The Tzar of the working class celebrates 65 years in the CMU


A gathering at the May Wickremasuriya hall at the CMU where Comrade Bala Tampoe addressed the membership.

Comrade Bala Tampoe gestures to drive a point as he mesmerizes the gathering in his signature stylethe vernacular

by Maheen Senanayake

Given a platform to mark his 65th year of service to the CMU, veteran trade unionist Bala Tampoe of Friday used the no frills occasion to trace the progress of the union rather than his own.

"Most decisively it was in 1922, the year in which I was born, just four years after the Russian revolution that the Ceylon Labour Union was born under the aegis of Alexander Ekanayake Goonasinha," he reminisced. "I was still a schoolboy staying at Horton Place when I heard a procession in 1931 – ‘ Kawda raja (Who’s the king?, Sinha Raja (Sinha is the King) , Jayah Mala ( Jayah is dead).’’ The slogans referred to Goonasinha and TB Jayah.

"Little did I know at the time that many years later I would succeed AE Goonasinha as a revolt within the very institution he had built led by a few clerks of Burgher, Tamil and Malay descent would metamorphose Goonasinha from a man who championed the worker to one who led an attack on port workers.

"Have you seen A E Goonasinha’s statue?" he asked pointing to all in the packed hall. "I will forgive you for you are young. It is in Goonasinhapura in Pettah for those of you who can go there go and see it. He is seen wielding a large hammer. That is because he joined the workers in the repair of roads and worked alongside them in solidarity. Can you imagine today’s politician doing this?"

Comrade Bala Tampoe who is now 92-years old, has played many roles including husband, father, politician, teacher, criminal lawyer and academic. Yet one thing reverberates in his demeanor that is difficult to ignore. That is his commitment to his fellow men. The socialist in him is always uppermost.

"I was 25 when I was made the Secretary of the CMU," he recalled. This means that he has been Secretary to the Ceylon Mercantile Union for 65 years. Which also means that Tampoe was Secretary to the CMU ever since Independence from the British was accorded to our land and he has watched presidents and leaders come and go ever since the beginning of Sri Lanka’s own political history.

His contribution to shaping this country’s political and social landscape is momentous – certainly too much to detail in this piece. But know ye all who do not know that today you may enjoy a holiday, or even claim some form of permanency in employment because of the struggles he led.

Government servants under the British administration were given no political and trade union rights. A young Bala Tampoe aged just 19 in 1941, pledged his allegiance to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) at a time fraught with trouble.

Tampoe whose political life began during World War ll in the underground LSSP obtained an external honours degree in Botany and Horticulture from the University of London, through the Ceylon University College as it was then known. His first job was as a lecturer in Botany and Horticulture at the Department of Agriculture in Peradeniya.

I noticed several popular faces among the gathering including Dr. Nirmal Ranjit Dewasiri who had previously led the FUTA’s strike.

"During the time of the British, a clerk was paid Rs. 50 and a minor office worker Rs. 15 and given a pair of shorts. This was a time when the clerical staff was mostly Burghers and Malays who knew English. They were to work from 9 in the morning till 5 in the evening and they could be dismissed with one month’s notice at any time without enquiry.

``Now can you imagine working in a space where there is no Labour Tribunal or any institution to rep

resent your rights? Well those were the times in which we began our struggle," he said.

"Our clerks would report well ahead of time so that they would be engrossed in their work when the British masters arrived. In the famous strike at Plate, the photography and art establishment, we lead a workforce of 50 who had never ever been engaged in strikes through a peaceful protest for fairer wages.

"My instructions to them was:

‘Once you turn up at work, do not sit at your desk or begin work until the appointed time. Then at the end of the day do not overstay.’

The very first day the colonial masters arrived to work, they were surprised to see no one at the desks and believed the strike had begun as they saw all the workers talking among themselves outside. Within weeks the demands were met and salaries were increased.

``Our struggles have been many. I must also tell you that in 1947 we gained Independence and I lost my job. I was dismissed by the last Governor of Ceylon.

"Today we have human resources managers but I fail to see them give meaning to the ‘human’ component. You are merely a resource. I am dealing today in my official capacity at the CMU with some individuals whose grandfathers had initially signed collective agreements with the CMU. There are those who recognize the importance of and value of the worker. Initially this institution was set up for clerks. But subsequently it was extended to include all workers.’’

Beginning with 300 subscription paying members, the CMU expanded to a nation-wide mass organization of almost 30,000 workers comprising manual workers as well as clerical and minor employees. In the weeks and months leading up to 1948, the year of Sri Lanka’s nominal Independence from colonial English rule, workers belonging to the Ceylon Mercantile Union rose up to take control and give leadership to their organization.

In a memorable repertoire of successes the first was a nine-demand campaign which culminated in a strike of over 10,000 workers in 1956 resulting in the state-imposed Canakeratne Award to the historic collective agreement of 1961 with 67 companies belonging to the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon. This has over the years become the model of most collective agreements employers have entered into with unions.

As I look around, the lights around the CMU meeting hall named after his late wife, May Wickremasuriya, are diminishing and a couple of members are serving a drink in plastic cups. All eyes and ears are on Bala. His red shirt and the well kept white head of hair is in perfect shape. I look at his picture beneath which is written ‘The Hayleys branch’ and compare the sharp features then and now.

Comrade Tampoe is a existentialist. He may be a socialist but his grasp of changing conditions which he once explained to me to be the ‘dialectics of motion’ is very real. He realizes how the masters have slowly but surely regained control of the masses. "It is time for us to regain and re-group. I see what is happening all around us and I think of the Worker’s Charter.

``When Mahinda Rajapaksa was Minister of Labour, he formulated the Workers Charter to which we ourselves contributed. At the time he could not get it passed in Parliament. Today he has a two thirds majority. Is it even taken up today?’’

His eyes glint in the setting sun. His figure now slowly blurring in the darkness that is beginning to envelope us. I glance at Dr. Dewasiri. He is still watching the man the media called the Tzar of the working class.

"No!" he answers. That is because today they say it is irrelevant. I can see that there is lack of solidarity amongst workers. It is time to revive the power of the worker. We may not have the power of the ballot. But we certainly have the power of the labour.

As the setting son cloaked us all, I began to wonder whether the struggle for the right of the worker will continue. I began to wonder who will fill those shoes. I wondered how a man whose mother tongue was not Sinhala mesmerized, motivated and mobilized masses against a British corporate machine. I wondered what it is like to dedicate one’s life to another? Are those shoes too big to fill?

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