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THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. V - THE VOICE OF TRUTH > Part II- Section VIII : Labour Relations > Strikes


52. Strikes

In a well-ordered democratic society there is no room, no occasion for lawlessness or strikes. In such a society there are ample lawful means for vindicating justice. Violence, veiled or unveiled must be taboo.

Harijan, 1-2-48, p. 15


I know that strikes are an inherent right of the working-men for the purpose of securing justice, but they must be considered a crime immediately the capitalists accept the principle of arbitration.

Young India, 5-5-20, p. 6


How should capital behave when labour strikes? This question is in the air and has great importance at the present moment. One way is that of suppression named or nicknamed ‘American’. It consists in suppression of labour through organized goondaism-1. Everybody would consider this as wrong and destructive. The other way, right and honourable, consists in considering every strike on its merits and giving labour its due-not what capital considers and enlightened public opinion acclaim as just.

One preliminary question will justly arise: why should there be a strike at all in any well-regulated concern? Strikes ought to be impossible when there is perfect understanding between capital and labour, mutual respect and recognition of equality. And since differences there would be sometimes between employers and employed even in the best-regulated concerns, why should there not be a system of arbitration between the parties so that they will always readily carry out in perfect good faith awards of arbitrators?

But we have to consider things not as they should be, but as they are. As time progresses, the labour world is getting more insistent in its demands which are daily increasing, and it does not hesitate to resort to violence in its impatient enforcement of those demands. New methods of enforcing them are being employed. Workers do not hesitate to injure the property of the employers, dislocate machinery, harass old men and women who would not join the strike, and forcibly keep out blacklegs. In these circumstances, how are the employers to behave?

In my opinion, employers and employed are equal partners even if employees are not considered superior. But what we see today is the reverse. The reason is that the employers harness intelligence on their side. They have the superior advantage which concentration of capital brings with it, and they know how to make use of it. One individual rupee has very little potency: but when money combines as capital, the combine derives a power different from and far in excess of the mere sum total of the individual rupees. A million drops individually are negligible. But in combination they make the ocean, carrying on its bosom a fleet of ocean hounds. Whilst capital in India is fairly organized, labour is still in a more or less disorganized condition in spite of unions and their federation. Therefore, it lacks the power that true combination gives.

Moreover, it lacks intelligence, so much so that individuals fight against individuals, unions against unions. Lack of intelligence leads to its exploitation by selfish and unscrupulous men even to the point of creating and promoting mischief. They know no better, being ignorant of the secret of non-violence. The net result is that the workers suffer. If labour were to understand the working of non-violence, the power generated by combination would any day exceed the power of dead metal in the hands of a few capitalists.

Hence my advice to the employers should be that they should willingly regard workers as the real owners of the concerns which they fancy they have created. They should further regard it as their duty to equip the employees with sound education that would draw out the intelligence dormant in them and gladly promote and welcome the power that this combination of the workers gives them.

This noble work cannot be done in a day by the employers. Meanwhile, what should those do who have to face the destruction wrought by strikes in their concerns? I would unhesitatingly advise such employers that they should at once offer the strikers full control of the concern which is as much the strikers’ as theirs. They will vacate their premises not in a huff but because it is right, and, to show their goodwill, they would offer the employees the assistance of their engineers and other skilled staff. The employers will find in the end that they will also nothing. Indeed, their right action will disarm opposition and they will earn the blessings of their men. They will have made proper use of their capital. I would not consider such action as benevolent. It would be an intelligent use by the capitalists of their resources, and honest dealing in regard to the employees whom they would have converted into honourable partners.

Harijan, 31-3-46, p. 60


Strikes have to-day become a universal plague. There are strikes everywhere, American and England not excepted. But, in India, they have a special significance. We are living under an unnatural condition. As soon as the lid is removed and there is a crevice letting in the flesh air of freedom, there will be an increasing number of strikes. The fundamental reason for this spreading strike fever is that life, here as elsewhere, is today uprooted from its basis, the basis of religion, and what an England writer has called ‘cash nexus’ has taken its place. And that is a precarious bond. But even when the religious basis is there, there will be strikes, because it is scarcely conceivable that religion will have become for all the basis of life. So, there will be attempts at exploitation on the one hand, and strikes on the other. But these strikes will then be of a purely non-violent character. Such strikes never do harm to anyone.

Harijan, 22-9-46, p. 321


Strikes are now in the air today throughout the world and on the slightest pretext labour goes in for strikes. My own experience of the last six months is that many strikes have done harm to labour rather than good. I have studied so far as I can the strikes in Bombay, a strike at Tata Iron Works, and the celebrated strike of the railway labourers in the Punjab. There was a failure in all these strikes. Labour was not able to make good its points to the fullest extent. What was the reason? Labour was badly led. I want you to distinguish between two classes of leaders. You have leaders derived from yourselves and they are in their turn advised and led by those who are not themselves labourers, but who are in sympathy or expected to be in sympathy with labour. Unless there is perfect correspondence between these three, there is bound to be a failure. In all these four strikes that perfect correspondence was lacking. There is another substantial reason which I discovered. Labourers look to pecuniary support from their unions for their maintenance. No labour can prolong a strike indefinitely so long as labour depends on the resources of its unions and no strikes can absolutely succeed which cannot be indefinitely prolonged. In all the strikes that I have ever conducted I have laid down one indispensable rule that labourers must find their own support. And therein lies the secret of success and therein consists your education You should be able to perceive that, if you are able to serve one master and command a particular wage, your labour must be worthy and fit to receive that wage anywhere else. Strikes therefore cannot expect to be idlers and succeed. Your attempt must be just. And there should be no pressure exerted upon those whom you call ‘blacklegs’. Any force of this kind exerted against your own fellow-labourers is bound to react upon yourselves. And I think your advisers will tell you that these three conditions being fulfilled no strike need fail. But they at once demonstrate to you the necessity of thinking a hundred times before undertaking strike. So much for your rights and the method of enforcing them. But as labour becomes organized strikes must be few and far between. And as your mental and collective development progresses, you will find that the principle of arbitration replaces the principle of strikes and the time has now arrived when we should reach this state.

Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, (4th Edn.), pp. 1045-48


The conditions of a successful strike are simple. And when they are fulfilled, a strike need never fail:

1. The cause of the strike must be just.

2. There should be practical unanimity among the strikers.

3. There should be no violence used against non-strikers.

4. Strikers should be able to maintain themselves during the strike period without falling back upon union funds and should therefore occupy themselves in some useful and productive temporary occupation.

5. A strike is no remedy when there is enough other labour to replace strikers. In that case, in the event of unjust treatment or inadequate wages or the like, resignation is the remedy.

6. Successful strikes have taken place even when all the above conditions have not been fulfilled, but that merely proves that the employers were weak and had a guilty conscience. We often make terrible mistakes by copying bad examples. The safest thing is not to copy example of which we have rarely complete knowledge but to follow the conditions which we know and recognize to be essential for success.

Young India, 16-2-21, pp. 52-53


A pacific strike must be limited to those who are labouring under the grievance to be redressed. Thus if the match manufacturers, say, of Timbuctoo, who are quite satisfied with their lot, strike out of sympathy for mill-hands who are getting starvation wages, the match manufacturers’ strike would be a species of violence. They may and should help in a most effective manner by withdrawing their custom from the mill-owners of Timbuctoo without laying themselves open to the charge of violence.

But it is possible to conceive occasions when those who are not directly suffering may be under an obligation to cease work. Thus, if in the instance imagined, the masters in the match-factory combine with the mill-owners of Timbuctoo, it will clearly be the duty of the workers in the match-factory to make common cause with the mill-hands. But I have suggested the addition purely by way o illustration. In the last resort every case has to be judged on its own merits. Violence is a subtle force. It is not easy always to detect its presence through to you may feel it all the same.

Young India, 18-11-26, p. 400


A strike should be spontaneous and not manipulated. If it is organized without any compulsion, there would be no chance for Goondasim and looting. Such a strike would be characterized by perfect co-operation amongst the strikers. It should be peaceful and there should be no show of force.

The strikers should take up some work either singly or in co-operation with each other, in order to earn their bread. The nature of such work should have been thought out beforehand. It goes without saying that in a peaceful, effective and firm strike of this character, there will be no room for rowdyism or looting. I have known of such strikes. I have no presented a Utopian picture.

Harijan, 2-6-46, p. 158


Obviously, there should be no strike which is not justifiable on merits. No unjust strike should succeed. All public sympathy must be withheld from such strikes.

The public has no means of judging the merits of a strike unless it is backed by impartial persons enjoying public confidence. Interested men cannot judge the merits of their own case. Hence, there must be an arbitration accepted by the parties or a judicial adjudication.

As a rule, the matter does not come before the public when there is accepted arbitration or adjudication. Cases have, however, happened when haughty employers have ignored awards, or misguided employees, conscious of their power to assert themselves, have done likewise and have decided upon forcible extortion.

Strikes for economic betterment should never have a political end as ulterior motive. Such a mixture never advances the political end and generally brings trouble upon strikers, even when they do not dislocate public life, as in the case of public utility services, such as the postal strike.

The Government may suffer some inconvenience, but will not come to a standstill. Rich persons will put up expensive postal services, but the vast mass of the poor people will be deprived, during such a strike, of a convenience of primary importance to which they have become used for generations. Such strikes can only take a place when every other legitimate means has been adopted and (has) failed.

Sympathetic strikes must be taboo until it is conclusive proved that the affected men have exhausted all the legitimate means at their disposal….

It follows from the foregoing that political strikes must be treated on their own merits and must never be mixed with or related to economic strikes. Political strikes have a definite place in non-violent action. They are never taken up haphazard. They must be open, never led by goondaism. They are calculated never to lead to violence.

Harijan, 11-8-46, p. 256


Two paths are open before India today, either to introduce the Western principles of “Might is Right” or to uphold the Eastern principle that truth alone conquers, that truth knows no mishap, that the strong and the weak have alike  a right to secure justice. The choice is to begin with the laboring class. Should the labourers obtain an increment in their wages by violence, even if that be possible? They cannot resort to anything like violence howsoever legitimate may be their claims. To use violence for securing rights may seem an easy path, but it proves to be thorny in the long run. Those who live by sword die also by sword. The swimmer often dies by drowning. Look at Europe. No one seems to be happy there, for, not one is contented. The labourer does not trust the capitalist and the capitalist has no faith in the labourer. Both have a sort of vigor and strength but even the bulls have it. They fight to the very bitter end. All motion is not progress. We have got no reason to believe that the people of Europe are progressing. Their possession of wealth does not argue the possession of any moral or spiritual qualities...

What shall we do then? The labourers in Bombay made a fine stand. I was not in a position to know all the facts. But this much I could see that they could fight in a better way. The mill-owners may be wholly in the wrong. In the struggle between capital and labour, it may be generally said that more often than not the capitalists are in the wrong box. But when labour comes fully to realize its strength, I know it can become more tyrannical than capital. The mill-owners will have to work on the terms dictated by labour if the latter could command intelligence of the former. It is clear, however, that labour will never attain to that intelligence. If it does, labour will cease to be labour and become itself the master. The capitalists do not fight on the strength of money alone. They do possess intelligence and tact.

The question before us is this: When the labourers remaining what they are, develop a certain consciousness, what should be their course?  It would be suicidal if the labourers rely upon their numbers or brute force, i.e., violence. By so doing they will do harm to industries in the country. If on the other hand they take their stand on pure justice and suffer in their person to secure it, not only will they always succeed but they will reform their masters, develop industries and both master and men will be as members of one and same family. A satisfactory solution of the condition of labour must include the following:

1. The hours of labour must leave the workmen some hours of leisure.

2. They must get facilities for their own education.

3. Provision should be made for an adequate supply of milk, clothing and necessary education for their children.

4. There should be sanitary dwellings for the workmen.

5. They should being a position to save enough to maintain themselves during their old age.

None of these conditions is satisfied today. For this both the parties are responsible. The masters care only for the service they get. What becomes of the labourer does not concern them. All their endeavors are generally confined to obtaining maximum service with minimum payment. The labourer on the other hand tries to hit upon all tricks whereby he can get maximum pay with minimum work. The result is that although the labourers get an increment there is no improvement in the work turned out. The relations between the two parties are not purified and the labourers do not make proper use of the increment they get.

A third party has sprung up between these two parties. It has become the labourers’ friend. There is need for such a party. Only to the extent to which this party has disinterested friendship for the labourers, can it befriend them.

A time has come now when attempts will be made to use labour as a pawn in more ways than one. The occasion demands consideration at the hands of those that would take part in politics. What will they choose? Their own interest or the service of labour and the nation? Labour stands in sore need of friends. It cannot proceed without a lead. What sort of men give this lead will decide the condition of labour.

Strikes, cessation of work and hartal are wonderful things no doubt, but it is not difficult to abuse them. Workmen ought to organize themselves into strong labour unions, and on no account shall they strike work without the consent of these unions.

Strikes should not be risked without previous negotiation with the mill-owners. If the mill-owners resort to arbitration, the principle of Panchayat-2 should be accepted. And once the Pancha-3 are appointed, their decision must be accepted by both the parties alike, whether they like it or not.

Readers, if you are interested in ameliorating the condition of labour, if you want to befriend the workman and serve him, you will see from the above that there is only one royal road before you, viz., to elevate the workmen by creating between the two parties family relationship. And to secure this end there is no path like truth. Mere increase in wages should not satisfy you, must also watch by what means they get it and how they spend it.

Young India, 11-2-20, pp. 7-8


1. Hooligram

2. Arbitration

3. Arbitrators