Of Strikes and Strikers

(Indian Express, July 21, 1990)

Strikes in the recent past have become, in the absence of an effective grievance redressing machinery, a mere instrument to draw attention rather than an express­ion of great anguish and frustration, feels ANIL SARWAL.

STRIKES, whether by students or employees, are increasing in both number and intensity everywhere with the growth of the trade union movement in the world. India is no exception. During the last few years we have witnessed at least a dozen or more country­wide strikes, the outcome of which is debatable.

Presumably, people stage walk-outs, sit in 'dharma', organize 'gheraos', hold rallies, offer voluntary arrests or go on strikes as a last resort to fight against an injustice done to them. In other words, behind every such action there ought to be some very serious issues affecting the lives and work of the persons concerned. Further, all other methods to settle the problem amicably would have failed But even when the crisis remains unresolved and the affected persons adopt an agitational approach, it should still be a matter of great concern for everyone. This certainly, does not apply to most strikes, going by the present-day conditions.

To me, it seems, strikes in the recent past have become, in the absence of an effective grievance-redressing machinery, a mere instrument to draw attention rather than an expression of great anguish and frustration of the strikers. So much so that now strikes have clearly defined steps and both the strikers and the authorities know about the actions to follow. Only when the authorities realize that the strikers are bent upon getting their (just or unjust) demands fulfilled do they begin to take preliminary steps to remedy the situation. By the time some decisions are taken, the issues involved assume momentous proportions and go beyond all control. Who is responsible for all this, I cannot say, but I believe much of it has to do with the system that we operate in.

If we were to look for the genesis of a strike, obviously we would end up with identifying some issues—genuine or perceived. The point, however, is that issues can always be created even if there are none. Many union leaders do this all the time to ensure that they do not lose their seals of power. The process is quite simple. In any institution, organization or establishment, there are bound to be problems—some serious, others routine.  The strategy of the leaders is to magnify the issues that, they feel, concern a large majority of people. The question of right or wrong generally does not decide which issues are important and which are not. It is a matter of strategy or simple mathematics rather than genuineness.

Most of the issues, therefore, have to do with enhanced salaries or reduced workload. I would not say that to demand an in­crease in salary is bad or for that-matter to fight against inhuman working conditions is wrong. But the real motives behind such demands are important as are the methods adopted. There are instances where people had no other recourse open to them but to launch an agitation to get their fundamental rights restored. However, I would not see much reason in a demand to remove a disciplinarian Principal, Head of a department or an institution. Neither would I approve of demanding promotions without improved qualifications or, for that matter, reinstating an official who has been suspended for negligence of duty or corruption.

Further, while at the surface a demand may look perfectly genuine, the real motive may be to secure a personal vendetta, seek self-glorification or satisfy one's own ego. Sometimes, the leaders take up issues for the sake of their group aspirations of which they themselves are not convinced.

Then there are those demands of the employees which I choose to term as 'dream-world' demands. These demands constitute undue and constant criticism of the governing authority, complaints about the non-func­tioning of the lower or higher staff, and criticism of campus cleanliness, canteen and transport facilities—some of which are the responsibility of the employees themselves. In many instances, the employees may find the boss 'too strict', demanding extreme punctuality, efficiency and so on.

I know from experience that when the persons who make such demands themselves get into the seat of authority, they do exactly the same as their boss had been doing. 'Dream-world' demands vanish as soon as we stare at them hard enough in the face.

If the employees, thus, seem to be quite unreasonable in their attitudes and demands, the employers are no better. Most of them are quite indifferent to the work conditions, hardships arid sufferings of their employees. Neither are they just nor sympathetic. There are hundreds of cases of exploitation, cruelty and underpayment. Not till the employees lose all control do the employers pay attention to their demands. The result is lock-outs and strikes in which no one really benefits and the over­all productivity of the nation suffers.

The government authorities are no better. There are problems of different kinds in the government departments. The bureaucracy stifles all creativity. Much more emphasis is laid on the letter of the rules rather than their spirit. There is a great deal of adhocism, political interference, victimization, suppression. exploitation and favouritism in the government departments besides the rampant corruption. The officers usually do not want to be disturbed out of their leisure till it becomes absolutely unavoidable.

The result is that files do not move in spite of the repeated reminders and representations made by the employees. Even notices of the unions or requests for talks are most wilfully ignored. The situation is so grave that even the agreements arrived a! after negotiations, p ro­le sis and strikes are not im­plemented.

As a college colleague put it, "First to get our pay scales revised we had to go on strike. Then to get them implemented we had to go on strike. Now the allowances have been unilaterally changed. To get them restored we are on strike. When they are restored we'll have to go on strike to get the anomalies removed."  How very true!  To get every single thing done these days a strike seems-to be absolutely essential.

Obviously, a change in the outlook of all those involved in decision-making is necessary to check any further deterioration in the general working conditions in the country There is need for the authorities and workers to engage in a more meaningful, frank and honest interaction. The issues must be framed without any trace of passion or self-gratification. The consultative process should be free from all attempts at self-promotion or personality clashes

While the employees must refrain from threats, violent and disruptive methods, the employers should never resort to suppression, underhand tactics or harassment. The keynote of ' all discussion should be judi­cious reasoning, mild persuasion, a great deal of fellow-feeling and whole-hearted cooperation. Only and only when the purpose of all negotiations becomes to give and receive justice, can the situation be improved.

 ©Anil Sarwal