The union leader

Bala Tampoe has been the head of the Ceylon Mercantile Industrial and General Workers Union for over fifty years. He talks about the psychology behind a successful strike and his identity as a workers’ leader. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam.


Join the discussion: 6 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    I first met Bala Tampoe last December. He told me that workers from James Finlay & Co, a British company that among other things exported tea bags, had decided to strike after failing to compromise on a better pay package. He asked me along to the strike which was taking place in Mahabage, just outside Colombo. The workers were members of his union, the CMU, which was supporting the workers’ action.

    After a lively demonstration with the men riding their motorbikes up and down the road leading to the company’s warehouse and the other workers shouting slogans and waving placards, I watched Mr Tampoe take the stage to cries for victory. Shouts of “Jaya wewa” grew louder as Mr Tampoe addressed the workers in Sinhala. A few years ago the CMU celebrated Mr Tampoe’s 50th year as leader, and at 88, the energetic Mr Tampoe was still at the helm. On stage, he was in his element, whipping up the crowd’s enthusiasm for the strike, and also reassuring them that the CMU was fully behind them.

    Later that day I went to the CMU’s offices to interview Mr Tampoe. When I arrived he and the union’s lawyer were busy strategising on another dispute. A huge book of employment law was open on Mr Tampoe’s lap. When I finally got my chance to interview him, it became clear that the hour he could spare me was not going to be anywhere close to covering an extraordinary life that spanned eight decades and at least three different careers. We jumped from his days as a schoolboy boxer when he overcame his phobia of physical pain, to his life as a successful trial lawyer (he had a reputation for murder cases, more often than not, getting his clients off!).

    Mr Tampoe is originally from Jaffna and I knew that his ancestry could be traced back to the Jaffna kings. But when I asked him about his royal roots, he was evasive; he was far more interested in talking to me about his Marxist roots. He saw himself fundamentally as a socialist and a workers’ leader.

    I met Mr Tampoe again last week to drop off some photos. It was a Saturday and no one else was there at the office. I couldn’t resist another opportunity to find out more about this remarkable man.

  • Dhiresh Tampoe says:

    I am grateful for this amazing testimony to my father and his “Tampoe Pattaw”, collectively referred to by him as “Singhe Pattaw”!

    When I visited the Sri Lankan Embassy in Los Angeles, they adressed me as the son of the “people’s man’. An accurate tribute to his lifetime of self-sacrifice for the welfare of the people, especially the underdog.

    Special thanks to Max Jayakoddy for his assistance in continuing the legacy of the CMU, with my father at the helm.

  • @iam_project says:

    Jaya wewa Bala Tampoe, who completed 65 years as General Secretary of the CMU on 1 February 2013

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    Bala Tampoe, 1922 – 2014. RIP

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    We remember union leader Bala Tampoe, who passed away seven years ago today


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