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Compelling need to control ‘wild cat strikers’

The recent strikes by doctors, para - medical staff, employees of the Ceylon Electricity Board, the university academic and non academic staff and most recently the strikes launched by the railway workers and private bus operators bring into sharp focus, the moral responsibilities of Trade Unions, and the indiscrete resort to strikers action to win their demands.

The strike launched by the railway workers and bus operators brought the train and bus service to a grinding halt countrywide. The strikes left tens of thousands of commuters including schoolchildren high and dry. The railway workers and private bus owners were apparently trying to justify holding the public to ransom at the drop of a hat.

Helplessness of the public

While the workers right to Trade Union action must be recognized and respected, on no grounds should their irresponsible behaviour in the name of protests be countenanced. The recent strikes have abundantly demonstrated the helplessness of the public. With the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and affiliated unions threatening of more strikes to cripple the essential services, it is indeed timely to consider the moral obligations of unions towards society and also the need to regulate the conduct of the unions, particularly to prevent disruption of the essential services. The pertinent question posed by the general public is, should trade unions be permitted to continue unabated with their threats of disruption of essential services? The patience the public have so far displayed is running thin.

Sri Lanka has a penchant for protests and strike action, so much so, that their sight inspires little interest unless they obstruct the routine of life and time.

This is because of the monotonous regularity in which strikes and protests organized. Unemployed graduates litter several sites, demanding the state to grant them employment in the already crowded public sector. A most disheartening feature of some recent protests is the use of helpless schoolchildren in various protests.

Their participation in protests invariably associated with violence with inevitably creates a rebellion's nature in the young minds.

As a nation and a people striving for development, it is imperative that we study its relevance to trade union and strike action. Leaving aside the decadent political motives behind such action, time, money and energy spent on such demonstrations could very well be converted into productive man hours and investment that could pave the way for new opportunities. Insular thinking and pretense should have no place that a government which by no means obliged to provide gainful employment for every citizen. A trade union is an organization of workers formed to promote, protect and improve through collective action, the social, economic and political interests of its members.

While the philosophies of trade unions have gradually changed with the times, trade unions are essential entities in any democratic country and should be encouraged to represent the voice of the workers. They provide the perfect forum for workers to project their demands and the most effective vehicle to interact with the employers.

In Sri Lanka, trade unions which were formed to protect the common interests of workers have become tools in the hands of power seeking individuals. There have been reports that certain external organizations such as embassies and NGOs are influencing the unions with a view to pursue their own political agendas. Regrettably these individuals have not hesitated to sacrifice the interests of the country and that of the works by launching ‘Wild Cat’ strikes.

Right to strike

Most democratic countries have reformed their trade unions to ensure that unions respond to their general membership. The right to strike is one of the most fundamental rights enjoyed by employees and unions and is an integral part of the right to defend their economic and social interests.

While the law in several countries expressly recognizes the right to strike, in others strikes are prohibited. In some others limitations exist in regard to certain types of strikes. E.g. general strikes, stay in strikes, sympathetic strikes, strikes designed to inflict hardship on the community or to coerce the government.

In certain countries a strike, if it does not resolve furtherance of a trade union dispute within the industry concerned is prohibited. Strikes may be considered legal, but as a breach of the contract of employment justifying dismissal as in Malaysia.

In Australia strikes are often considered to be against public policy and provides for a system of compulsory arbitration. In Britain the right to strike has not been expressly recognized in English Law.

The legal recognition given to strikes and their trade unions have been in the form of immunities. In Sri Lanka while the freedom of association is established in the constitution and in Statute form, here is no express right to workers to go on strikes.

Ultimate instrument

A strike is meant to be the ultimate instrument in trade union action; not a political tool to destabilize a government as in the case of the recent strikes.

Strikes go against the work ethos; and no nation was built on strikes, but on hard work. 'Work harder for your larder' was the slogan that broke down Britain used to rebuild after the ravages of World War II.

Striking labour plagued the economy starting - in the 1950s and by the 1960s, every conceivable mercantile and public sector - and by then the plantation sector had its trade unions ostensibly to protect the rights of the working class, baring a few unions they were largely controlled by political parties with agendas often at variance with those of the labour force.

Role of unions

The workers must be vary of being injured by those disruptive elements, masquerading as liberators into trade union traps. President Mahinda Rajapaksa at discussions with a group of pro-government trade union representatives has warned of insidious efforts of some destructive forces to destabilize the country. The recent strikes and the threatened strikes have all the trappings of a political muscle flexing on the part of some of the organizers.

Some Unions are undoubtedly attempting to settle political scores with the government on the pretext of championing the cause of the workers. A trade union is an organization of workers formed to promote, protect and improve through collective action, the social economic and interests of its members.

While the philosophies of trade unions have gradually changed with the times.

Trade Unions are essential entities in any democratic country and should be encouraged to represent the voice of the workers. They provide the perfect forum for workers to project their demands and the most effective vehicle to interact with the employers. It is accepted without any dispute that harmonious industrial relations are vital for increasing productivity of national development.

Regrettably in Sri Lanka, trade unions which were formed to protect the common interests of workers have become tools in the hands of power seeking-selfish individuals.

These individuals have not hesitated to sacrifice the interests of the country and the workers, by launching 'wild cat' strikes and of late, essentially realizing their political durations. Trade re-unions are no longer democratic organizations most of them are run by a mafia with no internal democracy.

In the context of the strikes we have experienced in the public sector, it may be necessary, apart from invoking the ‘Essential Services Order’ to consider new regulations to prevent those public sector employees in 'Essential Services' from resorting to strike action. The government should enact suitable regulations to prevent 'wild cat' strikes.

In most democratic countries public sector employees are allowed to resort to strike action in specific circumstances, essentially for matters relating to their employment, but restrictions are imposed to ensure that there is no disruption of the essential services. The decision to strike in these countries must be by secret ballot.

It may be advisable to set out clearly under what circumstances public sector employees can strike and how such decision should be made.

There must be a secret ballot be made to resort to strike action. There must be secret ballot before strikes are called and the membership must ballot for a strike.

Notice

In Germany there is a 'Cooling Off' period of seven days after negotiations breakdown. This is understandable and provides the state the opportunity to intervene to settle the dispute or make such special provisions dispute or make such special provisions for the continuation of the essential services.

The so-called lightning strikes, sudden strikes without notice like the recent strike of the Railway workers should be banned by law.

Trade Union leaders who call them should be made personally responsible for losses and damage not only to the employers but also to the third parties.

In Nigeria while the workers right to strike is recognized, the Criminal Code requires the workers engaged in essential services to give adequate notice of their intention to strike.

In no democratic country are Trade Unions which resort to violence tolerated. In every country which grants trade union immunity from civil action lays down that where union members resort to violence or damage to employer's property, they forfeit such immunity.

The Trade Unions are set up under the Trade Unions Ordinance and are given legal rights and immunity there under but equally they have to abide by the laws of the country and members are liable to be dealt with for alleged acts like every other citizen. Unless some meaningful action is taken to rid the country of strikes for frivolous reasons by the public sector Trade Unions, the day will not be too far when those given to ‘wild cat’ strikes will be strong enough to paralyze the whole country.

Outsiders

The government should bring in new regulations to regulate strikes in the public sector without depending essentially on the Emergency Regulations and Public Security Ordinance.

Whatever measures are to be adopted the following salient aspects should be given adequate consideration as these are inextricably interwoven with Trade Unionism, industrial harmony and national development.

A. Advisability of permitting ‘outsiders’ to hold office in Public Sector Unions

B. Need to explicitly set out the circumstances under which public sector employees, particularly those in ‘Essential services’, can resort to ‘Strike action’

C. Provision for secret ballot when deciding on strike action

D. Notice of strike action

E. Immunity from civil action

Most democratic countries do not allow ‘Outsiders’ to hold office in Public Sector Trade Unions, nor do they allow affiliation with Trade Union Bodies outside the public sector. At the time of the Independence and even in the 1950s, the administrative regulations included this provision. Regrettably, in Sri Lanka Unionism has been inspired by political factions, with leaders aspiring to catapult themselves into the political arena by championing the causes of the workers.

How can ‘outsiders’ appreciate adequately the grievances and tribulations of a particular section of the workers? Very strangely the Nurses Union is led by a Buddhist monk not driven by ‘Universal Love’ but more restricted love for the welfare of the nurses even at the expense of poor sick and ailing.

Development and progress

If strikes could be avoided, hundreds of thousands of useful working hours would be saved. Productivity will increase; foreign investors would have a greater faith and rush investments.

The country by large would prosper. To ensure industrial harmony it is necessary more than ever before to effectively regulate the Trade Unions. The public cannot be expected to sit back and watch Trade Unions launch ‘wild cat’ strikes with monotonous regularity.

They too have a right to voice their grievances and the right to protect their interests as do the strikers, if not more so, particularly when it involves highly essential services like, electricity, water and health.

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