Traversed new paths making History


 A. E. Goonesinha

by Ananda E. Goonesinha

Alexander Ekanayake Goonesinha was born on 1st May 1891 in Kandy. This day was celebrated in Paris, France as Labour Day by the Second Socialist International. It was merely a hidden coincidence then but later events gave it great significance. Goonesinha was educated at Dharmaraja College, Kandy and later at St. Joseph's College and Wesley College, Colombo.

In 1913 he became infused with the ideals of social service and formed the Servants of Lanka Society which aided by J. N. Jinendradasa and E. A. P. Wijeyeratne, established the first night school in Colombo imparting adult education to minor employees. He then started the "Searchlight", a monthly magazine dedicated to safeguarding the political rights of the common people and advocating Temperance whilst condemning the government policy of opening taverns all over the Island. This was followed by the "People" in which as Editor he wrote "Our rights and privileges must be guarded peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must." These words led to his arrest in 1915.

On the centenary of the Kandyan Convention significantly the inception of British Colonial rule the "Young Lanka League" was formed on 2nd March 1915 with C. E. Victor Corea as President and Goonesinha as General Secretary. The inaugural meeting took place at the Public Library Pettah when all present took an oath pledging their lives to fight for independence. On 20th June, 1915 Goonesinha was arrested by the Police and imprisoned in the Welikada Jail. Other prisoners were D. S. Senanayake, Dr. C. A. Hewavitarana, Proctor John de Silva, E. A. P Wijeyeratne and the Battaramulla High Priest. He witnessed D. H. Pedris, who had been court martialled, taken out and executed by firing squad.

After an inquiry by a Commissioner of Martial Law, Goonesinha was released on a cash security of Rs. 500. He then started a paper called the "Nation." Then in pursuance of a resolution passed by the Young Lanka League, he founded Anderson College of which he was the first Principal. It flourished for many years later. The Young Lanka League now came into contact with the poor of Colombo. By an ordinance of 1891 all adult males had to pay a Poll Tax of Rs. 2/- a year. Failure to do so entailed working on the roads. The Y.L.L. began a passive resistance of the Poll Tax. On the day the campaign was launched Goonesinha was alone breaking stones on the road opposite the Deans' Road market in Maradana. In the 2nd year of the campaign there were 2000 and in 1922 the number rose to 8000 and tools could not be found for all. C. E. Victor Corea the President of the Y.L.L. went to jail for one year for refusing to work on the roads but later gave up resistance. Then, on a motion by C. H. Z. Fernando in the Legislative Council the Poll Tax was abolished. It was during this campaign that Goonesinha established intimate contact with the working class and became fully aware of their plight in regard to poor wages and abject working conditions. At that time an organisation existed called the Ceylon Workers Federation which he joined.

The first meeting which he attended was held in the residence of a prominent gentleman and while all the western attired men sat inside the house the few workers had to stand in the garden. Indignation and disgusted impelled him to organize a Trade Union on democratic lines.

Historic date

The Ceylon Labour Union was inaugurated on 10th September 1922 with Victor Corea as President and A. E. Goonesinha as Vice President. This was the final outcome of Goonesinha's decision to form an independent and militant workers union on a democratic basis which would be free of the hitherto patronising attitude to labour shown by a few intellectuals. It was Ceylon's first Trade Union. In 1923 a young employee of the Railway Dept. applied for leave to get married and the application was refused. This led to a spontaneous strike at the Railway Workshop in Maradana. The workers asked Goonesinha to assist them in regard to many other grievances as well. The General Manager of Railways was adamant in his refusal to negotiate. Other branches numbering 1500 workers joined on Goonesinha's urging and a further 700 in the Government Factory and 1200 skilled and unskilled workers in the Harbour Engineer's Dept. stopped work. The strike soon spread to Nawalapitiya and Anuradhapura and the strikers now numbered 20,000. The stoppage of work had become the general strike of 1923, having spread to engineering firms and other private firms involving workers with long pent-up grievances regarding low salaries and lack of leave facilities. The strike had now lasted a month and the Union had no financial resources whatsoever to sustain it. On the other hand employers were bribing workers to return to work and the number on strike undergoing hardship now numbered 5000. Faced with defeat Goonesinha announced that an undertaking had been given by the Governor to Legislative Councillor E. R. Tambimuttu that the workers grievances would be inquired into and there was an unconditional end to the strike. The Cordington Commission 2 years later awarded a 20% increase in wages and authorised leave. A significant aspect of the strike was Goonesinha's persuasion of militant action by the workers and his now acquired awareness of the political potential of the working class. This led to his commitment to achieving a system of government based on universal suffrage. He declared that "the political salvation of our country would come through the sincere efforts of our masses." This strike also impelled him to become the first full time Trade Union leader m Ceylon. The Ceylon Labour Union had a Volunteer platoon led by Richard Wickremesinghe who wore red shirts and red and white caps and maintained discipline and order. For the first time in Ceylon the colour red became the colour of Labour.

In 1927 extremely low wages and difficult working conditions now caused an eruption in the Colombo harbour in the form of a strike by about 5000 stevedores employed by contractors who were British and sub-contractors who were Indians and Ceylonese. The demands were for increased wages and better working conditions. The government tried to ease the situation by importing labourers from South India and using convict labour but this was unsuccessful. Mass meetings were held by the Union and processions paraded through the streets of Colombo led and controlled by the Red Shirts of the Labour Union.

Efforts by the Labour Advisory Board to mediate failed, and the strike spread to the coal grounds involving 5,000 workers employed in coaling ships and discharging coal. The situation was grave as smooth operations in the harbour were essential for the economic life of the country. The government appointed an Arbitration Committee with Justice Schneider as umpire and C. W. W. Kannangara for the workers and C. S. Burns for the employers as members. The strike was then called off and 13000 workers returned to work after 3 weeks. The Arbitrator awarded higher wages, an hour off for meals with double wages for night work. It was a great victory and was celebrated in style. The prominence and publicity achieved by the Harbour strike evoked an awareness of their own working conditions among mercantile employees. A few of them contacted Goonesinha and in 1928 the Ceylon Mercantile Union was formed with an initial membership of 30.

In 1928 the Donoughmore Commission appointed by the Crown to examine the necessity of Constitutional Reforms in Ceylon commenced deliberations. Significantly A. E. Goonesinha and the Ceylon Labour Union were the only advocates of the grant of Universal Franchise. The Ceylon National Congress vehemently opposed it and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike declared that if the poor man was given the right to vote he would sell it for Rs. 5/- or a bottle of Toddy. George E. de Silva, a member of the C.L.U. crossed to the National Congress and opposed the grant of Universal Franchise resulting in his expulsion. C. W. W. Kannangara also a member of the C.L.U. and of the Legislative Council acted similarly and was likewise expelled. Amazingly H. R. Freeman a retired British Civil Servant supported the grant of universal franchise but only to men over 25 years. It is interesting to recall at this stage that many years later at a session of the State Council J. R. Jayewardene had the brazen effrontery to claim that it was the National Congress which was responsible for the grant of universal franchise to Ceylon. Colvin R. de Silva immediately rose to his feet and pointing to Goonesinha said "not you - it was he."

In 1928 on an invitation by the British Labour Party, Goonesinha went to London accompanied by George E. de Silva to represent Ceylon at the British Commonwealth Labour Conference. Jealous enemies in the capitalist bourgeoisie tried to persuade the Governor to withhold the issue of a passport to Goonesinha and even wrote to the British Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald decrying his qualifications but failed miserably. At the meetings of the conference he again advocated the grant of universal franchise. Dr Drummond Shields, a member of the Commission, then handed him a copy of the Report of the Commission which had been issued in Ceylon on that very day, saying that what he had so ardently pressed for had been granted and that he should now form a Labour Party in Ceylon as in Britain. On his return to Ceylon Goonesinha received a tremendous welcome at the Harbour and was presented with gold medals, by the now famous trade union.

The All Ceylon Trade Union Congress was formed and the Ceylon Labour Party inaugurated. Its executive committee comprised C. H. Z. Fernando, A. Mahadeva, C. W W Kannangara, Victor Corea, G. C. S. Corea, Merrill Pereira, George Caldera, Valentine Perera, George E. de Silva, Dr. Muttiah and Satiyawageswera Iyer. The women members for the first time in political history were Mrs. Agnes de Silva, Dr. (Mrs.) S. Iyer, Miss A. Preston, an English Theosophist, Mrs, A. E. Goonesinha, Mrs. Roland de Silva, Mrs. Cyril Jayawardena, Mrs. A. E. de Silva and Misses Eva and Jennie Ferdinando of the Women's Franchise Union.

In 1929 occurred the famous Tramways strike. A Tramway Service was being operated by Boustead Bros., a British company in Colombo. Employees of the company who had many grievances complained to the Labour Union, and a letter outlining them and demanding redress was addressed by Goonesinha to the chairman Cedric Boustead, who was also the Head of the Estate Agencies importing and exporting a variety of agricultural products. Boustead agreed to make some concessions regarding leave and overtime but flatly refused to consider the demand for a 25% increase in wages. The result was a strike by the drivers and conductors and mechanics. An attempt by the company to bring black legs was foiled when they too were persuaded to depart. Boustead himself drove a tramcar and was joined by other mercantile Britishers. The Tramway Service was very useful to commuters in the city and this lack of transport would have inconvenienced many but for the intervention of sympathetic hiring car drivers and private vehicle owners who gave free lifts to commuters. Goonesinha himself drove a car carrying passengers to and from their destinations.

A great deal of sympathy

A great deal of sympathy was exhibited by the public especially by mercantile employees and Law College students who paraded the streets waving red flags in support. At this stage the situation was aggravated by the launching of a boycott of Boustead cargo in the harbour, which seriously affected the employer. The Chamber of Commerce invited Goonesinha to a Conference to discuss the issues with a view to a settlement. There Goonesinha was given for his signature a document the terms of which required him to remove the boycott and guarantee that he would never interfere with or hamper the business of Boustead in return for a simple assurance that the Union demand would be referred to Boustead's Head Office in London. He tore up the document and left. This resulted in a headline in the jingoistic British owned Times of Ceylon thus:- "Impetuous Labour leader tears up document and leaves Chamber."

Meanwhile the Police who had been escorting the tramcars driven by the British began harassing the drivers of vehicles carrying passengers free of charge. In Maradana an ASP began browbeating Goonesinha and a red shirt Volunteer sergeant who tried to come to his rescue was assaulted and dragged to the Police Station. News spread like wild fire that it was Goonesinha who was thus treated. Workers in the Government Factory and harbour workers stopped work. Thousands gathered outside the Maradana Police Station and rioting began. Buildings nearby and gas installations were set on fire, electric wires were cut, a fire engine was burnt and street lights smashed. The Police fired on the crowd killing 5 and inguring 250. The disturbance was quelled.

When crowds again collected there the following day Goonesinha arrived with the Colonial Secretary and calling for nonviolence persuaded the crowd to disperse. The Tramway strike forced the recognition, of Trade Unions by the Employers' Federation and its settlement was incorporated in the first ever Collective Agreement between the Employers' Federation and the Trade Union Congress which recognised Trade Unions as negotiators on behalf of workers and required in return that the Unions negotiate prior to calling strikes and to give 7 days notice of intention to strike. Goonesinha said that this agreement was a "happy augury" which had ushered in a new era when for the first time in the history of Ceylon, Labour Unions were recognised. However the Government intervened to assert its authority and introduced the Trade Disputes (Conciliation) Ordinance 1931 which provided for government intervention in labour disputes and their prevention and settlement by either commissions appointed by the

Governor or Conciliation Boards appointed by and Controller of Labour A. E. Goonesinha was now called the Labour Leader.

Adverting to politics, A. E. Goonesinha had in 1927 contested S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike for the Maradana ward in the Colombo Municipal Council and had been defeated on a franchise limited to males having property, income and literacy qualifications which was enjoyed by only 4% of the country's entire population. Even so he lost by only 200 votes. Later after the introduction of universal franchise in a subsequent election to the same ward, Bandaranaike did not contest and Goonesinha was elected uncontested. In the 1931 State Council elections the Labour Party candidate A. E. Goonesinha and Dr. S. W. Dassanaike were elected for the constituencies of Colombo Central and Colombo South respectively. It is interesting to note that several members of the first Executive Committee of the Party did not contest the elections as Party candidates. Obviously preferring to preserve their individuality. A motion in the State Council by Goonesinha to provide unemployment relief was passed though the Board of Ministers voted against it, and a sum of Rs. 25,000 was budgeted for the Unemployment Relief Scheme.

Now for the first time the 1st of May, May Day was celebrated by the Ceylon Labour Union and the Ceylon Labour Party as 'Workers' Day. The festivities took the form of long processions winding through the city with many groups of dancers and ending at a public park where a musical concert was held. Thousands attended these celebrations. Notably no political slogans were shouted and everyone was in only a festive mood. Naturally the colour red was displayed in bunting, placards and clothing. For the first time the Labour Party song was sung vociferously, Goonesinha's name being included in the lyrics. Incidentally the melody of this song was misappropriated by the LSSP which substituted their own lyrics, and today the Socialist Parties have done likewise and Goonesinha's Labour years have been perpetuated in melody if not in memory. Goonesinha was re-elected in the State Council elections of 1936. He continued to be a member of the Colombo Municipal Council and was elected Mayor of Colombo in 1940. The State Council elections were postponed owing to World War II and were held till 1947 under the new Soulbury Constitution. Goonesinha was elected first member for Colombo Central which had now become a multi-member constituency.

In the meantime clerical employees of the British owned Banks had approached Goonesinha with a list of grievances. After a series of meetings he formed the Ceylon Bank Clerks Union, and a new salary scale was agreed upon by the Union and the Banks' Associations.

In 1945 demands regarding other grievances were rejected and the first Banks strike occurred. An Arbitrator Crosette Thambiah who was appointed by the Government then made an Award binding on both parties.

After the years following the formation of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and its split into Stalinist and Trotskyist factions resulting in the formation of the Ceylon Communist Party, serious inroads had been made into the membership of Goonesinha's Unions especially in the Harbour. The Leftists made spurious allegations of ineptitude on Goonesinha's part towards employers and many workers fell prey to believing in the revolutionary slogans of the Leftists. Goonesinha who never had been either Left or Right or Centre but only a fighter for the working class now found himself, practically in self-defence, pushed gradually to the Centre if not the Right. D. S. Senanayake the first Prime Minister under the Soulbury Constitution made him first a Deputy Minister and then Minister without Portfolio and later the Minister of State. It so happened that his pre-occupation with Ministerial duties led to a weakening of contact with labour and union member's. In the 1952 General Election he lost his seat mainly owing to his vote bank being eroded by the Left and the candidature of a Sinhala contestant who could appeal to the voters. Dudley Senanayake who had become Prime Minister after D.S.'s death then appointed him as Ceylon's Ambassador to Indonesia and then to Burma. In 1956 he resigned and returned home to contest the General Elections in Colombo Central but was defeated again. Obviously his lack of contact with the people for 4 years had distanced them from him in regard to support and voting preference. The Ceylon Labour Union existed only as a skeleton compared to its former strength and the Ceylon Mercantile Union and the Ceylon Bank Clerks Union which had changed its name to Employees Union having laudably admitted all minor employees, discarded him and completely forgot their founder.

Conditions of the working class

It is now pertinent to examine the conditions of the working class and the formation of the first Trade Unions and their progress in the twenties in comparison with the position of the Trade Unions today. A. E. Goonesinha had to contend with and struggle against a formidable and powerful opposition of not only the Colonial government with its Police and other branches of authority, but also the capitalist owners of coconut and rubber estates and oil mills with their wealth and influence and their sycophantic attitude toward the Colonial rulers. In stark contrast Trade Unions today are protected by the law and enjoy complete freedom of association and action. Whereas Goonesinha placed the interests of the workers before those of his political party which he used as a tool of the Unions, the Trade Unions today are manipulated by the political parties for their advancement. There is today a startling multiplicity of Unions in the State, Private and Plantation sectors. There is the spectacle of a Nurses' Union, being led by a Buddhist Priest and the Ceylon Workers Congress having a dual personality being a Trade Union and a political party simultaneously.

Goonesinha was inspired by the ideal of improvement of the living conditions of the workers and dedicated himself to this, single purpose and goal. He had supporters no doubt, loyal and generous and the adoration of the workers whose cause he espoused.

Today tragically unions are used as pawns by politicians who do not appear to be concerned with the improvement of the workers’ status because there is not so much lacking in it except the astronomical rise in the cost of living Goonesinha had to concern himself with poor wages, hardly sufficient to maintain families, difficult working conditions and obedience demanded by employers tantamount to slavery. Compared to the acerbity and intricacy of the struggles of Goonesinha and his supporters, the Trade Union problems of today appear to be almost trivial. The State Sector unions are concerned with salary anomalies for which the bureaucracy is responsible and the infectious disease of corruption. The Private Sector Unions do not appear to have any problems and the Plantation Sector Unions are faced with just the difficulties of housing conditions and possibly a need for higher wages to a degree.


A. E. Goonesinha accepted his fall with equanimity. In his last years he suffered from heart disease and passed away in the General Hospital on 1st August 1967. He left only a gold ring, Rs. 300 in his bank account and an old Standard Vanguard car, but he also left the legacy of the founding and establishment of the Trade Union Movement, the value of which is inestimable. At his death-bed, Dr. Wickrema Wijenaike, the Heart Specialist and my classmate at Royal College who had been attending on him told me "When I examined him last night there was nothing clinically wrong. I think he lost the will to live."

(This article first appeared

on April 22, 2007)

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...