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Sri Lanka: M.G. Mendis - Union Militant and Communist leader

by Kumari Jayawardena, 5 December 2011

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The Island, Colombo, 4 December 2011

By Kumari Jayawardena

M.G Mendis whose 100th birth anniversary was celebrated last week, was one of the prominent trade union leaders of the 1940s and a founder member of the country’s first Left party – the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. Born in the Galle District, and educated at Mahinda College, Galle, he had been deeply influenced by Indian nationalism and during the second civil disobedience movement in India in 1930, he had discarded his European style-clothes and adopted the ‘national’ dress.

Mendis was also influenced by Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, an old boy of this school, who in 1931 had addressed the students. Mendis, who became a teacher at a Buddhist school joined the Suriya Mal movement in 1934, and after the formation of the L.S.S.P. was the joint Secretary of the party. Following the split in the L.S.S.P. based on ideological differences linked to Trotskyism, Mendis became the General Secretary of the new United Socialist Party, (USP) (forerunner of the Communist Party) and the editor of the party’s English journal, the United Socialist.

Communist Trade Union Activity

The most important advance made by the Communists in the early years of the Second World War was in the trade union field, where they succeeded in replacing the L.S.S.P. as the chief political influence on the working class. The trade-union activity of the Communists can be divided into three phases. First, was the formation of a strong union among toddy tappers, the great majority of whom were Malayalis—migrants from Kerala who had, since the depression of 1931, been subjected to demands for their repatriation to India by A.E. Goonesinha’s trade union, and also by many of the Ceylon politicians. In December of 1939 and in early 1940, there were a series of disputes and strikes involving the toddy tappers and the renters. Led by the Communists , the Toddy Tappers Union became the strongest trade union in the non-estate sector, and the success of their strikes gave a fillip not only to the Union but also to other workers in urban factories. In 1940, the Toddy Tappers Union and a Communists-led group, the Colombo Workers’ Club combined to form the United Socialist Party. In 1940 LSSP was banned and leaders detained—some of them escaping jail and going to India.

The second phase of Communist activity was the leadership given to the trade union movement by the United Socialist Party in 1940 which benefited from the action against the LSSP. The war had caused a certain dislocation in employment and a sudden rise in the cost of living, giving the U.S.P. a platform for agitation. At their Congress in November 1940, the U.S.P. urged the workers to "close their ranks, strengthen their trade unions and wage a struggle for security of service, war bonuses, 25% increase in wages, and an eight hour day." In an article on the need for effective trade unions, M.G. Mendis stated that the war was "radicalizing the workers," because the rise in prices, threats of dismissal and the dislocation of trade and industry had worsened the conditions of the working class, adding that "it is only now that the workers are realizing that it is by combination and combination alone that they can defend their own rights against the encroachments of capital." The U.S.P. gave leadership to 16 trade unions which had a total membership of 3,300 workers. The most important of these was the Toddy Tappers’ Union, and the Harbour Workers’ Union.

The advance of the U.S.P. in the trade union field was due to the success of the toddy tappers’ strikes. As the Labour Department reported, "the U.S.P. exploited the situation fully and captured Malayali labour and organized them in trade unions … Malayali labour, buffeted hither and thither by racial animosity and stern employers found a platform in this new party, to ventilate their grievances." The majority of the U.S.P. trade union members and many of the union officials were Malayali, and during the first years of the war, they formed the backbone of Communist support in Colombo.

The Ceylon Trade Union Federation

Four of the Communist trade union leaders who were active in the 1940s, had recently returned after studies at Cambridge. They were P. Kandiah, K. Vaidyalingam, and Pieter and Hedi Keuneman née Simon, who was from Vienna. Hedi was particularly militant , and during the harbour strike of 1941, stormed the police station with a group of women workers , rescuing M.G. Mendis and other trade unionists who had been arrested.

The third phase of trade unionism which was the most important advance in trade union activity by the Communists, was the formation of the Ceylon Trade Union Federation. The trade unions which had been formed by the United Socialist Party existed in isolation; the need to unite these unions into one trade union body was recognized by the U.S.P., and in December 1940, the Ceylon Trade Union Federation (C.T.U.F.) was formed.

The most important labour dispute that took place during the early years of the war was the strike of harbour workers in July 1941. This strike marked the appearance of several trade unions in the port led to important wage increases being granted to these workers. The harbour strike was a major victory for the C.T.U.F., and represented the first important trade union success in Sri Lanka since the twenties. It demonstrated the fact that the workers were in a strong position to obtain concessions; the revival of trade and the growing shortage of labour, combined with a sudden rise in the cost of living increased the bargaining power of the workers; further, at a time of crisis (because of the war) the government was anxious to avoid industrial discontent and was willing to make concessions. But the harbour strike which illustrated the potential strength of the labour movement was also the last major strike of the war years. From 1942 until 1945, the opportunity for militant industrial action, was foregone, and the workers were restrained by Communist Party and the C.T.U.F. which, changed its policy towards labour agitation, and supported the war effort against fascism.

The Inflationary Conditions 1942 — 45

After 1942, the Ceylon economy was geared to the war effort, and government intervention in economic matters increased. The Communists, who had from 1940 onwards worked in the Colombo Workers’ Club, the United Socialist Party and the Ceylon Trade Union Federation, came into the open with the formation of the Communist Party in 1943.

The years from 1945 to 1947 formed a period of the great upsurge of trade union activity. The economic uncertainties of the postwar years, and the restraint on labour activity during the war, were partially responsible for the outburst; but the main factor that caused the labour unrest was the political ferment of these years.

In September 1945, the C.T.U.F. organized a march of workers to the State Council to present their grievances. Led by M.G. Mendis, over 10,000 workers joined the procession, but were prevented by the Police from approaching the State Council. The Board of Ministers refused to meet the C.T.U.F. leaders. M.G. Mendis stating that because the Ministers had refused to listen to the workers’ demands, they had to make use of the strike weapon which had been discarded during the war. In spite of strikes being illegal, a token half-day strike was called in September 1945 and 8,000 workers on the tramways, the commercial firms, the municipality and harbor workers joined the strike; three of the tramway workers who were active union members, were dismissed for being ‘ringleaders’ of the strike. The result of this action was a further strike among all tramway drivers and conductors and sympathy strikes by workers at the Municipality, the tea and rubber packing stores, and the harbour and engineering firms.

The C.T.U.F. which claimed that there were 30,000 workers on strike, encouraged the strikers to take direct action, and members of the Communist Party and the C.T.U.F. (including Hedi Keuneman) prevented the trams being run by ‘blacklegs’ by sitting down on the tramlines. There were scuffles with the police, and M.G. Mendis and other trade union officials were arrested. The strike assumed serious proportions, for many of the workers in essential services had stopped work. The government decided to refer the dispute to arbitration, but the strike was settled through the intervention of the Mayor of Colombo. The three dismissed workers were reinstated and the strikers agreed to resume work.

This strike, which had lasted six days, was an occasion for the C.T.U.F. to make its impact as a ‘fighting’ trade union organization. During the war years militancy in the form of strikes had been kept at a minimum through the activity of the C.T.U.F. but immediately the war was over, the C.T.U.F. was determined to assert itself in the trade union field. The settlement of the strike was acclaimed by M.G. Mendis as an "outstanding victory" and a victory procession of workers went round the streets of Colombo. The Communist weekly Forward reported: "it is the C.T.U.F. and the Communist Party who are now known as the undisputed leaders of the working class of Colombo".

M.G. Mendis was perhaps the "undisputed leader" and most prominent trade-union activitist of this militant period in the urban trade-union movement. His active participation continued in the 1946 and 1947 general strikes, and in the 1950s’ when he was involved in several notable struggles. In later years too, he was a prominent activist in the Communist Party and is remembered today as a courageous fighter for the rights of the working class of Sri Lanka.


The above from The Island is reproduced for educational and non commercial use