1. This appeal raises an important point of industrial law, namely, whether a Labour Court, to which a valid reference of an Industrial dispute for adjudication had been made, ceases to have jurisdiction to proceed to deal with it by reason of the fact that a majority of the workers, who had collectively sponsored the cause of a workman and raised an industrial dispute in regard to the propriety of the termination of his services, had subsequently, and pending adjudication of that dispute, retracted and withdrawn their support
The Labour court, by its preliminary award dated 25th April 1958, answered the question in the negative. On a petition filed by the management under Article 226 of the Constitution, Balakrishna Aiyar, J. by his order dated 7th April 1959, took a contrary view holding that the dispute referred to the Labour Court lost its character as an industrial dispute and was no longer such, and, therefore, the Labour Court would have no jurisdiction to proceed further in the matter. Accordingly the learned Judge issued a rule to that effect. This appeal is directed against that order.
2. By his order dated 12th July 1957, the Managing Editor of the "Hindu" terminated the services of R. Narasimhan with effect from 14th July 1957. He was then employed as a sub-editor, in the concern. The termination of services was preceded by a notice from the Chief Editor on 9th July 1957 to Narasimhan to show cause against it, and the explanation of the latter dated 11th July 1957. The ground for terminating the services of Narasimhan was a finding by the managing editor that he ('Narasimhan) had committed a gross mistake in editing a certain report from Salem dated 23rd June 1957.
The mistake was this. The report stated that a member of a certain political party in Salem was stabbed on 21st June 1957, and that the injured man was admitted in a hospital and later discharged. Narasimhan edited this report and published it in the "Hindu" dated 24th June 1957 as an incident in which the man concerned died of stab injuries on 21st June 1957. The managing editor rejected Narasimhan's plea that he was being victimised for his trade union activities.
On 13th July 1957 some of the working journalists of the "Hindu" who belonged to the Madras Union of Journalists, resolved to go on a strike with effect from the following day and remain on strike till the order terminating the services of Narasinhan was suspended and the matter was reconsidered. The same day the Executive Committee of the Madras Union of Journalists also passed a resolution extending their support to the stand taken by the working journalists of the "Hindu" and called upon all other newspaper employees in the State, and elsewhere, to rally behind the employees of the "Hindus".
The strike however, did not actually materialise on 14th July 1957, as, evidently, in the mean time, conciliation proceedings had started which eventually brought no result. In view of the conciliation proceedings, the Madras Union of Journalists wrote to the Management of the "Hindu" on 14th July 1957 that they were calling off the strike. Conciliation having failed, the State Government made an order on 17th July 1957 referring to the Labour Court the following question for adjudication:
"Whether the termination of services of Sri R. Narasimhan, sub-editor, is justified and to what relief he is entitled?"
The order of reference contained two mistakes, (1) that it made no reference to the provisions of the Working Journalists (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955 and (2) that it assumed Narasimhan to be a workman within the meaning of Section 2(s) of the Industrial Disputes Act. On 20th September 1957, the Government passed another order amending their earlier order rectifying the two mistakes.
When on 11th November 1957 the matter came up before the Labour Court, it was agreed on all heads that the reference of the dispute for adjudication should be deemed to have been made on 20th September 1957. The parties also filed before the Labour Court a joint consent memorandum stating that all the proceedings taken prior to that date should be taken to be proceedings under the amended reference. With the leave of the Labour Court, the management filed an additional counter statement on 18th November 1957, which, inter alia stated:
"The dispute referred to is one affecting an individual, viz., Sri R. Narasimhan and not one affecting the employees of the "Hindu'' as a whole or a considerable section of those employees. The employees of the Hindu as a whole or of the editorial department to which Sri R. Narasimhan belonged have not made common cause with Mr. Narasimhan and treated his dispute with the management as their own.
The mere fact that the Madras Union of Journalists has taken up the cause of Sri R. Narasimhan will not make the dispute one between the working journalists of the Hindu and the management. The Madras Union of Journalists is not connected with any particular news paper establishment. Its membership is open to all journalists in the Madras State. The allegation in the Claims statement that the majority of working journalists employed in the Hindu are members of the Madras Union of Journalists is not correct. The Madras Union of Journalists is therefore not competent to represent or speak on behalf of the working journalists of the Hindu".
3. To this the Union filed a reply on 25th November 1957, which inter alia, stated:
"The Union submits that the dispute referred for adjudication is one taken up by the Madras Union of Journalists which has among its members working journalists from various different newspaper establishments, including the Hindu.... The Union submits that there is a dispute between the working journalists of the Hindu and the management within the meaning of Section 2(k) of the Industrial Disputes Act, read with Section 3(1) of the Working Journalists Act...."
The Union's reply also reiterated the fact that the dispute had been referred to by the Government for adjudication as a dispute between the working journalists of the "Hindu" and the management and that the management was put to strict proof of their assertion that the working journalists of the "Hindu" had not collectively espoused the cause of Narasimhan. On these additional pleadings, the Labour Court framed the following additional issue on 3rd December 1957:
"Is there no industrial dispute between the working journalists, of the "Hindu" on the one hand and the Management of the "Hindu" on the other in relation to the termination of the services of Sri R. Narasimhan as contended by the management."
At the hearing before the Labour Court on the additional issue, which was tried as a preliminary issue, the management raised several contentions. One of them was that there was no industrial dispute in existence either on the date of the first reference, 17th July 1957 or on the date of the amended reference, 20th September 1957. This contention raised the question whether on and prior to 20th September 1957 the dispute had the support of a substantial section of the working journalists of the "Hindu".
The labour court found that the dispute on the said dates and subsequently till the middle of November 1957 had the support of 60 out of 90 working journalists of the "Hindu", that all the 60 of them were members of the Madras Union of Journalists and that, therefore, the dispute referred was an industrial dispute and was validly referred for adjudication, Even on the footing that only 24 out of 60 members of the Union, who were among the working journalists of the "Hindu", attended the meeting on 13th July 1957, in which was passed the resolution espousing the cause of Narasimhan, the labour court was prepared to hold that a substantial or considerable section of the working journalists of the "Hindu" supported his case, thereby making it an industrial dispute. Another contention raised by the management before the labour court, with which we are concerned in this appeal, was that even though it might have been an industrial dispute at the time when it was referred, it subsequently ceased to be such a dispute because many of the working journalists, who had supported Narasimhan, had since withdrawn their support and that only a very small section of the working journalists of the "Hindu", if at all, continued to support him. This contention was based upon certain events which occurred subsequent to 11-11-1957.
On 13-11-1957 the Editor of the "Hindu" convened a conference of the working journalists of the establishment with the ostensible purpose of explaining to them what according to the Editor were the true facts and situation in relation to the termination of the services of Narasimhan and of ascertaining their view whether the Union was justified in making the allegation that the termination of the, services of Narasimhan was an act of victimisation for his trade union activities.
On 14th November 1957, the Editor received a declaration signed by 45 working journalists of the "Hindu'', in which they stated that the charge against the Editor, viz. that the termination of Narasimhan's services was victimisation for his trade union activities and not punishment for a grave mistake in his editorial work, amounted to imputing mala fides to him, that the impression that the charge so levelled against the editor had a backing of a subtantial section of the journalists in the "Hindu" was wholly unwarranted & that the declarants had every confidence in the sense of fairness of the Editor and did not, therefore, support the charge made against him of victimising Narasimhan.
On the side of Narasimhan, it would appear that he too was able to secure a statement signed by 41 of the working journalists of the "Hindu" and expressing a re-affirmation of their support to his cause. The 41 journalists comprised of those who either voted for the resolution at the meeting of the working journalists on 13-7-1957 or were otherwise supporting the cause till then. But these journalists and 14 others later signed certain fresh declarations to the effect that they had either attended the working journalists' meeting on 13-7-1957 or signed the earlier declaration supporting the cause of Narasimhan, not knowing the full facts, that they wished to make it clear that they never meant to support any allegation by the Union of mala fides against the Editor and that the signatures to the earlier declaration supporting the cause of Narasimhan should be treated as withdrawn.
In addition to the declarations above referred to, were produced before the Labour Court four affidavits sworn to by more than a majority of the working journalists of the "Hindu" which said, "We do not either individually or collectively support Sri R. Narasimhan in that dispute or the stand taken by him and the Madras Union of Journalists in that regard". Evidently because the Union wanted to cross-examine the working journalists, who had sworn to the affidavits and made declarations as already mentioned, 41 working journalists of the "Hindu" gave evidence be-'fore the Labour Court. The examination of the other witnesses out of the remaining working journalists who had retracted, so to speak, was, however, dispensed with at the instance of the Union. The Labour Court on a consideration of the evidence summed up the position thus:
"Therefore, it must be found that 75 out of 90 working journalists of this concern have given evidence saying that they are not now supporting this dispute. About 45 to 50 of them are persons who were parties either to the resolution or to Ex. W. 3 and their evidence must be treated as a withdrawal of their support even though some of them have deposed to the effect that they never supported the cause, that they were never aware of the resolution and that they were under misapprehension about the true facts when they signed the Ex. W. 2 or that their signatures were obtained in Ex. W. 2 under express promises that it should not be used in the court."
4. Based on those facts, the argument on behalf of the Management before the Labour Court was that inasmuch as continued support of a substantial section of the working journalist was a sine qua non, for the subsistence of an industrial dispute and as such support had been withdrawn pending adjudication of the dispute, the dispute ceased to be an industrial dispute and it no longer existed as such with the result that 'the Labour Court had no further jurisdiction to proceed with the matter. This argument, however, did not find favour with the Labour Court.
The Labour Court hold that the crucial date for deciding whether there was an industrial dispute was the date of its reference and that the fact that subsequent to the reference more than a majority of the working journalists, who had formerly supported the dispute, withdrew their support thereto, had no effect upon the jurisdiction of the Labour Court to proceed with and adjudicate upon the industrial dispute which had been validly referred to it.
5. On the petition filed by the Management for quashing the above preliminary award of the labour court, Balakrishna Aiyar, J. was not prepared to uphold the said view of the Labour Court. The learned Judge considered that the moment a collective dispute became reduced to an individual dispute by reason of a substantial number of workmen withdrawing their support after the reference of the dispute for adjudication, the Labour Court at once lost its jurisdiction to proceed with the matter. This conclusion was reached by the learned Judge on two grounds which he stated thus :
"When considering these arguments two circumstances must be borne in mind. One is that the jurisdiction of a Labour Court or Labour tribunal is not a general jurisdiction like that of an ordinary civil court; it is a limited jurisdiction, limited by the statute which has created it. The statute confers on it power to deal with disputes of a particular class, viz., industrial disputes and, once a dispute goes out of that category it would normally lose its jurisdiction to proceed further in the matter. In the present case, during the pendency of the proceedings before the Labour Court, the dispute which was referred to it lost its character as an industrial dispute and ceased to be such. The second consideration that must be borne in mind is that courts cannot issue orders in a vacuum, that they must deal with the actual facts before them and that to refuse to take notice of facts subsequent to the date on which a court takes cognisance of a matter would be to act very unrealistically."
On that view, the learned Judge held that the Labour Court had no jurisdiction to proceed further in the matter and quashed the preliminary award.
6. Sri Mohan Kumaramangalam, the learned counsel for the appellants, contested the correctness of the above view of the learned Judge and contended that such a view could not be supported having regard to the true scope and object of the relative statutory provisions providing for industrial adjudication. His contention was that once a valid reference had been made to a Labour Court of an industrial dispute for adjudication, its only jurisdiction was to proceed with the matter and make an award and that the question whether the industrial dispute so referred continued to be as such in the sense that it had the continued support of a substantial section of the workers of the concern was wholly irrelevant to and did not in any way affect the jurisdiction of the Labour Court to proceed with the matter and make an award.
On the other hand, Sri R. Ramamurthi Aiyar, the learned counsel for the respondent-management, reiterated before us the same contentions which he had urged before Balakrishna, Aiyar, J. and the Labour Court. He argued that the collective support was of the very essence of an industrial dispute, that the jurisdiction of the Labour Court was to adjudicate on an industrial dispute and that, therefore, if before making an award, the industrial dispute referred for adjudication degenerated, as the learned counsel would put it, into an individual dispute, the Labour Court would have no further jurisdiction to deal with it.
According to the learned counsel, the crucial date for determining whether an industrial dispute existed was not merely the date on which a reference was made for adjudication but also it could be shown at any moment, before an award had actually been made, that the industrial dispute referred to, ceased to exist as such in the sense that no longer a substantial section of the workers concerned stood behind it.
7. Before dealing with the above contentions it is first necessary to notice the relevant! statutory provisions. The Working Journalists (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955, was enacted to regulate certain conditions of service of working journalists and other persons employed in newspaper establishments. Clause (f) of Section 2 defines a working journalist as a person whose principal avocation is that of a journalist and who is employed as such in, Or in relation to, any newspaper establishment, and includes, among others, sub-editors, reporters and proof-readers. Sub-section (1) of Section 3 provides that the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, as in force for the time being, shall, subject to the modifications specified in Sub-section (2), apply to, or in relation to, workmen within the meaning of that Act.
The modification contemplated by Sub-section (2) of Section 3 is not material for the purpose of the present appeal. We have, therefore, to turn to the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947. That Act makes provision for the investigation and settlement of industrial disputes by setting up, among others, Labour Courts and providing for reference thereto for adjudication Of certain specified categories of industrial disputes. Clause (k) of Section 2 defines what an industrial dispute means.
It states, inter alia, that any dispute or difference between employers and workmen which is connected with the employment or non-employment or the terms of employment or with the conditions of labour, of any person is an industrial dispute. Section 7 provides for the composition and constitution by the appropriate Government of Labour Court or adjudication of industrial disputes relating to any matter specified in the second Schedule to the Act. Section 10(1)(c) which empowers the appropriate Government to refer any industrial dispute, arising or apprehended, to a Labour Court for adjudication reads as follows:
"10 (1) Where the appropriate Government is of opinion that any industrial dispute exists or is apprehended, it may at any time by order In writing,
(c) refer the dispute or any matter appearing to be connected with, or relevant to, the dispute, if it relates to any matter specified in the second schedule to a Labour Court for adjudication; or ............"
The other provisions of the section including the provisos do not require notice for our present purpose. Section 15 which is important for this appeal and which defines the duties of a labour court reads :
"15. Where an industrial dispute has been referred to a Labour Court, Tribunal or National tribunal for adjudication, it shall hold its proceedings expeditiously and shall, as soon as it is practicable on the conclusion thereof, submit its award to the appropriate Government".
Section 17 requires that every award of a labour Court should be published by the appropriate Government within a specified time and in the manner which the appropriate Government may think fit. As provided by Section 17-A an award becomes enforceable on the expiry of 30 days from the date of its publication.
8. Though the definition of an industrial dispute does not in so many words state that a dispute or a difference between an employer and an individual employee of his in connection with his employment or the conditions of labour of any person is not within its scope, it is well settled that it is only a collective dispute that can constitute an industrial dispute: A collective dispute does not of course mean that all the workmen or a majority of them of the establishment concerned should sponsor and support the dispute.
All that is necessary is that the dispute in order to become an industrial dispute should have the support of a substantial section of the workmen concerned in the establishment. What a substantial section of workmen may mean will depend upon the particular facts of each case. If such a collective dispute exists in relation to the matters specified by the definition of an industrial dispute, then the conditions required on the appropriate Government to make a reference of the dispute for adjudication are satisfied.
Whether such an industrial dispute exists is a matter left to the opinion of the appropriate Government making the reference. It is clear from Section 10 that the actual existence of an industrial dispute is not an essential condition to the making of a valid reference for adjudication but that the appropriate Government is competent to made such a reference, even if it apprehends an industrial dispute. But what falls to be particularly observed is the requisite that before a reference is made, there should be an industrial dispute either existing or apprehended.
Once that requisite is satisfied, all the conditions of a valid reference Under Section 10(1) are also satisfied. There is no indication in Section 10 of any further requisite or condition to be satisfied in order to sustain the continued validity of the reference until it ends In an award. When an industrial dispute has been referred to a labour court, Section 15 directs that it should hold its proceedings expeditiously and should on the conclusion thereof submit its award to the appropriate Government.
In our opinion, the industrial dispute within the contemplation of Section 15 obviously appears to be the industrial dispute that existed or was apprehended prior to the date of its reference to a labour court for adjudication. So much is explicit from the opening words of the section: "Where an industrial dispute has been referred to a labour court ....." It is on that dispute the section enjoins the labour court to hold its proceedings and make its award.
In other words, the jurisdiction of a labour court to adjudicate upon an industrial dispute springs from the reference made to it and is confined to the industrial dispute as referred to it, which means the industrial dispute which existed or was apprehended prior to the date of its reference. What the reference called upon the Labour Court to adjudicate was the industrial dispute that existed or was apprehended prior to the time when the same was referred to for adjudication.
It follows from these premises that the question, whether the industrial dispute referred to for adjudication continued even after its reference to retain its character as such, has no bearing upon and does not affect the jurisdiction of the labour court to proceed and make an award on the industrial dispute referred to it for adjudication. That, in our opinion, is the real scheme and true scope of Sections 2(k), 10(1)(c) and 15 of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.
9. It seems to us that our above view of the statutory provisions is fortified by certain other provisions of the Act. Section 20 lays down when a proceeding before a labour court to which a reference of an industrial dispute has been made for adjudication commences and concludes. Sub-section (3) of that section, so far as is material, reads:
"Proceedings .... before a labour ..... shall be deemed to have commenced on the date of the reference of the dispute for .... adjudication ..... and such proceedings shall be deemed to have concluded on the date on which the award becomes enforceable under Section 17-A".
The proceeding, which starts upon a reference, continues and shall be deemed to have concluded only when the award becomes enforceable under Section 17-A. The sub-section does not contemplate that the proceeding so started can conclude or can be concluded at an earlier time. It seems to follow from Sub-section (3) that the only way by which the proceedings started on a reference can conclude is by making an award. Actually the point of time at which the proceeding concludes is even later namely the date on which the award becomes enforceable under Section 17-A. Sub-section (3) of Section 10 which states that where an industrial dispute has been referred to a labour court, the appropriate Government may by order prohibit the continuance of any strike or lock-out in connection with such dispute, which may be in existence on the date of the reference, shows again that the industrial dispute which is the basis for reference and adjudication, is the industrial dispute in existence on the date of the reference. It is again on that basis that Section 23 prohibits strikes or lock-outs during the pendency of the proceedings before a labour court. Section 23(b), so far as it is relevant, states:
"23. No workman who is employed in any industrial establishment shall go on strike in breach of contract and no employer of any such workman shall declare a lock-out -
(a) ....... (b) during the pendency of proceedings before a Labour Court, .... and two months after the conclusion of such proceedings ....''
We have already referred to the provisions of Section 20 which lay lown when a proceeding commences or concludes before a court to which a reference of an industrial dispute has been made for adjudication.
10. If we accept the argument of Sri R. Ramamurthi Aiyar, that the labour court ceases to have jurisdiction to proceed further the moment, pending the reference, the industrial dispute loses its character as such, and it will, in our opinion, be contrary to and even in conflict with the statutory provisions we have referred to. We cannot, therefore, accept his contention. Balakrishna Aiyar J. stated that the jurisdiction of the labour court was not like that of an ordinary civil court but it was a limited jurisdiction, limited by the statute which created it.
We agree with the learned Judge that it is so in one sense. But the learned Judge's attention, as far as we can see from his judgment, does not appear to have been invited to the particular statutory provisions we have referred to above which confer, control and limit the jurisdiction of a labour court. We cannot agree, therefore, with the learned Judge that once an industrial dispute ceases to be as such because subsequent to the date of its reference a substantial section of its sponsors or supporters had withdrawn their support, and that the labour court loses its jurisdiction to proceed further in the matter.
We hold that the jurisdiction of the labour court to proceed with the matter wholly depends on whether the industrial dispute referred to it for adjudication existed or was apprehended on the date of the reference and not on any subsequent date. We have reached this conclusion on the basis of the Provisions of the Act themselves. But it seems to us that any other interpretation of those provisions may lead to startling results and will hardly be in consonance with the object and policy of the Act namely, to conserve and promote industrial peace and welfare. Further it will be subversive to industrial justice, labour relations and fair play, if the jurisdiction of the labour court to proceed with the matter referred to it for adjudication, is to depend on the shifting convictions, exigencies and strength of the rival parties to the industrial dispute.
11. In the view we have taken we are not called upon in this case to decide whether a labour court is generally entitled to take into account events that occurred subsequent to the date of the reference. It seems to us that it is not possible to formulate a general, or uniform rule for universal application. Whether subsequent events may be taken into account by the Labour Court may depend upon the particular circumstances in each case.
For instance, if there is a settlement between the management and the workmen, who sponsored and supported an industrial dispute for adjudication it is not expected that the labour Court, although the Industrial Disputes Act itself contains no provision for recording the settlement, may refuse to take note of the settlement and make an award on that basis. Again considerations which may apply to a case where a particular workman whose reinstatement is the subject matter of an industrial dispute referred for adjudication, has died, may not govern the case of industrial dispute involving questions of wages and the like."
All that we need say here, is that having regard to the statutory provisions, as interpreted by us, the jurisdiction of the Labour Court to proceed with and adjudicate upon an industrial dispute stems from and is sustained, until it makes an award and the same becomes enforceable, by the reference itself which has been made on the basis of an industrial dispute existing or apprehended on the date of the reference and that the jurisdiction of the labour court to proceed in the matter is not in any way affected by the fact that subsequent to the date of the reference, the workers or a substantial section of them, who had originally sponsored the cause, had later resiled and withdrawn from it.
12. There appear to be no decided cases directly in point. But our attention was invited to the decision of the Supreme Court in Pipraich Sugar Mills Ltd. v. Pipraich Sugar Mills Mazdoor Union, (S) , in which a dispute arising before a closure was
referred for adjudication after the concern was closed. Their Lordships of the Supreme Court repelled an argument that as the industry was not in existence and as the relationship between the employer and the employees had ceased prior to the reference, the reference itself was not a valid one, and held "We think that on a true construction of Section 3 the power of the State to make a reference under that section must be determined with reference not to the date on which it is made but to the date on which the right which is the subject matter of the dispute arises, and that the machinery provided under the Act would be available for working out the rights which had accrued prior to the dissolution of the business". The facts and the point for decision in that case were different, but it has to be observed that although the industry itself had been closed even prior to the date of the reference, the Supreme Court did not regard that fact as, in any way, affecting the jurisdiction of the labour court to proceed with the matter referred to for adjudication.
Reference was nest made at the Bar to another decision of the Supreme Court in State of Bihar v. D. N. Ganguly, in which it was held that the scheme of the relevant provisions of the Act would prima facie seem to be inconsistent with the power of the appropriate Government to cancel a reference made under Section 10(1) once it had been made. In the process of arriving at that conclusion, their Lordships considered the scope and effect of a reference under Section 10(1) and observed :
"But once an order in writing is made by the appropriate Government referring an industrial dispute to the tribunal for adjudication under Section 10(1), proceedings before the tribunal are deemed to have commenced and they are deemed to have concluded on the day on which the award made by the tribunal becomes enforceable under Section 17-A, This is the effect of Section 20(3) ot the Act. This provision shows that after the dispute is referred to the Tribunal, during the continuance of the reference proceedings, it is the tribunal which is seized of the dispute and which can exercise jurisdiction in respect of it ......
The scheme of the provisions in Chapters III and IV of the Act would thus appear to be to leave the reference proceedings exclusively within the jurisdiction of the tribunals constituted under the Act and to make the awards of such tribunals binding between the parties, subject to the special powers conferred on the appropriate Government under Sections 17-A and 19".
This decision too was not concerned with the specific question we have to decide in this case.
13. In the result, with respect to Balakrishna Aiyar J. we are unable to agree with him that the labour court has no jurisdiction to proceed to deal with the industrial dispute referred to it for adjudication. The appeal is allowed and the order of Balakrishna Aiyar J. is set aside. The appellants will have their costs throughout. Advocate's fee Rs. 150 here and before Balakrishna Aiyar J.