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Is the ban on strikes by government employees justified?

August 13, 2003

It may help do away with the economic loss and inconvenience, but it also curtails the workers' right to air their grievance.

Tarun Das, Director General, Confederation of Indian Industry

The Supreme Court has made a landmark judgement rendering strikes by government employees as illegal. The two-member bench comprising Justice M B Shah and Justice A R Lakshmanan observed that "apart from statutory rights, government employees cannot claim that they can take society at ransom by going on strike."

Strikes by government employees from time to time have affected many a state government over the years. The decision of the Supreme Court is welcome on more counts than one.

In a society where there is large-scale unemployment and lakhs of qualified and skilled people are waiting in the wings for employment, strikes are not the best means of protest.

Strikes by doctors, transport, postal employees and teachers are a deterrent for the overall development of the country.

The employees can air their grievances expressing their views through various means without resorting to stoppage of work. The government is also duty bound to lend a ear to the grievances.

Strikes for any cause cannot be justified in the present day scenario. Strike as a weapon does more harm and the sufferer is society at large.

When 200,000 employees go on strike en masse, the entire administration comes to a grinding halt. We, as responsible citizens, should look at the larger interest of the society and focus our manpower potential towards the growth of our country.

True, there will be grievances, but in order to redress those grievances, the employees need to work diligently and take up relevant issues with the authorities for redressal using methods other than strikes.

Protests must happen and every segment of society, including government employees, has the right to protest. But it is the way and style of these protests that needs to be reviewed.

The need today is to focus on the importance of being constructive and avoiding disruption to the social and economic life of a country or any part of it.

Also, government employees have chosen to work for the states, for public service.

This calls for an even higher sense of responsibility and accountability than others outside state employment. More than anyone else in society, government employees have to be a role model, earn and maintain public respect. Resorting to strikes in the past has led to loss of respect.

Internationally, there are many models of protest. Black bands, silent marches and so on, are some such forms that have been used without going on a strike and without disruption. The Supreme Court decision will point us towards these ways rather than strikes.

The world has changed so much and so has India. Competition has become severe across the world. Slowly, but steadily, India has grown and strengthened its economy and its institutions.

A confident, competitive India has emerged so that through higher levels of efficiency and productivity, job generation and creation is possible in large numbers.

At this time, the most important issue is to avoid disruption of work, to bring and keep people together and to avoid any kind of activity that sets the country back.

Economic growth and sustained hard work are important and, indeed, crucial to rapid development. In this framework, strikes really should have no place.

Swadesh Dev Roye, Secretary, Centre for Indian Trade Unions

" We are deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court judgement. We have not received the full judgement, so we have not had time to study it.

But from the reports in the media, we believe the Supreme Court has struck at the roots of a right that working people have struggled to win all over the world and in India. That is why the judgement is anti-democratic.

Let us examine the context of the judgement. The proximate cause was the strike of government employees in Tamil Nadu. The strike was not to ask for a new charter of demands or any fresh concessions.

It was a strike in self defence because the state government was altering the service conditions of government employees and withdrawing many of the pensionary and other rights the employees had been promised.

The employees were not asking for the sun, moon or stars. They wanted the government -- their employer -- to make good its promises. Instead of negotiating, the state government put thousands of people behind bars, issued summary dismissal orders for another few thousand and forwarded these orders as first investigation reports to the state police as endorsement of dismissal.

And what did the Supreme Court do? Surely this is not the first time people have gone on strike? We don't like striking work. It is a weapon of last resort.

It is not something we take pride or pleasure in doing. So when we strike work, we do it with a heavy heart knowing terrible reprisals will follow.

Without thinking of the martyrdom of lakhs of people who have evolved the concept of the strike, the Supreme Court said it is wrong because thousands are inconvenienced.

Their argument was: everything gets thrown out of gear and that no one has the right to hold the nation to ransom.

But why take a one-eyed view of the world? If you don't address the cause and only harp on the effect, your sense of balance gets affected.

A strike may be wrong or right. It may be good for the workers or bad for them. I have in my career, known of strikes that have harmed the cause of workers rather than improved it. But the right to strike is sacred. As a trade unionist, I have the right of self defence.

In a sense, the Supreme Court has overstepped its jurisdiction. The right to make laws belongs to Parliament. The right to form associations to protest laws which hurt people is guaranteed by the Constitution. The court is impinging on the rights of the legislature.

We believe all workers must wake up and organise to defeat the kind of observations that the court has made. It only reflects the wave of imperialist globalisation that is sweeping the world.

We are not against globalisation. But we don't believe that globalisation that only subserves the interests of the G-8 should be supported. All that the judgement has done is further the cause of those countries that are following the imperialist agenda.

An enlightened employer supports the right to strike. The president of the Punjab and Haryana, Chamber of Commerce and Industry has issued a statement saying he does not support the Supreme Court judgement because the right to strike is the only way workers can ventilate their grievance.

All employers don't have a halo around their heads. And all workers are not rapacious people bent on causing inconvenience to the people. Unfortunately, the judgement paints a black and white picture.

We have earned the right to strike. We -- the workers -- have contributed through sacrifice (and strike) to help India gain independence. We won't let anyone take away that right from us.

(As told to Aditi Phadnis)



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