Dealing with strikes | Daily News

Dealing with strikes

The Government has apparently finally decided on the need for proactive steps to deal with the spate of strikes in the State sector that has been the norm in recent times. In one such move Transport Minister Arjuna Ranatunga has moved in to employ retired locomotive operatives to deal with the rail strike that has entered its second week.

The engine drivers, station masters, guards etc., have taken a decision to cease operations every Friday until their demands which includes a pay hike, are met. Television networks showed overcrowded trains with passengers precariously placed on the roofs and pouring out of moving trains at grave risk to their lives. Apparently this mattered little to the railway unions who only care about extracting their pound of flesh and to hell with the suffering commuters.

Hence, the minister’s decision to get tough is the most appropriate course. He even told Parliament, that, if need be, he would not hesitate to even getting down engine drivers from abroad to keep the trains running. This should be an option in case of intransigence of trade unions in other sectors as well. Today trade unions have overstepped their mark and are holding the Government to ransom over unreasonable demands. It is well known that locomotive operatives receive fat pay checks and some even receive a take home pay in the region of Rs. 200,000 a month as disclosed by State Minister Ashok Abeysinghe during the last railway strike. Yet they think nothing of ditching train commuters midway during the journey as was the case last week when a train bound for Chilaw suddenly came to a standstill so the engine driver could join the strike at the appointed time.

The strike was called despite a pledge to settle issues through discussions by all stakeholders. Minister Ranatunga gave the unions an undertaking to look into their grievances but not before resuming their duties. This intransigence on the part of the railway unions cannot be without political motives, what with crucial elections round the corner. The unions are aware that any settlement on their terms could open the floodgates for other State sector actors to cash in and make similar demands. This is exactly why Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera stood firm in refusing to release funds to meet the demands of railway trade unions.

Besides, rail strikes are now becoming all too frequent and if the trend continues it will not only cause a breakdown of the public transport system but also invite the wrath of public on the Government. A Pro-Opposition TV channel was quickly on the spot when the strike broke out, interviewing commuters who naturally heaped scorn on the Government for being weak in failing to deal firmly with the strikers. Therefore, the Government cannot be unaware of the ploy adopted by the Opposition to show it (Government) in a poor light which certainly would have prompted Minister Ranatunga to go for drastic action.

Needless to say, the country, reeling from the Easter Sunday bombings is hard put to get the economy back on track and is just about raising its head from the debris of the devastation. At a time sacrifices are called for from all segments it is unthinkable that trade unions would make more unjust demands. The country certainly cannot afford trade union action in the form of wildcat strikes that, in addition to disrupting public life, would incur a heavy economic cost.

It is reported that the Railways had lost over Rs.40 million during the first week of the rail strike. Besides, labour unrest is a sure recipe for investors’ exodus from the country and a dire message for would-be foreign investors. It was said that had President J. R. Jayewardene not dealt firmly with the July 80 strikers and given into their demands the Free Trade Zones which generated massive employment would have been a non-starter in this country and so would have the many business ventures started with foreign collaboration. The Old Fox meant business (pun intended) and took steps to ensure business flowed into the country - come what may.

Similarly, the Government should not compromise with intransigent trade unions and look for alternatives in the event of a deadlock. The railway unions resorted to the shutdown while the Emergency was in force and a Gazette issued declaring the Railways an Essential Service. The unions’ leaders had the brass to say that they did not give a whit for the Gazette and would continue with the strike until the Government yielded to their demands.

This is an open challenge to the country’s laws which the Government has so far taken lying down. Another factor that gives the trade unions to act with impunity is the knowledge that the Government would never follow up with its threat to deem the strikers who did not report for duty to be considered as having vacated their posts. This is exactly what JRJ did in July 1980 which the present Government should consider emulating if it is to have a disciplined work force.


 

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