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Remembering A. E. Goonesinha 

Father of the Labour Movement

by Upali S. Jayasekera

A. E. Goonesinha statue at Goonesinhapura

Born on 1st May 1891 in Kandy A. E. Goonesinha was educated at Dharmaraja College. He sought employment as a clerk in the Railway Department to begin with. Later he took to journalism, publishing the Journal 'Search Light' to support the National Movement.

He was instrumental in forming the "Young Lanka League" on 2nd March, 1915 along with Victor Corea, a lawyer from Chilaw directed towards fighting against colonialism. He also formed the Gandhi Association inspired by the Indian National Movement fighting for freedom from colonial rule. 'The Lanka Workers' Association' was also his brainchild which was the forerunner to the formation of worker organisations or trade unions later on.

The 1915 riots saw Goonesinha being thrown into prison in May 1915 along with leaders such as F. R. Senanayake, D. B. Jayatillake, D. S. Senanayake, C. A. Hewavitharane and several others including D. H. Pedris, who was shot under Martial Law for no crime committed by him. On being released from prison on 15th August, 1915 Goonesinha started the Journal "The Nation", to support the national cause.

He used the 'Young Lanka League' formed by him earlier to fight back against the atrocities committed by the British Colonial Government during the riots. His association with Anagarika Dharmapala made him to join the Temperance Movement and he made an impact on the Revivalist Movement too.

Championing the cause of the poor

Goonesinha reached out to the poor and did his best to help them out of the dire straits they were in. In his desire to educate the uneducated, he launched an adult education programme setting up night schools especially for the shanty dwellers. He set in motion social service programmes which were of benefit to the poor.

The colonial government, at the time from 1920 levied a tax of Rs. 2.00 per year from the people and those who did not pay had to work on the roads for one day in lieu of the tax.

Goonesinghe campaigned against the tax levied through the Municipal Council and got his members of his Young Lanka League not to pay the tax and instead work on the road.

To begin with very few joined Goonesinha who broke metal for full 8 hours from 8.00 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. with a break of half-an-hour for lunch. He led by example doing the work honestly. Geared by the tune set by Goonesinha, the response grew and people joined him in greater numbers in later years resulting in the tax being finally withdrawn in 1923, the credit for which should go to the versatile leader A. E. Goonesinha.

Trade unionist

The campaign against the tax brought Goonesinha into contact with the workers. He found that the workers were poorly paid. The wage paid was anything between 30 cts. to Re. 1.00 for a day's work ranging 10 to 12 hours.

He was determined to get the working class a better detail. The workers were militant and Goonesinha gave the leadership they wanted.

He formed the Ceylon Labour Union in 1922 with a membership around 25 to start with. A. E. Goonesinha was the Secretary whilst Victor Corea was the President. A few months after the formation Goonesinha took over as President. The trade union so started by Goonesinha, is today the CMU (Ceylon Mercantile Industrial and General Workers' Union) led by Bala Tampoe, the most senior trade unionist in the country having been there since 1948.

Reaching the workers, educating them about their rights and privileges, holding propaganda meetings he swelled the membership of the CLU. Led by Goonesinha the railway workers down tools in 1923. Due to the lack of funds to continue the strike and as a result of financial problems faced by the strikers, the strike had to be called off.

The government came hard on the strikers, severe punishments were imposed on those returning to work and the railway authorities harassed them. That resulted in nearly 25,000 workers in the Harbour, Colombo Municipality, Wellawatte Weaving Mills, the Government Factory, several government departments coming out on strike.

The strike which continued for nearly five weeks fizzled out with the workers trekking back to work.

Though the battle was lost the workers remained defiant and working class unity was strengthened. Goonesinha next led a strike of the harbour workers in February 1927 demanding a wage increase of 50 cts (from Rs. 1.50 to Rs. 2.00) per day and a lunch interval of one hour.

The strike resulted in a wage increase by 25 cts. and the granting of a 15-minute interval for lunch. He next launched a strike by Tramcar Workers on 23rd January, 1929. The anti-strike measures adopted by Whittal Bousteads which owned the Tramcar Service, resulted in the strikers in appealing to the public, not to patronise tramcars or purchase goods marketed by the company.

The appeal received support of the consumers and the students too joined in support of the workers. As the strike progressed and especially due to Police harassment of the strikers the strike spread to other institutions and demonstrations followed, resulting in clashes between the demonstrators and the Police. That forced the employers to come to the negotiating table and the strike started by 150 tramcar employees after 13 days ended with a negotiated settlement.

He also led strikes at the Times and the Galle Face Hotel which strikes too were not successful. Though the strikers failed trade unionism gained ground. The unsuccessful strike at Lake House in 1929 where Indian workers were brought in to break the strike, signalled the decline of his power as a trade union leader. The Marxists, thereafter took over the trade union movement.

Labour Day

Labour Day or May Day was first held in 1927 under the leadership of Goonesinha. The May Day Rally held in 1933 under his leadership had new features introduced. A 'Police Band' (not police proper) trained by Goonesinha, clad in a specially made uniform, marched in front. They wore a white-coloured sarong and a banian with red stripes.

Women workers joined the rally dressed in red coloured cloth and blouse. There were drummers and dancers. Goonesinha who pioneered the May Day demonstrations in Sri Lanka walked under a red banner. There was no political slogan shouting. Singing working class songs was there. The demonstrations started from Price Park and the rally was held at the Galle Face Green. The first May Day Rally under Marxist leadership was held in 1935. May Day was declared public holiday in 1956 by the MEP Government led by Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike


A. E. Goonesinha formed the Labour Party in 1928 after having had contacts with the Labour Party of Great Britain earlier. In fact when Ramsay Mc Donald, the British Labour Party Leader who was also Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka in 1926 Goonesinha received him on behalf of the labour movement. He also made representations to the Donoughmore Commission for Universal Franchise.

At the State Council elections held in 1931 Goonesinha was elected on the Labour Party ticket as Member for Colombo Central. He also served as the Mayor of Colombo in 1943. In the 1947 parliamentary elections A. E. Goonesinha was elected as 1st MP for Colombo Central and served as the Minister of Labour and Social Services in Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake's Cabinet. He was also the Chief Government Whip in the UNP government. He was Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Indonesia as well.

Thus A. E. Goonesinha, the freedom fighter, social worker, champion of the poor, politician and trade unionist could be remembered today as the father of the country's Trade Union Movement.

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