Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

An Old Trade Union in Sri Lanka

The Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers’ Union was initially a white-collar mercantile union. Victor Corea and A.E. Goonesinha were its inaugural President and Secretary respectively.

After Bala Tampoe, born to a prominent Jaffna family in 1923, became its General Secretary in February 1948, it changed from being a small union of about 300 white-collar workers to a nationwide mass organization of almost 30,000 workers. Tampoe played a role in the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), a Trotskyist political party in Sri Lanka. When, in 1964, the party decided to join the coalition government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, it was expelled from the Fourth International. Tampoe was said to have supported the breakaway Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary), which was recognized by the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. For a short time Tampoe was released from his trade union responsibilities to defend participants and leaders in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency and the nationwide hunger strike on 18 October 1972 against the repressive measures introduced during the 1971-1972 state of emergency. In fact, however, Tampoe led the CMU as its General Secretary continuously from his election in 1948 until his death in September 2014.

The CMU archives contain documents relating to meetings of the General Council and the Delegates Conferences of the CMU, correspondence by Bala Tampoe, permits for demonstrations, and documents on cases brought before the Supreme Court in Colombo under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1987. At those meetings, the Fourth International and political developments in Japan, North and South Korea, and Portugal were discussed extensively. Also interesting is an older file on the journalist and Trotskyist Jeanne Moonesinghe, born in England as Jeanne Hoban and writing under the pseudonym “Jane Freeman”. In 1948 Jeanne married the Trotskyist Anil Moonesinghe. Both were active in the LSSP (Sri Lanka’s first modern political party) and she was also a member of the Ceylon Union of Journalists, which was established in 1957 and affiliated to the CMU. In 1960 she was dismissed by her employer, the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL), also known as Lake House. With Tampoe’s help, she challenged that dismissal from 1960 to 1962.

The archive is supplemented by a rich collection of brochures, handbills, and leaflets issued by the CMU between the 1960s and the present. A nice picture of the 1980s and 1990s is given by the many photographs of workers demonstrating with red banners on 1 May, on International Women’s Day, or because of a strike in the chemical industry in Paranthan.