The Bala Tampoe story

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By Malinda Seneviratne-September 1, 2014

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Veteran trade union leader and General Secretary of Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union Bala Tampoe passed away in Colombo at the age of 92 today. I interviewed ‘Comrade Bala’ for the Sunday Island 13 years ago. That interview (published on April 8, 2001) is reproduced here by way of tribute to a colourful and evergreen red, so to speak, in labour politics in Sri Lanka.

Marx said somewhere that men make history but not in the circumstances of their choosing. This is fundamentally a thesis about the dialectic character of structure and agency. For the most part, it seems, human beings are overwhelmed by the conditions they find themselves in, and allow themselves to be carried by the tide of seemingly inexorable processes. Still, the world is not without heroes and heroism, for there are those who challenge and radically alter contours of engagement in the social. In the process, inevitably, they succeed in redefining who they are, often in opposition to the cultural code dictated by genealogy and blood line. Such a man is Phillips Balendra Tampoe, or “Comrade Bala” to thousands of trade union activists the world over.

Having held the post of General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU) for over 50 years (itself a record and testimony to the faith that workers of several generations have had in the man), Bala has clearly carved a niche for himself in the history of the trade union movement in this country. Of course, he would be the first to play down the distinction that his service deserves. The people, on the other hand, do hold the prerogative of paying tribute and if any one is deserving of praise for sacrifice and commitment in the long, hard struggles of the oppressed, Comrade Bala certainly qualifies without reservation.Sure, there will be the die-hard Trotskyites who will quote Lenin selectively and chastise the man on account of “trade unionism inevitably leads to a negotiation of the terms of exploitation”.But theirs is the business of splitting hairs over sore ideological points. The people do not have to (and in most cases cannot) wait for the “Permanent Revolution” in order to obtain a wage that is half way decent. In any case, Bala’s political life stretched the boundaries of trade unionism in this country, and moreover often spilled out of it as he passionately embraced issues that were hardly the concerns of workers.

Bala claims that fundamentally he’s a humanist and that all his life he first considered people as human beings, then as workers and finally as members of the union. “That’s the way we come and that’s the way we ought to approach life. This is the fundamental teaching of the union and I believe this is why we have been successful and achieved what we have”.

In terms of name recognition, Bala Tampoe and the CMU have enjoyed pre-eminence in the eyes of anyone interested in left politics and especially trade unionism in this country. We decided to take Comrade Bala along memory lane, to find out where he came from and discover the particular circumstances that propelled him on a life long journey with the working class.

He was born in 1922 and was named Balendra Tampoe-Phillips. His father, Francis Tampoe Phillips was a coconut planter in Jaffna who later served in the British imperial government in India as an excise officer. His mother, who was to have a large influence on his life, Beatrice, was born in Kurunegala and was the daughter of Mudaliyar Savarimuttu the former Chief Post Master.

Bala was born in Negombo and had his early education at Newstead. He was eight when his father took up a position in the Madras Presidency. At that time, the colonial government had a quota system to admit non Anglo-Indians to schools and young Bala had to be educated at home for several years before he was admitted to Bishop Cotton School.

“Actually I was admitted to a school before, but that was because my mother had put down my name as B. T. Phillips. I was very excited at finally being able to go to school, but when the headmaster saw me he said ‘there has been some mistake,’ and pointed out that the quota system had already been filled. This is why my mother asked me to change my name when I returned to Sri Lanka and joined Royal College, and I fully agreed with her.”

Reminiscing about his family, Bala said that they belonged to the Jaffna aristocracy and that there were even claims that they were connected to Sankili, the last Tamil king of Jaffna. Their ancestral home was located opposite the palace at Nallur and was called “Sangili Thoppe” or Sangili’s Garden. He admits therefore that he was an aristocrat by blood and laughingly said that he was often referred to as “The Czar of the City Clerks”.

“My great great grandfather was the first Hindu to convert to Christianity in Jaffna. ‘Phillips’ was the name of the man who sponsored the evangelical mission and that’s how I ended up with that name.”

He recalled that his father always carried the arrogance that came with his aristocratic lineage. “He used to ride horses and even when he went somewhere by car, he carried his whip with him. If the road was blocked by cattle or people, he would toot his horn several times and after passing the place, would stop, take out his whip and lash out at the herdsman or whoever was blocking his path, much like the aristocracy in Jaffna.”

His mother, apparently was very different. She was an admirer of Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian nationalist movement. He remembered how his father, on April Fool’s Day in 1930 or 1931 sent a message home saying that Gandhi and Nehru had been released from prison. His mother had been overjoyed and her husband had had a hearty laugh at her expense. She would frequently get into arguments with her husband, who was in every sense of the word a creature of the British Raj.

“Sometimes he would beat her. I admired my mother very much and identified with her. That was the beginning of me identifying myself with the oppressed.”

I put to him that Freudians would love this story. He said “Why not? I have read Freud and have done my own self-analysis. I believe that these things had a lot to do with who I am and what I did.”

At Royal College, Bala became friends with Danister Gunatilleke, the younger brother of Vivienne Goonewardene and it was with him that he cut his political teeth, joining the Suriya Mal Movement in 1935. In 1939, having passed the Senior School Certificate Examination, Bala entered the University of Ceylon and also won a Cambridge Studentship for having come third in the island at the exam. Although he had studied chemistry, physics and double maths, Prof. Sunderalingam, a personal friend of the family and the man who had sponsored his education at Royal, had persuaded him to study botany because “botany carried more weightage in marks for the civil service exam”.

Prof. Gulasekeram, the then registrar of the university had been angry at this decision and had come home to convince him of his folly. Bala had coolly told him that if he can guarantee his career, then he would gladly switch again.

“He looked at me and told my parents ‘that’s Phillips’ Rangi talking, meaning the hauteur of the Phillips, probably referring to my ancestry.”

The university years coincided with the second world war and Bala soon found himself in the thick of the anti-war movement. He had joined the LSSP in 1941 and had been put in a “special unit” along with Dicky Attygalle, the son of Dr. J. W. Attygalle. Dicky had recruited him to the party, in fact. The LSSP had decided to free its leaders who were being held in Bogambara just before the famous Japanese air raid in 1942, and it was Bala, with an assumed identity of Kuruppu, who carried the secret message to NM and co. He had also taken steps to provide a safe house for the escapees in Anuradhapura, prior to their departure to India via Velivettiturai.

Back in Colombo, Dicky and Bala had organised the distribution of anti-war propaganda among British troops stationed in Colombo.

“Dicky, who was an English Honours student, wrote a fantastic pamphlet, which talked about the ‘rising sun of Japan and the setting sun of Churchill’. We had won over three British soldiers, who undertook to distribute the pamphlet in the canteens of the army. I paid some street urchins 50 cents to distribute the document in the cinemas which were mainly patronised by British service personnel.

“It had a huge impact. The commanding officer had threatened action against anyone found with the pamphlet on his or her person. In fact, Tomlinson’s book titled ‘The Most Dangerous Moment’ (i.e. the threatened invasion of Ceylon by the Japanese fleet for which the British was not prepared), carried a copy of that pamphlet.”

The war years were not without humour and romance for Bala. He remembered becoming friendly with a British woman in the army, who was stationed in Kandy. Jeanne Gillott, the daughter of a captain in the British Navy, had been a head strong woman, who defied colonial custom and thought nothing of going with Bala to the cinema or dancing with him. Bala of course never stood up for the British Anthem, and Jeanne had followed suit. Bala had to ask her to stand up because there were too many British soldiers in the theatre.

“One day we were walking outside the Queen’s Hotel and we saw two naval officers coming in the opposite direction. She asked me not to say anything if any remarks were passed. True enough, as they passed us, one of them said ‘Where are you going with THAT?’ ‘That’ was me!”

On another occasion, he had been doing the ‘excuse-me dance’ with her where one’s partner can be taken by any man who only needed to say ‘excuse me’ to take her from you. Bala was duly ‘excused’ and the person who took over Jeanne had made some disparaging remark about Bala and the ‘natives’ to which she had replied ‘Some of them have been to Cambridge and Oxford and speak better English than you or I!” When the war ended she had been posted to Delhi.

Bala got his Botany Honours degree from Colombo in 1943 as well as a degree from London (as an external student) in 1944 and was appointed as a lecturer in Botany and Horticulture at the school of agriculture in Peradeniya. He secretly lectured clerks belonging to the Government Clerical Services Union (GCSU) and lost his job over his role in the strike of 1947. On February 1st, 1948, he broke away from A. E. Goonasingha and was elected as the General Secretary of the CMU a post he has held for 53 years now. He took his oaths as a lawyer in 1953 and has represented countless workers and activists since.

Bala, a member of the politburo of the LSSP, resigned, along with others like Edmund Samarakkody who formed the LSSP-R (that’s ‘revolutionary’) claiming that the LSSP was taking the revisionist road, in 1964. Bala had his own faction, the Revolutionary LSSP. Bala, it can be argued, was cut out more for trade unionism than party politics.

He has dedicated his life to the union and helped it grow to over 20,000 members in 125 commercial, engineering and industrial establishments. The CMU has played and continues to play an important role in the trade union movement, not only in regard to matters affecting its own members, but in regard to socio-economic and political issues affecting working people and the country in general. It has also been in the forefront of mass actions in defence of human and democratic rights, especially during prolonged periods of “Emergency Rule”.

A member of a team from the World Bank had once asked Bala what the CMU was doing at Eppawala since there were no workers issues there, and Bala had responded “We are human beings first, and that is reason enough!”

His first marriage in 1950 to Nancy Kotalawala, a Montessori teacher from Passara who had studied under Madame Montessori, had ended in 1957. He married May Wickramasuriya, a comrade in the CMU in 1966. Just before she died, someone had suggested that Bala’s autobiography should be written, and Bala had suggested that it was May’s that is more important, considering all she had done for the trade union movement. May, of course, has disagreed “No, your story should be told, especially what you did for the JVP.”

When Rohana Wijeweera was released, he had come straight to the CMU headquarters saying “We want to thank Comrade Bala and the CMU for all they have done; they were the only people who were consistent in their support while in prison.”

“They were not terrorists back in 1971, and the court agreed with my arguments in this regard. The late eighties was a different story altogether. By that time they were engaging in unadulterated terrorist activity.”

Almost 80, Bala Tampoe has not lost any of his fire. He is both feared and respected by the employers and loved by the employees. He is recognised as a giant in the trade union movement both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Perhaps the photographs says it all.

The photograph, published in the Dawasa, shows the man in full flight at Galle Face Green, clutching the Hansard in his left hand, pointing his finger at the Parliament, screaming that the real parliament of the people lay outside that building. Felix Dias Bandaranaike had to resign and the newspaper had carried this picture next to one of Felix on his way to hand his letter of resignation.

More power to you Comrade Bala, and may your tribe increase. This country can do more with people like you!

https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-bala-tampoe-story/

 

Remembering Bala Tampoe

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By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

“Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark” is perhaps an apt description of how the International Workers Day was observed in Sri Lanka on May 1st. Instead of being given pride of place on May Day, the workers and their trade union leaders were virtually ignored by the political parties conducting rallies and processions on workers day. The May Day event has been transfigured or disfigured into a Political Tamasha by major political parties. 

The pathetically fractured trade union movement and hopelessly debilitated working classes of Sri Lanka have either been unable or unwilling to check or counter this increasing politicization and consequent diminution of the trade union sphere over the years. The transformation of May Day into a political event where the workers were treated as children of a lesser God is only symptomatic of a malady that has afflicted this country for many decades. The sea of red that this writer witnessed on May Day during his childhood slowly began changing colour to seas of green and blue over the years. With the presence of artistes and actors from India on stage, the meaning of May Day got distorted as a cultural show.

The entry of trade unionists into politics and politicians into trade unionism was a slow ,creeping process that resulted in the gradual weakening of the working class movement. Trade union influence was shamelessly used to enhance political power. Inter-party and intra-party differences impacted on trade unions and fractured the trade union movement and its activity was used to build a political base. Trade union agitation was used as a pressure tactic to gain political clout. This negative trend climaxed with the monumental tragedy of Leftist leaders in their new Cabinet Minister avatars ruthlessly crushing the trade union movement on which they climbed to power.

It is against this dismal backdrop of a deteriorating trade union movement, that this column focuses on a man who was perhaps the last of the great trade unionists. A legend in his lifetime who was at the helm of a vibrant trade union continuously for a period of sixty six years – an unsurpassed record! A trade union leader about whom I have written earlier in these columns - who is no more with us having passed away last September – and whose 93rd birthday falls next week on May 23rd. I am of course referring to Comrade Bala Tampoe who was the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) General Secretary from 1948 to 2014. Though called the CMU still, the amended name of the union is now The Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union.

Being General Secretary of the CMU for 66 years since 1948, has been a marvellous achievement. All the more so because of comrade Bala’s ethnicity in Sri Lanka’s deeply divided society. Philips Balendra Tampoe was of Jaffna Tamil origin. The membership of the CMU though multi-ethnic is predominantly Sinhala. This fact has been highlighted often by many observers of Sri Lanka’s political scene. It is however noteworthy that Bala had never ever projected himself as an Ethnic Tamil or engaged in communal politics.

Bala was born in Negombo on May 23, 1922 and both his parents were of Jaffna Tamil stock. His father, Francis Tampoe-Philips was an excise officer under British rule who served in various parts of what was then known as the Madras Presidency in India. The Madras Presidency consisted of most districts of present day Tamil Nadu, several regions of present day Andhra Pradesh and parts of present day Kerala, Karnataka and Orissa States in India.

Bala’s mother Beatrice Thangamma Saverimuttu, though hailing from Jaffna, was born in Kurunegala. Her father was Mudaliyar A.G. Saverimuttu who had been the Chief Post Master at the General Post Office in Colombo for many years. The rank of Mudaliyar had been conferred on him by the British rulers in recognition of his distinguished service to the crown.

Bala was born and baptized as a Christian. His given name then was Balendra Tampoe-Philips. Due to compelling circumstances during school days, his mother registered his name as Philips Balendra Tampoe when admitting him to Royal College in 1934. Ten years later, after graduating Bala was appointed as a lecturer in Split in LSSP over the  at the Peradeniya School of Agriculture in February 1944. It was then that he legally changed his name to Philips Balendra Tampoe and placed advertisements to that effect in newspapers. He became known thereafter in a general sense as Bala (derived from Balendra) Tampoe or PB Tampoe.

 I once inquired about the origins of the Tampoe-Philips name from him in a conversation, Bala explained thus:-

“The first paternal ancestor to convert to Christianity from Hinduism was my great grandfather. He took the name Mathew Philips. He might have been given his Christian name as well as his surname by the Christian missionary – who was probably an American – who baptized him. Mathew Philips was born in 1817 and died in 1852. He was a Tamil Pundit and Teacher. He was also the Head Catechist and General Agent in the American Mission Church of that time”.

“My paternal grandfather was John Francis Philips, who owned a coconut estate in Pallai in the Jaffna peninsula where my father was born. My grandfather also raised herds of cattle in Pallai. (Cattle and Coconuts - C and C , Bala chuckled). He married the daughter of Thamotherampillai McGowan Tampoe, the first Ceylonese Magistrate of Jaffna under British rule in this country. She was my grandmother. It may be of interest to note that well known film director Robin Tampoe, was the son of a brother of my father’s mother. My father who was the eldest son in the family adopted the surname Tampoe-Philips by adding his mother’s maiden name to his father’s. That is how my original name got to be Balendra Tampoe-Philips”.

When I asked him to relate the circumstances under which he had to change his name from Balendra Tampoe Philips to Philips Balendra Tampoe, Bala had an interesting tale to relate. He also spoke about his siblings and mother in this regard:-

“My father Francis Tampoe-Philips worked in different areas of the Madras Presidency. I was the third of six siblings, with two elder sisters, a younger sister and two younger brothers, all of whom, but for me, had been born in various towns in the Madras Presidency. I happened to be born, on May 23, 1922, in Negombo, because my mother had gone there to stay with a younger sister of hers, when she was expecting a child, who turned out to be me”.

 “My eldest sister Zena died of double pneumonia, at a little over eight years of age, in Bangalore, in August 1927. Shortly afterwards, my younger brother Narendra, a year younger than I, died of diphtheria. Soon afterwards my baby brother who was nine month’s old, also died of the same ailment. I was left with two sisters, Irma, a year older, and Cynthia Jayatri, three years younger than me. The three of us were taught at home by our mother, as we could not gain entrance to schools in Bangalore straight away when my mother decided to stay there with us instead of accompanying my father to various stations in the Madras Presidency”.

 “My mother sent an application for my admission to a leading Anglican boys’ school, Bishop Cotten’s College, in Bangalore. The application was accepted and my mother was notified that her son was admitted under the name B.T. Philips. In those days, there were ethnic quotas in school admissions in India and students were classified accordingly. The school officials had mistakenly categorized the name B.T. Philips as an English or Anglo-Indian student. We did not know this”.

“It was when I went to Bishop Cotten’s in 1930; on the date of admission with my mother, that the school authorities discovered that I was neither English nor Anglo- Indian. The British Headmaster informed her, to our utter dismay, that I could not be admitted, as I was neither the one nor the other! The quota for admission at that time was four English or Anglo-Indian students, to one Indian. That quota had already been filled, we were told. So I was deprived of admission to that prestigious institution”.

“A kindly English lady who had befriended my mother gave us pre-school education, and then later on she got us admitted to Clarence School in Bangalore, in 1931. It was run by the Seventh Day Adventist Mission, which she belonged to”.

 “In April 1934, my mother returned to stay permanently in Ceylon with me and my two sisters. I got admitted to Royal College, Colombo later that year, thanks to the good offices of Professor C. Suntheralingam, who was then the Professor of Mathematics in the University College, Colombo. He later became MP for Vavuniya and became a Minister in D.S. Senanayake’s first Cabinet at the time of Independence for Ceylon. When I was admitted to Royal College, Colombo in 1934 by my mother, she registered me under the name Philips Balendra Tampoe. This was to avoid any possible confusion over my ethnicity as in the case of what had occurred previously in South India, when my mother’s application for my admission to Bishop Cotten’s College, in Bangalore ended in failure”

This then was the story of how Bala Tampoe’s father Francis Philips became Francis Tampoe-Philips and how the son Balendra Tampoe –Philips turned into Philips Balendra Tampoe.

Bala Tampoe was a colourful personality of multiple dimensions. Underground member of the Lanka Sama Samaaja Party (LSSP), during the second World War days; Agricultural Dept. lecturer who lost his job due to involvement in a general strike; leader of the same trade union for more than six decades; fiery orator known for defiant speeches; last living witness of the Independence ceremony of Ceylon when the Union Jack was replaced; key organizer of the historic 1953 ‘Hartal’; one time Central Committee and Politbureau member of the largest Trotskyite party recognized by the fourth international; architect of many strikes, including one which paralyzed the Colombo harbour causing declaration of emergency; one of the trouble-making leftists earmarked for incarceration at the Naval armoury by the 1962 coup d’etat planners; pioneer of a collective agreement that proved to be a model for many such agreements; trade union leader who ushered in the payment of allowance scheme based on the rise in the cost of living index; man behind a series of strikes leading to progressive measures regarding termination of employment; co-leader of revolutionary breakaway group in LSSP that formed its own party; unsuccessful candidate in three parliamentary polls; lawyer who defended JVP comrades free-of-charge after the 1971 insurgency; dedicated trade unionist who drove to office and back for six days of work, even at the age of 92. These are, but a few facets of comrade Bala Tampoe.

Bala Tampoe’s foray into Parliamentary politics was not very successful. The CMU’s flirtation with electoral politics was also a failure. Bala Tampoe first contested Parliamentary elections in 1960, was fielded by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) under the key symbol in the multi-member constituency of Colombo Central returning three MP’s. March 1960 polls were held at a time when the LSSP was expected to romp home as winners, and Dr. N.M. Perera become Prime Minister. Bala was expected to come first in Colombo Central. Yet, it was Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel and Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP, along with the Communist party’s Pieter Keuneman who won. Bala Tampoe came fourth out of fifteen candidates polling 22,228 votes.

In the July 1960 elections, the number of candidates had dwindled to six. For some reason, the expectation again was that Bala Tampoe would be elected as first MP. But again that was not to be. Sir. Razeek Fareed from the SLFP came first with Pieter Keuneman and Dr. Kaleel coming second and third respectively. Bala Tampoe came fifth, behind Ranasinghe Premadasa. His vote tally had shrunk to 16,406.

The LSSP underwent a crisis when the party leadership opted to form a coalition govt. with the SLFP, led by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. 14 members of the then LSSP Central Committee dissented. These included Bulathsinhala MP Edmund Samarakkody, Moratuwa MP Meryl Fernando, Theoretician V. Karalasingham and Bala Tampoe. The dissident group formed the LSSP-R or LSSP-Revolutionary party minus the Karlo group of Karalasingham that rejoined the parent body. The mainstream LSSP was expelled from the fourth international and the LSSP-R was recognized in its place as the Ceylon section of the fourth international.

The LSSP-R contested the 1965 parliamentary elections but did not fare well. Bala Tampoe contested in Colombo Central again but this time under the lamp and not key symbol. He came fifth out of ten candidates polling only 4,559 votes. 

The LSSP-R underwent further fragmentation when Edmund Samarakkody left the LSSP-R after engaging in a vitriolic campaign against Bala Tampoe. The Edmund faction formed the Revolutionary Samasamajist Party. Later on it became the Revolutionary Workers party.

The LSSP-R continued to be under the sway of Bala Tampoe. The CMU was its mainstay. The LSSP-R did not contest the 1970 General elections and accused the LSSP and Communist party of “misleading the masses”. The party too was renamed as the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) and continued to be recognized as the Ceylon/Sri Lanka affiliate of the United Secretariat of the fourth international for several years.

In 1977, Bala Tampoe reversed the earlier position of not contesting parliamentary polls and fielded a few candidates at the July hustings. Bala Tampoe himself did not contest. The CMU and RMP together put forward four candidates on a “revolutionary socialist platform” calling for “the overthrow of capitalist rule and the establishment of a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government by the masses”.

Upali Cooray and T.N. Perera contested on behalf of the RMP in Dehiwela and Kesbewa, while Vernon Wijesinghe and H.A. Seneviratne were put forward by the CMU in Colombo North and Kelaniya. All four fought the election campaign under the bell symbol. The results were a disaster. The four candidates got 402, 298, 193 and 162 in Dehiwela, Kesbewa, Colombo North and Kelaniya respectively.

The failure of the Parliamentary path, and the personal electoral defeats of Bala Tampoe in 1960 and 1965 were blessings in disguise for trade unionism in general and the CMU in particular. Bala Tampoe organized a series of more than 70 strikes across the country protesting the way employers could summarily dismiss workers. This led to the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake meeting with him to discuss ways and means of addressing the issue. Bala Tampoe proposed that the State should step in and examine grounds for removal. Tampoe submitted a legal draft which laid the foundation for the Termination of Employment Act that was enacted in 1971.

The larger than life image of Bala Tampoe in my perspective kept growing as I too grew up. Many relatives and friends in the private sector were CMU members and the stories they told about Tampoe enhanced his image further in my eyes. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led insurgency of 1971 captured the imagination of youths in the seventies. Bala Tampoe aided by a team of dedicated lawyers appeared for many of the accused at the Criminal Justice Commission. Even as I lapped up newspaper reports of the proceedings eagerly, my esteem for Bala Tampoe too increased.

I began interacting with him as a journalist when I worked at “The Island”. When I first joined the newspaper in November 1981, I used to cover the Trade Union and Customs as my regular beat. However, I was soon put on the Tamil political round at “The Island”. With the ethnic crisis escalating, the “Tamil round” assumed crucial importance. I found myself writing many news stories and articles, and even a weekly column pertaining to the ethnic problem. The trade union beat was taken-off and my interaction with Bala Tampoe ceased. In 1988 I left the shores of Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, Bala Tampoe reached the ninety-year milepost in 2012.

The year 2013 was a blessed year for me as I got the opportunity of returning to Sri Lanka after 25 years. After travelling about and visiting relatives and close friends, I began meeting “other” people during the latter stages of my stay in Sri Lanka. One such person was Bala Tampoe.

I went to the CMU headquarters in Kollupitiya one morning after a friend had secured an appointment to meet Bala Tampoe. The CMU office that buzzed vibrantly with activity at one time seemed relatively quiet now. It seemed to have lost its lustre just like trade unionism in the country. When I walked into the hall and saw Bala from afar, the nonagenarian seemed to look the same, despite the withering gaze of age. When I got closer, I could see the toll of nine decades. Yet, he was quite sprightly in his walk and had a firm handshake as usual. The physical movements were somewhat slower but unimpaired. His hair remained still with a silvery grey hue.

When I sat down to converse, I discovered that the fire in the doughty fighter for workers’ rights was still blazing away. He was in full command of his faculties. His mind was razor sharp as usual. The flow of ideas and words gushed forth as in the past. The familiar gritting of teeth occurred frequently. The fiery glint in his eyes was very visible at close quarters. His memory was fantastic.

I would like to conclude this article by excerpting some passages from an earlier article in these columns on Comrade Bala Tampoe. I do so to provide greater insight into the man, his mission and on what made him tick for six decades in the Trade Union sphere.

“Bala Tampoe lives in Ratmalana. The CMU office is in Kollupitiya. Each day he drives from home to work and work to home. Bala drives a vintage Volkswagon that he has been using for decades. He works six days a week and at times seven depending upon necessity. His workday is around 7 to 8 hours daily.

I asked Bala Tampoe how he managed to lead such a busy, strenuous life at his age. What was the secret of his long life, good health, and youthful energy?

 He replied pensively:-“I think there are genetic, as well as other reasons for my having lived thus far, with the capacity to drive to work and back between my house in Ratmalana and the CMU headquarters in Colpetty, five to six days a week, for a full day’s work. One is, that I cannot let go of the needs of the Union and its members. Another is that I have been fairly frugal in my diet, and have never been given to excesses in anything but my activities on behalf of others. I also can’t yet bring myself to think of myself as old, as I remain young at heart and in mind”. 

Bala adds as an afterthought. “An eye specialist recently observed that I did not seem to have the optic nerve of a ninety-one-year old, when she happened to examine one of my eyes! That signifies something that I can’t explain about my physical condition”. I was curious about his lifestyle and daily routine. I asked Bala to describe a day in his life. For him a “day in his life” equals a working day. This was his response:-

 “I usually wake to the sounds of early birds chirping outside my bedroom window, between 5.15 and 6.00 a.m. I then make myself a cup of tea, and sit down to my laptop, to check my e-mail and respond thereto straightaway sometimes, or just browse a bit on the internet, before I prepare my breakfast”.

“It normally consists of cereals - mixed in a little milk with curd, a spoonful of kitul treacle and a sliced kolikuttu plantain. I am giving you those details because people sometimes ask me about my daily diet, when questioning me about “my secret”, as you’ve done”.

“I normally leave for the CMU headquarters by 8.30 a.m., driving my old Volkswagen, which I have had re-conditioned recently. The Union spends for its maintenance and cost of petrol for my daily travelling to and from the headquarters. I preferred that to the Union’s purchasing a new car for me, as its General Council had wished. One of my reasons for that preference was that I am too advanced in years to need a car for much longer than I’ve driven the one I have”!

“My working day now normally ends by 5.00 p.m., but continues till 8.00 or even 9.00 p.m. on Wednesdays, when the Executive Committee or the Working Committee meet alternatively - from week to week. It takes me about an hour to drive home to Ratmalana”.

“I have a short nap in the afternoons at the headquarters; but have found it desirable as age creeps upon me, to have a longer nap when I get home, before warming my dinner (prepared for me at the headquarters) on a microwave oven”. 

“After dinner, I stretch my legs a bit, walking around the house for about fifteen minutes, before normally settling down to watch a DVD film till 11.00 p.m. or later, depending on how absorbing it is and how tired I may be at end of the the day – and so it ends!

Bala Tampoe lives alone. He was married twice and has two children both of whom are in the USA. I asked Bala about his first wife and children about whom very little is known to current colleagues and contemporaries.

“My first wife was Nancy Kotalawela from Passara. She was a Montessori teacher who had been trained by Madame Maria Montessori herself in Kodaikanal, India. I married her on October 28, 1950. Our son Dhiresh was born on December 1, 1951; and our daughter Shyama was born on January 6, 1956. We separated in 1957, and were divorced in April 1966. Nancy left for the United States in September 1967, taking our two children with her, and kept them out of touch with me for more than thirty years in the States”.

Bala Tampoe’s second wife was May Wickramasuriya who was an institution by herself. They were married on September 22, 1966. May worked at the CMU for decades and was well-known in Trade union and Trotskyite circles. She had joined the CMU in 1951 and remained an efficient colleague and loyal companion to Bala Tampoe. She became assistant secretary of the CMU in 1956. May was paralyzed after suffering a stroke in November 1995. She died a few years later on December 15, 1998. CMU contemporaries speak highly of the fond affection with which Bala cared for her. Bala describes her as his “companion and comrade”. There is a conference room named after May at the CMU office”. Philips Balendra Tampoe now known to all as Bala Tampoe is one whose name is indelibly etched in the Trade union annals of this country. Comrade Bala Tampoe may be no more today, but the legendary leader of the oppressed and underprivileged will always be regarded as an incomparable Sri Lankan phenomenon! 

First published at http://www.dailymirror.lk/72659/remembering-comrade-bala-tampoe-the-legendary-trade-union-leader  15 May 2015

 

Bala Tampoe (1922–2014): Socialist revolutionary turned class traitor

By Nanda Wickremasinghe and Wije Dias 

13 September 2014

The Sri Lankan political establishment, including President Mahinda Rajapakse, trade union bureaucrats, industrial and business magnates and the pseudo-lefts, has rallied together to sing the praises of Bala Tampoe, who died on September 1 at the age of 92. While he began his political life as a socialist revolutionary, Tampoe ended it as a union bureaucrat and political charlatan whose efforts were directed at suppressing the working class and propping up capitalist rule.

The eulogies that flowed after his death were not in appreciation of his revolutionary record but rather of his services to the ruling class over the past five decades. He held the post of secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) for 66 years, right up to his death. In the recent period, he was the most officially sought-after union bureaucrat in the island. Employers and government officials wanted his expertise in selling out strikes and struggles.

Conveying its “deepest sympathies,” the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC), the island’s largest private sector business organisation, declared: “The EFC was fortunate to be associated with the CMU for many years. In fact, the oldest collective agreement, which has subsisted without a break is the collective agreement that the EFC entered into with the CMU from 1961. Bala Tampoe represented the CMU throughout this period.”

In his condolences, President Rajapakse hailed the same rotten deals signed by Tampoe as a contribution to maintaining industrial peace. “The most outstanding contribution to safeguard the rights of mercantile employees, through the collective agreement signed between the CMU and the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon, remains a landmark agreement and a valuable guide to many others in the field of trade unions,” he stated.

Tampoe not only “maintained the industrial peace” in relation to CMU members, but assisted other trade union bureaucracies in engineering and justifying their own grotesque betrayals. In the early 1990s, the government appointed him to the corporatist National Labor Advisory Council (NLAC), on which he served continuously.

Just weeks before his death, Tampoe performed one last stunt designed to fool workers. He walked out of the NLAC in “protest” over its failure to implement a workers’ charter—initially approved in the mid-1990s. For two decades, Tampoe and other union bureaucrats fraudulently dangled this piece of paper in front of workers as a “victory,” as they sold out one struggle after another.

It would be wrong, however, to view Tampoe as just another treacherous union leader. In his youth, he was a courageous and talented revolutionary fighter for the interests of the working class. The political degeneration of Tampoe, and others of his generation, was completely bound up with that of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which in 1964 abandoned the principles of Trotskyism and joined the capitalist government of Sirima Bandaranaike.

At the age of just 17, Tampoe joined the LSSP in 1939, on the eve of World War II, as a university student. Under the impact of the war and Stalin’s support for the so-called democratic imperialist powers, including Britain, the LSSP leadership turned decisively toward Trotskyism, expelled the Stalinists from its ranks and played the central role in forming the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI), the all-India section of the Fourth International, in 1942.

Tampoe was a founding member of the BLPI and played a brave and active role in the underground party organisation in Sri Lanka, under conditions of wartime illegality. He held study classes on Trotskyism and gave lectures to workers near the Colombo racecourse. The BLPI took a revolutionary defeatist position and fought to mobilise workers in Sri Lanka and India against British colonial rule. Tampoe was involved in distributing party literature to British soldiers stationed on the island and sought to win them to Trotskyism.

Tampoe was a powerful orator who was fluent in three languages, English, Tamil and Sinhala. As young Trotskyists during the 1960s, the authors of this article witnessed him in full flight. He was able to draw on a vast store of stories and colloquial language, employing biting sarcasm and taunts against his opponents, and using his entire body almost in a dance to convince listeners of his arguments. Workers in their thousands would flock to his meetings to hear the man who could keep them transfixed for hours.

Following the war, Tampoe stood with the BLPI in opposition to a national opportunist faction led by N. M. Perera and Philippe Gunawardene that broke away to revive the old LSSP in 1945. He lost his job as a lecturer in the agriculture department’s training institute for participating in the 1947 general strike that was crushed by the British colonial rulers. He became a full-time worker for the BLPI and was nominated by the party to become CMU secretary in 1948.

In opposition to the LSSP, the BLPI opposed the fake independence granted by Britain in 1948 to the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie and mobilised workers against it. However, formal independence opened up opportunities for sections of the middle class in the state apparatus, parliament and business, and generated significant pressures on the party. These were first expressed in the unprincipled reunification of the BLPI with the LSSP in 1950, without any clarification of previous fundamental differences.

The reunification was a symptom of a broader opportunist trend that was to emerge within the Fourth International under the leadership of Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel. Adapting to the post-war re-stabilisation of capitalism, Pablo and Mandel abandoned the struggle for the political independence of the working class and sought to liquidate the sections of the Fourth International into “existing mass movements” dominated by Stalinism, Social Democracy, and, in countries like Sri Lanka, various forms of bourgeois nationalism.

The International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) was formed in 1953 to defend the principles of orthodox Trotskyism and wage a political struggle against Pabloism. Significantly, while the LSSP leaders criticised aspects of Pablo’s theories, they opposed the ICFI’s formation. The LSSP remained with the Pabloite International Secretariat. Tampoe, who was inducted into the political bureau of the LSSP central committee in mid-1953, took no stand against this decision, which opened the door for the LSSP’s political backsliding over the next decade.

With the blessing of the International Secretariat, which boasted of the LSSP being the largest Trotskyist party in the world, the LSSP increasingly came to judge its success by the number of its parliamentary seats and the size of its union membership. Its political trajectory was more and more toward popular frontism, in the form of deals with the bourgeois Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Increasingly, the LSSP adapted its program to the SLFP’s communal politics of Sinhala populism and anti-Tamil discrimination.

As a prominent trade union leader, Tampoe was in the midst of militant strike struggles, including against the SLFP governments that won office after the 1956 and 1960 elections. He led the protracted 1963 strike of port workers, who humiliated the government by defying its emergency declaration. The strike greatly exacerbated the political crisis of the SLFP government led by Sirima Bandaranaike, who faced a mounting movement of the working class centred on a broad trade union alliance led by the LSSP around a list of 21 demands.

Bandaranaike was forced to admit publicly that the country had become ungovernable and she needed the support of the LSSP. In 1964, she invited the LSSP leaders to join her government. They abandoned any semblance of political principles and sold out the 21 demands movement in return for three ministerial posts.

At the LSSP Congress that ratified the betrayal, Tampoe was one of the 159 delegates that voted against joining the government and walked out to form the LSSP (Revolutionary). At the same time, Tampoe, as one of the main LSSP-R leaders, vehemently opposed any discussion, particularly with the ICFI, of the political roots of the LSSP’s degeneration.

The ICFI insisted that the overriding responsibility for the betrayal rested not with the LSSP leadership, but with the Pabloite international that had aided and abetted the LSSP’s opportunist adaptations to national bourgeois rule over the previous decade. The betrayal was a striking confirmation of the struggle waged by the British Socialist Labour League (SLL) against the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which broke from the ICFI in 1963 and rejoined the Pabloites, claiming that the fundamental differences of the 1953 split had receded.

The ICFI insisted that the LSSP’s entry into the Bandaranaike government marked the entry of Pabloite revisionism into the direct service of imperialism. As a result, Trotskyism would only be revived in Sri Lanka through a thoroughgoing break from Pabloism on the basis of historical lessons of the struggle of the ICFI.

The LSSP-R leaders remained with the Pabloite United Secretariat, which sanctioned their continuing opportunism. In Tampoe’s case, this involved a marked adaptation to trade union politics and the rejection of any political struggle to overthrow capitalism. As a union bureaucrat, Tampoe employed his skills and revolutionary past to dupe workers and sell out their struggles. Under his leadership, the LSSP-R became little more than an adjunct of the CMU and mouthpiece for syndicalism. Nevertheless, the Pabloites continued to recognise it as their official section in Sri Lanka until they finally shut it down in 1981.

Increasingly Tampoe veered sharply to the right. In 1967, he created something of a public scandal when he participated in a reception at the German Embassy to honour Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger, a former Nazi, while refusing to join a 300,000-strong strike by plantation workers belonging to the DWC union—part of a union alliance led by Tampoe.

During the same year, Tampoe visited the US at the invitation of the CIA-funded Asia Foundation, which paid his expenses. During the trip, he had a private audience with US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, who was infamous for the brutal prosecution of the Vietnam War. The United Secretariat felt compelled to appoint a special commission to investigate Tampoe’s alleged connections with the CIA, but then swept its findings under the carpet.

Tampoe played a particularly treacherous role in derailing the 1976 general strike. Under the banner of “non-political trade unionism,” he opposed any political struggle against the SLFP-led coalition government, opening the door for the return of the right-wing United National Party (UNP), which rapidly implemented open market policies. Opposition in the working class to the destruction of living standards erupted in a general strike movement of public sector workers in 1980, which Tampoe refused to support, paving the way for the sacking of 100,000 workers.

Tampoe was especially hostile to the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL), the predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and its principled struggle, as the Sri Lankan section of the ICFI, for Trotskyism. He expelled RCL members from the CMU on several occasions when they initiated discussion among union members of the RCL/SEP program and questions of principle and history.

While the Colombo political establishment is paying tribute to Tampoe, the wretched union bureaucrat who helped prop up moribund capitalism, we prefer to remember the young revolutionary fighter against imperialist war, colonialism and national bourgeois rule, and the tragic consequences that flowed from his rejection of the struggle for program and principle. His evolution underscores the necessity for the new generation of revolutionaries to be grounded on the strategic lessons of the international working class that is only embodied in the ICFI, the international Trotskyist movement.

 

 

Bala Tampoe

Remarks by Dan Gallin at a commemorative meeting London, May 23, 2015

Comrades, Friends,

I thank you for the invitation to this meeting to honour the memory of a comrade who meant so much to all of us.

Bala was active in the international trade union movement, at first in the international trade union federation where I was general secretary, the International Union of Food and Allied Workers, the IUF, later in several other Internationals, and I want to tell you something about his role.

First, how we first met. I had been a student in the United States and in the early fifties I had joined the youth organization of the Independent Socialist League, the split from the Fourth International which was headed by Max Shachtman, so I had become aware of the Trotskyist movement in Ceylon, the LSSP and the union movement associated with it.

In 1960 I started working for the IUF as an assistant to the general secretary, Juul Poulsen. The IUF had been up to then a largely European organization, and Poulsen and our Executive decided that we had to become truly international. After Latin America, Asia became our priority. I was the editor of our news bulletin which we started sending to all the unions we knew about that were potential affiliates, among which the CMU.

Bala later told me that was the bulletin that caught their attention. May Wickremasuriya, his wife who was at the time assistant general secretary of the CMU, told him: “Look at that, these people are saying the same thing we are saying”. We started exchanging information.

In 1968 I was elected IUF general secretary, to the surprise of many and, to some extent, to my own surprise. I invited the CMU to affiliate and Bala invited me to meet him in Paris, at the secretariat of the Fourth, for a discussion.

I think he may have been testing me, but I had no problem with meeting him on the premises of the Fourth and we immediately got along. Following that meeting, the CMU decided to affiliate to the IUF, their first international affiliation ever. This was in the early 1970s.

The CMU became an important union in our Asia/Pacific Regional organization, and Bala was elected to the Regional Committee. It turned out that he would be playing a crucial role in defending our principles and defining our policy.

At the time we had another affiliate in Sri Lanka, the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, the CWC, led by Saviumamoorty Thondaman. This was the organization of the Tamil workers on the tea plantations in central Ceylon. The CWC was also affiliated to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the ICFTU, and Thondaman was influential in its Asian region.

We had a joke about Thondaman, we said he was in his person the embodiment of ILO tripartism. He was a deputy in the Sri Lanka parliament as well as a minister in several governments; he owned a small plantation, where he was an employer; and he was as well the leader of a trade union.

The ambiguity of his position led him to lose sight of trade union principles: in his government role, he supported the adoption of legislation restricting the right to strike. This was a breach of the IUF Rules. Bala raised the issue of which we might otherwise have been unaware.

Several months passed where the regional as well as the international secretariat argued and pleaded with Thondaman to stop supporting the anti-union legislation. Thondaman refused to change his position, so the IUF congress in 1981 had before it a resolution, endorsed by the Executive and the Regional Committee, to expel the CWC. The discussion was short, and the decision was unanimous.

Thondaman was the kind of trade union leader who believed himself to have a dispensation from normal rules of trade union behaviour and he was shocked by the decision of the IUF congress. He complained to Devan Nair, then general secretary of the Singapore National Trade Union Congress, also very influential in the ICFTU regional organization, because the IUF regional office was at that time in Singapore and our regional secretary, Ma Wei Pin, was a Singapore citizen.

Devan Nair was to be elected president of Singapore in 1981, then was forced into exile to the United States and Canada in1985, having fallen into disgrace, a loyalist of an authoritarian regime betrayed and bitter. In 1981, however, he was still a militant defender of the conservative orthodoxy shared by the -Singapore government and the ICFTU.

Newspaper articles started appearing in Singapore attacking the IUF. We had reason to fear for the safety of our regional secretary and for our ability to continue functioning as a regional office. This was a time when the Singapore government was cracking down on any opposition perceived as left-wing, Christian students were paraded on TV confessing to having endangered the security of the State.

We were not about to let our regional secretary become a TV star and we realized that we would not longer be able to operate freely from an office in Singapore, so we called on Ma Wei Pin to relocate to Geneva with his family (who at the time was fortunately in the Philippines on vacation) and we sent a secretary, who had never been in Singapore before, to close the office and arrange for the shipment of the archive and correspondence to Geneva. The IUF could no longer be repressed in Singapore because it had vanished.

Then the question arose: where would we locate to? We wanted a country with very stable and safe democratic institutions, as well as with easy communications for travel and internet. Two countries came to mind: Japan and Australia. We asked the Japanese unions who said “no thanks”, the Australian unions said “you are welcome”, so in January 1982 our regional office was moved to Sidney.

Ma Wei Pin, perhaps the only political refugee from Singapore, eventually became an Australian citizen and the IUF continued to defend trade union rights as it had always done.

What Bala had one was to help the IUF preserve its integrity in the face of threats from within the international trade union movement and to give an example of political courage with an important message both inside and outside the organization.

I visited Colombo several times in the 1980s and 1990s, and of course always the CMU building in Kollupitiya, and Bala and May. Her illness in 1995 and her death in 1998 were a very serious loss to Bala. She had been very much his equal, a close comrade and companion, in life, in politics and in the union.

Bala had always been a basically tolerant person, not a wide spread quality in the Trotskyist movement, and toward the end of his life described himself no longer as a Trotskyist, or even a Marxist, but as a humanist. His main concern had become the survival of humanity, in the context of climate change.

Through the IUF Bala had discovered a dimension of the international trade union movement of which he had not previously been fully aware, the International Trade Secretariats, or international trade union federations by industry. the CMU eventually affiliated to eight (out of twelve at the time) and Bala won respect everywhere through his incisive and profound contributions at meetings of their governing bodies and congresses.

I should mention one more issue in the IUF where he played a leading role. In 1983 the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India, led by Ela Bhatt, had applied for affiliation to the IUF. SEWA was a split from the Textile Workers’ Union of India, by its Women’s Group which felt that their concerns were not adequately defended by the (male) leadership of the union.

SEWA, with a few hundred members at the time, was trying to achieve international recognition and support. In this, they were opposed by the entire Indian trade union movement, on absurd grounds: they were not really representing workers, they were an NGO and not a union, they were discriminating against men because they were an all-women organization. The IUF disregarded these objections and accepted SEWA into affiliation.

The controversy, however, continued at the regional level. The Indian unions attempted to keep SEWA marginalized. When it came to elect the Regional Committee, Bala defended the case of SEWA eloquently against the other Indian unions, and withdrew in the election in favour of Renana Jhabvala from SEWA, an unusual act of political generosity.

In the meantime, SEWA has close to two million members and its legitimacy is no longer challenged by anyone.

In 1997, when I was about to retire from the IUF, I and several comrades established the Global Labour Institute, a labour support organization, mostly in terms of consultation, networking, training and education. The GLI has an Advisory Board, and we were proud when Bala agreed to join this body.

Next to the original GLI in Geneva, Switzerland, another GLI was established in Manchester, and we have associated organizations in New York and Moscow. The GLI Manchester runs an international summer school every year in July on behalf of the entire GLI network. We had the pleasure and the honour to have Bala participating in the 2013 summer school.

Bala and I shared a platform to introduce a discussion on the “Political Challenge for the International Trade Union Organizations”. He was brilliant as usual. Later he worried that he had been talking too much about himself. He needn’t have worried: it was his story that captivated the audience. I introduced ourselves as totalling 173 years between the two of us. Not bad for a summer school principally intended for young people.

I think the 2013 GLI summer school was the last international meeting Bala attended. We will always honour his memory.

I thank you for your attention.

 

 

EFC condoles on demise of Bala Tampoe

The Employers' Federation of Ceylon (EFC) conveys its deepest sympathies on the demise of Bala Tampoe, who was the General Secretary of the CMU for many decades. The EFC was fortunate to be associated with the CMU for many years.

The oldest Collective Agreement, which has subsisted without a break, is the Collective Agreement that the EFC entered into with the CMU in 1961.

Bala Tampoe represented the CMU throughout this period and it is ironical that he passed away a few days after the draft Collective Agreement for renewal was sent to him by the EFC.

The CMU, under the leadership of Tampoe had unique qualities as a trade union. Tampoe had strong views in terms of his ideology and at the same time, demonstrated qualities of high integrity.

He was outspoken and candid in expressing his views. The CMU, being an independent apolitical trade union stood above all differences and promote equality among all its members.

"As for the EFC, our experience has been that once an Agreement was signed and concluded, we were assured of the union and its members complying with the undertaking given in terms of the agreement. Tampoe gave leadership to mature trade unionism," a media release from the EFC said.

The void that will be created in the CMU as a result of Tampoe's demise will be difficult to fill. But the legacy that he has left in terms of honesty, integrity and undivided loyalty are qualities that not only the working class but all stakeholders in the world of work can try to emulate.

"We extend our deepest sympathies to all members of the CMU and hope that they will be inspired by the commitment, loyalty and the passion that Bala demonstrated throughout his life for the lives of others," it said. 

 

 

 

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Bala Tampoe and Jyrki Raina during his visit to Sri Lanka in February 2014.

https://revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/d8a4b56d-2295-49e4-a3f7-50323f08a3f9" alt="Striking workers led by Bala Tampoe." width="418" height="228" />

Striking workers led by Bala Tampoe.

https://revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/f06327ca-aabf-4cf4-b5c0-652e23ea87c0" alt="Bala Tampoe and his wife May Wickremasuriya, also a committed labour activist. " width="425" height="469" />

Bala Tampoe and his wife May Wickremasuriya, also a committed labour activist.

Obituary – Bala Tampoe

03.09.2014

IndustriALL Global Union renders tribute to Bala Tampoe who passed away on 1 September. Bala was 92 and led his union IndustriALL affiliate Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU) for more than 60 years; he negotiated with every Prime Minister since Sri Lanka’s independence.

One of the great figureheads of the Sri Lankan labour movement, Bala Tampoe, general secretary of CMU passed away on 1 September after a brief period of illness.

An advocate of criminal law, Bala became General Secretary of the CMU in February 1948. His work contributing to shape Sri Lanka’s political and social landscape spans more than 65 years, and under his leadership the CMU became one of the country’s largest trade unions in the commercial sector.

Known for challenging the political decisions of the government, Bala led a strike in the Colombo port in 1963. The struggle escalated into an all-island general strike and defied the government when it invoked its emergency powers.

Linus Jayatilake, President of the United Federation of Labour, and friend says:

“Comrade Bala leaves the CMU and the working-class at a moment of the emerging crisis of the neo-liberal capitalist system on a world scale. But the rich memories of his militancy and the class intransigence will be his sole contribution to the working class; to confront the collapse of this system.”

“His Marxist and left learnings led him to remain steadfast in the independence of the working-class against all forms of class-collaborationist politics.”

Until his death Bala retained the position as General Secretary and participated actively in major negotiations with the government and employers. During the past years he worked to get the Workers Charter implemented, as well as trying to get the unions to join forces and make the government of Sri Lanka ratify ILO Conventions 87 and 98.

IndustriALL General Secretary Jyrki Raina says:

“Bala Tampoe was a great man who dedicated his whole life to the struggles of the trade union movement. His achievements resonate with workers all around the world. He will be missed.”

http://www.industriall-union.org/obituary-bala-tampoe