the ringleaders.

The stoppage had disrupted the economic life of the island for nine days. Three thousand workers from the railway workshops walked out. Five hundred firemen and cleaners of the railway also struck work in sympathy. The stoppage which started at the Maradana workshops spread to the running sheds in Colombo, Kandy and Nawalapitiya, paralysing the entire railway network.

Concerns over fines and deductions from wages of the workshop workers had given rise to unrest but the immedicate cause of the strike was that their petition on their grievances over wages, overtime and holiday pay had been ignored by the management.

Over three decades the average wage for skilled workers had declined. The daily-paid workers had a 5-day week but were only paid for the days on which they worked. It was a 9-10 hour working day.

The struggle was marked by an impressive solidarity from other sections of workers as well as from the public. Workers in the government factory, harbour, municipality and engineering firms made collections for the railway workers’ strike fund. The press for its part joined in - the Ceylon Observer, the Morning Leader and the Independent blamed the government officials for their tactlessness.

The ferment among the CGR workers led to the formation of the railway union called the CWPA which had several politicians, temperance and social service activists among its office-bearers. Its president was Charles Batuwantudawe, a lawyer. Such was the modest beginning of what was to be in time, a militant powerhouse.

The nationalist leaders who were office-bearers of the CWPA, C. Batuwantudawe, Arthur Dias and D. C. Senanayake were jailed following the 1915 riots. The secretary of the union E. R. Wijesooriya was exited to Trincomalee.

The colonial government settled the strike by appointing a Railway Commission. But the commission’s report proved to be a great disappointment to the railway workers. Their key demands regarding wages, fines, promotions and conditions of work were not granted. The commissioners recommended overtime pay for Sunday work, accident relief, small pensions for the more efficient workers, and better facilities for meals and washing.

Ponnambalam Arunachalam, one of the commissioners (later first president of the Ceylon National Congress, and head of the Ceylon Workers’ Federation in 1920), made dissenting observations.

The dissatisfaction among the railway workers continued to grow and erupted in 1915 in an outbreak of rioting in the locomotive workshops in Colombo.

Arunachalam later described the plight of the deportees during their desperate six-month exile in Batticaloa. "No’ provision was made for their subsistence or employment... the men experienced very great hardships for want of work and food. Their sufferings were aggravated by anxiety for their wives and children who were far away and in a state of destitution on the exhaustion of their little savings".

The nationalist leader pleaded that they be given liberal compensation for wrongful arrest, exile without trial, humiliating treatment as criminals and for loss of employment. As a result of frequent petitioning by the Ceylon Workers’ Federation and the Ceylon Labour Union led by the pioneer labour leader A. E. Goonesinha, the bar on re-employment of ten of the former exiles was lifted ten years later. The bar on John Perera and George Silva who were later active in labour agitation, was only lifted in 1927.

Marshall Wicremasinghe, the worker’s leader during the 1912 strike and exiled in 1915, again came to the fore when railway workers struck work in 1920. In the general strike of 1923 - thirty years after the first printers strike - the agitation began in the locomotive workshops, and the railway workers were to play a significant role in the growing trade union movement. As the labour historian Kumari Jayawardena would later say in The Rise of the Labour Movement in Ceylon:

"It is important to note that the railway workers whose actions had led to their dismissal, imprisonment and exile, and blacklisting were the first workers’ leaders to emerge from the working class itself."

 

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