At a workshop on membership-based organisations of the poor hosted by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), it seemed appropriate to reflect on the role and history of India’s trade unions. SEWA came up in the context of the decline of the textile industry, one of India’s largest employers of non-agricultural labour of the twentieth century. This industrial employment and the working conditions gave rise to what at the beginning of the twentieth century seemed to be amongst the most important forms of organisation of the poor. Its history of organisation of ‘informal sector’ workers has been closely associated to the ‘formal sector’ trade union,1 first as part of it, later in an ongoing struggle for recognition, as organisation, first of women workers, and second of workers outside the traditional terrain of trade union activity.