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