Sunday, January 7, 2007

Democracy, The Right to Strike and the State.

“In my opinion non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good” 1921-1930.

Mahatma Gandhi during the struggle against the British 1921-1930 (as quoted in the Gandhi Museum, Madurai)

“I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might” Mahatma Gandhi in his letter dated 5 April 1930.

The drama of the Government Employees strike against pension reforms that unfolded in TamilNadu in July 2003 reminded one of the Rule of England by Elizabeth I. Nobody mattered except the ruler. The State and its instruments of regulation are meant for those in power, not for the people. Reminiscent of the days of British Rule, the administration, the justice system and the police are more than eager to please the powers that be – except a conscientious few. But then that seems to be the ‘babu’ legacy left behind by the British Democracy – Please the ruler by doing more than what is expected so that one can earn brownie points. Midnight arrests, teachers and government employees who till the other day were human beings are suddenly chased on the streets like dogs by the police. Those who could not run were rounded up into the waiting vans and dumped in prison. Then came the coup-de-grace. Absolute majority in the Government was taken as the license for abrogating the right to decide on people’s livelihood. By official estimates close to two lakhs of people, some of whom had been working for years suddenly find themselves dismissed from service by notices pasted in public notice boards. The issue prolonged to almost the end of July. Lakhs of employees (school teachers, college teachers etc) were dismissed or suspended during this period. Work got disrupted, but that is all right as it is the Government that is responsible. Work disruption when workers are responsible is what is not correct. It is like when the Government for political benefits calls for a cessation of work – that is legally allowed. Just a demonstration of discontent. The State can express its displeasure and hold the people to ransom but the other way is not allowed.

But that is all legal – after all the dispensers of justice have declared that the right to strike does not exist for Government employees even earlier. Kerala was the forerunner of the Essential Services Maintenance Act in 1994 where similar legislation accruing power over people’s right to strike was brought in. We only went a step further in TamilNadu by bringing in ordinances for summary dismissal. For after all: Is the State not the final authority? How does it matter if the Constitution of India under Part III of Fundamental Rights in Article 13 says, “(2) The State shall not make any law which takes away or abridges the rights conferred by this Part and any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of the contravention, be void.
(3) In this article, unless the context otherwise required, - (a) "law" includes any Ordinance, order, bye-law, rule, regulation, notification, custom or usage having in the territory of India the force of law
.” There is always the escape clause about “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” People’s discontent, after they have given the ‘mandate to rule’ does not matter, till it is time to get another mandate. Till then one of the items of the escape clause can always be made applicable. And when the Government frowns, the human beings who are part of the police and the official machinery have to go a step further and please the powers that be. What can the individual do but to bow before the rulers? Otherwise they will face the wrath like the others. Better to please and get the crumbs than to ask for silly things like fundamental rights.

If the people are foolish enough to believe things during election time, if the parties did not see the writing on the wall at that time, then who is to blame? They should have learned of the authoritarian and regal instincts from the mother of all marriages that took place. The alliance partners that joined the party then in power during elections were naïve to believe that corruption is not a major issue and that communalism is the major issue. They learnt the lesson immediately after the election results - that authoritarianism flows from the barrel of the election. If there had been a credible Third Front the absolute majority that caused the terror then would not have happened. The earlier government had earned the dubious distinction of being the most anti-labour, anti-secular, anti-people government so far. It ruled by ordinances and laws that never saw the light of discussions. The people must be happy that there were no concentration camps. Maybe that is not a bad idea – when people are willing to accept Corruption and Communalism of those in power they surely will be willing and silent spectators to authoritarian de-humanisation. What else can be said, when people who have been working for years are made to suffer and cry while the government takes its time giving them back their jobs, which they took away. The Constitution and the judiciary were constantly undermined by the Elizabethan rule that cocked a snook at such institutions. How else could it be when one day the Supreme Court was promised by the Government that the jobs will be given back, but the next day what 19,000 people received were the FIR copies of charges filed against them instead of orders to join back for work. The crime committed by them was to have had the audacity to question the government and ask for what was due from the years of work.

Unfortunately Tamil Nadu was not in isolation and was following the global trend. The Annual Survey of the violation of Trade Union Rights by International Confederation of Free Trade Unions ( finds “80% of the countries examined have adopted restrictive strike legislation”. The right to strike has been a victim of the unbridled globalisation process dictated by the moneylenders of the world. The free world does not believe in crude forms of bonded labour. The business of pension reforms has come up in many countries. For example in May 2003,
much of France was paralysed by public-sector strikes called to protest against pension reform plans. A one-day strike – the most effective since union protests on the same issue brought France to a standstill in the winter of 1995 – closed most schools, halted almost all trains and local transport and blocked the distribution of newspapers. Four out of five flights to and from France were cancelled. In Paris, an estimated 250,000 state employees and their supporters (70,000 according to the police) marched through the streets, carrying banners and shouting slogans against the centre-right government's plans to reform a pensions system, which is especially generous to workers in the public sector. More than 2 million people joined similar marches in 100 French cities and towns. With much of the Metro, local rail and bus system halted, tens of thousands of Parisians awarded themselves a day off work. Others walked, cycled or roller-skated to their shops or offices. However, no draconian measures were invoked or legislated to bring the people to their knees. Partly because the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, did not want to have the experience of earlier centre-right government of Alain Juppé that tried to tackle the issue in 1993-97 and was forced to retreat and fall by massive street protests and prolonged transport strikes.

A good example of how the pension issue could have been tackled is the example of Italy, which brings out the role of congenial dialogue between the government and the trade unions. At the beginning of the decade, Italy was the victim of a true systemic crisis. The whole
economic trend was unsteady and fell into recession in 1993. The GDP decreased by 0.7%. Unemployment rate was constantly over 10%. The ratio between deficit and GDP remained particularly high when compared to other European economies. On the basis of these difficulties the Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, nominated by the Head of State after the political elections of 1992, decided to explore with the trade unions and social organizations an agreement capable of overcoming the crisis. During this period, apart from the union mobilizing workers, there was a collaborative atmosphere. During the month of October 1992, after a period of particular turbulences on the currency market, the government obtained from Parliament the delegated powers to carry out the pension reform. Trade unions and companies essentially supported the whole process, without reaching a formal agreement. On the basis of this quid pro quo approach, an intense negotiating phase developed. The cordiality was apparent from the fact that the unions did not call for any general strike. The working method was the following: technical meetings were organized at the Ministry of Labour until agreement drafts were defined. Successively tripartite conferences were held at the Prime Minister Offices. Based on these, the Minister Treu proposed a first reform draft. The negotiations were carried on without interruption until the agreement was signed. Such tight relation was favoured by the increasing degree of institutionalisation, as well as by the pro-labour parties’ presence in the parliamentary majority and the absence of an absolute majority for those with a tainted history. The coherence between the interests expressed by the trade union and by centre-left parties was also relevant. Subsequently, the plan introduced a flexible-retirement age (from a minimum of 57 to a maximum of 65 years of age) by calculating the benefits in a progressive, carefully gauged manner. The development of co-operation between unions and the State favoured the adoption of new rules in the pension field. Thus governments capable of implementing the reform have been able to do so as they placed as their main goal not only the adoption of effective measures for the solution of pension problems, but also the search of a compromise with the unions. But then there the Italian government was interested in finding solutions and more importantly it could not display the awesome power of the State to crush human beings.

The necessity of unions as catalysts for social change and peace has also been brought out by Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. He studied ethnic violence by looking at why certain cities are more peaceful than others even in times of communal stress. He found that ethnically integrated organizations - including business associations, trade unions, and professional groups - stand out as the most effective ways of controlling conflict. Thus governments and society tend to gain more than lose by allowing the fundamental right to form unions rather than getting oaths under duress that employees will not join associations. Being more British than the british, the undertaking to be signed unconditionally by the lakhs of employees who had to crawl back to work states “No government servant shall engage himself in strike or in incitements thereto or in similar activities. Explanation: The expression ‘similar activities’ shall be deemed to include the absence from work or neglect of duties without permission and with the object of compelling something to be done by his superior officers or the Government or any demonstrative fast usually called ‘hunger strike’ for similar purposes”. This in the land of the Mahatma who pioneered the concept of hunger strike as a weapon of the people to protect their rights. The Supreme Court endorsed this by declaring that government servants do not have the right to strike. Moreover like vegetables the livelihood of human beings are bargained. The number of people considered for inciting violence and against whom FIRs are to be shown has to be limited to 5000 – so went the ruling. Why 5000? Probably that is a nice round number! It does not matter if there is not any truth in the FIRs that were arbitrarily filed, in most cases after the numbers were declared. But then globalisation and the demands of the international moneylenders dictate the interests of the State and the apparatus for justice. Hard earned fundamental rights are trampled upon in the desire to ensure investment. As long as the State and its apparatus for justice exists only for those who wield power, money and authority – this situation will not change. And the Government will continue to be for those who wield power, money and authority unless people’s organizations show cooperation like those demonstrated in the World Social Forum meetings and people are prepared to follow Gandhi’s words uttered in a different context: In my opinion non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good”.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thus governments and society tend to gain more than lose by allowing the fundamental right to form unions rather than getting oaths under duress that employees will not join associations.

I hope you will say the same when government employees join Swayam sevak sangh!