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Trade Union strike: Why focus on notional losses and not the reasons?
The two-day nationwide strike by major unions in the country has come and gone. It is a periodic event which the government tries to ignore. The media focuses on the violence and the notional losses. But unless we try to understand the reasons and try to remove genuine reasons, there will be chaos.

The major trade unions of India had called for a nationwide two-day strike on 20th and 21st February. It is a periodic event which the government tries to ignore. The reporting of the mega event in the print and the economic media focused on the violence in Noida and Delhi and cutting of the ear of a participant by the goons of Mamta Banerjee's Trinamool Congress.

As expected, the editorial of The Times of India was highly critical of the strike. “The aim seemed less to protect workers interest in well defined areas open to negotiation than to create generalized chaos," it claimed. It must be admitted that the strikers were unable to put across and publicize the reasons of their going on strike.

The ordinary public, students and even workers whose support is necessary for the success of any mass movement, certainly did not understand what it was all about. It is important to identify the reasons. Without solving the issues, this strike will become an aggravating recurring problem. Demand for application of "Outmoded" Labour Laws. One of the demands of the unions was strict implementation of labour laws. They are against revision of labour laws which would make it easier for employers to fire employees. Neo-liberal economists and corporations claim that easy hiring and firing will encourage investment and create jobs.

This claim is not substantiated by experience of liberalizing labour laws in the US and Europe. The measures have only increased corporate profits but did not create jobs or raised incomes of the bottom 60%. Unemployment in the US is high and in Europe it is at unprecedented levels of 25% in some countries. Firing of employees on grounds of indiscipline and inefficiency needs to be made easier but justice and fair play in hiring and firing must be ensured. Exploitation of labour by not paying minimum wages, arbitrary working hours, not paying equal wage for equal work (which is the main cause of labour trouble in Maruti plant at Manesar) must not be allowed.

PSU Disinvestment

Privatization of profitable public sector undertakings for reducing budget deficit is ridiculous and short sighted. Public sector plays a very important role in preventing private sector monopolies and profiteering. It also provides public services like transport, communication, electricity, postal services etc in rural areas which may not be profitable but are essential. At the current rate of disinvestment, we would have sold off all our profit making PSUs in the next 10 years. What will we start selling thereafter? Shall we start selling ports, airports, cities and states to reduce our budget deficit? We must increase revenue by taxing agriculture, the super rich 1% and increasing import duties and vat on luxury goods; spend wisely, cut out wasteful expenditure and have a surplus budget. Disinvestment of controlling holding in PSUs must stop immediately. PSU shares should not be sold to foreign companies. What need to be liquidated is the ministries which control autonomous PSUs.

Out Sourcing of Government Functions

This is desirable if it improves the efficiency of the government. I see nothing wrong in it. However, this should not lead to cutting jobs. Workers who become redundant due to outsourcing must be retrained and employed in some other sectors. Their services can be terminated if they refuse to retrain and redeploy.

Reducing the Power of Unions

There is a need to temper the collective bargaining power of the unions. They cannot be allowed to hold an industry or country to ransom. Militant unions with unreasonable demands led to the industrial decline of Bengal and closing of many industries in Alwar, Rajasthan. It has also led to industries depending on labour contractors for their workforce. Contract labour is paid less than a regular employee. They have no social or medical facilities. Labour contractors are becoming filthy rich, powerful and act like the mafia.

Statutory arbitration must be the mechanism for settling employer/employee disputes and the awards must be binding to both. The right to judicial review should be available to both parties. The infrastructure like special courts for speedy disposal of cases of labour dispute needs to be created.

Violence and destruction of public property must be severely dealt with and the union indulging in violence and destruction should be immediately derecognized and their leaders jailed for at least seven years. Laws relating to functioning of unions need to be reformed to keep unions in house, a political and ensure transparency in elections and functioning of unions.

Conclusion

Neo-liberal economic policies were initiated in the ’70s by Ronald Regan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. Regan commenced to put unions in their place by breaking the "Air Traffic Controller's strike". Thatcher bludgeoned the "Miner's strike" in the UK into submission. Both decided that market forces must rule the world economy.

Neo-liberalism has been practiced in the US and Europe since the ’80s. Look at the results. The rich are getting richer. The global corporations are making unprecedented profits. The income of the bottom 60 percent of the population is either stagnant or reducing. Unemployment is rising; 7.9 % in the US; 11.7% in Europe; over 25% in Spain and Greece (over 50% for the youth). The US has about 20% of its population depending on food stamps to beat hunger. Soup kitchens run by charity organizations are feeding millions in the US and Europe.

Well paid manufacturing, finance and technology jobs are going to China, India and other Asian countries. Only service sector jobs of teachers, waiters and sales persons are being generated in the US and Europe. The dark days of the "Industrial Revolution" described in Dickens's "David Copper Filed" and Richard Llewellyn's 1939 novel "How Green was My Valley" are back.

India introduced neo-liberalism in 1991 when Dr. Manmohan Singh was Finance Minister. Do we want India to follow neo-liberal economics and end up in the same situation as the West? I am no supporter of bullying by the trade union goons. At the same time I cannot accept discriminatory labour practices that are to be found in Maruti and other factories where two workers doing the same work in the same factory do not get the same remunerations. I cannot accept workers amenities and safety standards are compromised to increase corporate profit.

Most of all I do not want self employment through small shops and businesses destroyed by government policies including FDI. The Times of India is right. We must find a middle path where both the Government, Unions and the Corporations act in a responsible manner and disputes are settled in courts of law rather than through industrial action and violence. Unfortunately, our economy is in the hands of three neo-liberalists, Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who are batting for corporation both domestic and multi-national. I am betting that there has to be more industrial unrest and mayhem before things become better.

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