Born on May 1,1891 in Kandy, A.E. Goonesinghe was educated at Dharmaraja College. On leaving school he sought employment as a clerk in the Railway Department, at the start. Later he took to Journalism, publishing the Journal “Search Light” to support the National Movement for freedom. He was instrumental in forming “The Young Lanka League” on March 2, 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 his brainchild, which was the forerunner to the formation of worker organisations or trade unions, later on.
The 1915 riots saw Goonesinghe being thrown into prison in May 1915 along with leaders such as F.R. Senanayake, D.B. Jayatilleke, D.S. Senanayake, C.A. Hewavitharana, D.F. Pedris and several others. D.E. Pedris was shot dead under Martial Law, for no crime committed by him. On being released from prison on 15 August 1915, Goonesinghe 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
Goonesinghe 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, levied a tax of Rs. 2.00 per year, from 1920, 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 local bodies, and got his members of the Young Lanka League not to pay the tax and instead work on the roads. To begin with, very few joined Goonesinghe, 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 only. He led by example doing the work honestly. Geared by the tune set by Goonesinghe, the response grew and people joined in greater numbers in later years resulting in the tax being withdrawn in 1923, the credit for the withdrawal going to the versatile leader A.E. Goonesinghe.
The campaign against the tax brought Goonesinghe into contact with the workers. He found that the workers were poorly paid. The wage paid was anything between 30 cts. to Rs. 1.00 for a day’s work ranging from 10 to 12 hours.
He was determined to get the working class a better deal. The workers turned militant and Goonesinghe provided the leadership they wanted. He founded the Ceylon Labour Union in 1922 with a membership of only 25 to start with. A.E. Goonesinghe was the Secretary of the labour union whilst Victor Corea was the President. A few months after the formation, Goonesinghe took over as the President. The Trade Union, so started by A.E. Goonesinghe, is today the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers’ Union (formerly Ceylon Mercantile 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, privileges and responsibilities holding propaganda meetings, Goonesinghe, swelled the membership of the Ceylon Labour Union. Led by Goonesinghe, the railway workers downed 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 camp being 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 and several government departments coming out on strike - a massive show of solidarity that is sadly lacking today invariably due to Marxist culture infiltrating into the trade union movement.
The strike which continued for nearly five weeks fizzled out with the workers returning to work. Though the battle was lost, the workers remained defiant and working class unity was strengthened. Goonesinghe next led a strike of the harbour workers in February 1927 demanding a wage increase of 50 cents (from Rs. 1.50 to Rs.2.00) per day and a lunch interval of one hour. The strike resulted in a wage increase of 25 cents and granting of a 15 minutes interval for lunch. He next launched a strike by Tramcar Workers on 23 January 1929. The anti-strike measures adopted by Whittal Bousteads which owned the Tramcar Services, resulted in the strikers appealing to the public not to patronise tramcars or purchase goods marketed by the Company. The appeal received the support of the consumers, and the students too joined in support of the workers (a gesture that cannot be expected today). As the strike progressed and especially due to Police harassment of the strikers (not different to what is happening today) the strike spread to other institutions and demonstration followed, resulting in clashes between the Police and the demonstrators. That forced the employers to come to the negotiating table and the strike started by 150 tramcar employees, ended with a negotiated settlement after 13 days.
He also led strikes at the Times and the Galle Face Hotel which strikes were also not successful. Though the strikes failed trade unionism gained ground. The unsuccessful strike at the Lake House in 1929, where Indian workers (blacklegs) were brought in to break the strike, signalled the decline of Goonesinghe’s power as a trade union leader. The Marxists thereafter took over the trade union movement.
Labour Day or May Day was first held in 1927 under the leadership of Goonesinghe. The May Day Rally held in 1933 under his leadership had new features introduced. A Police Band (not police proper) trained by Goonesinghe, clad in 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 jacket. There were drummers and dancers too. Goonesinghe, who pioneered the May Day Demonstration in Sri Lanka, walked under a red banner. There was no political slogan shouting. Singing of working class songs was there. The demonstration 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 a Public Holiday in 1956 by the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna Government led by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
As at today May Day is no more a Workers’ Day but a day exhibiting the power of political parties with a divided working class movement. Politician
A.E. Goonesinghe formed the Labour Party in 1928, after having contact with the Labour Party of Great Britain, earlier. In fact, when Ramsay Mc Donald, the British Labour Party Leader, who was also the then Prime Minister, visited Sri Lanka in 1926, Goonesinghe received him on behalf of the Labour Movement here. He also made representations to the Donoughmore Commission for Universal Franchise. At the State Council elections held in 1931 Goonesinghe was elected on the Labour Party ticket as Member of Colombo Central. He also served as the Colombo Mayor in 1943. In the 1947 Parliamentary Elections A.E. Goonesinghe was elected as the 1st Member of Parliament 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 to Indonesia as well. Thus, A.E. Goonesinghe, 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.