Is this what unions should be doing?

EA Ramaswamy | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on September 06, 2016

Turning their back on change? The unions are bound to lose the battle   -  PTI

Instead of becoming flag-bearers of change, trade unions are simply shooting themselves in the foot by stalling reforms

The trade unions have gone on yet another nation-wide strike. Their demand is that the government should roll back its efforts to reform the economy. In their view, economic reform is anti-labour and anti-poor, and should therefore be abandoned.

This is not the first time we have heard this argument, nor is this the first strike to be called to press the issue. And this is not the first government to face the unions’ ire. They have been against every government that spoke of reform. Actually they didn’t have to do very much since no government was serious about reform, not even after 1991 which we now recognise to be the turning point.

All we have seen from governments for twenty-five years is muted expression of intent, but even this has been too much for the unions. They have happily mistaken feeble noises emanating from the government for sincerity of purpose, and called nation-wide general strikes over and over again.

A routine affair

The current strike has followed a well-rehearsed routine. Banks were shut down, public enterprises were closed, and Kerala ground to a halt. Not much else has happened, but chest-thumping trade unionists will claim that the country was locked down by angry citizens who want a return to the past.

Actually, most people cannot understand what is achieved by this disruption. They have seen this happen before and they know it will happen again.

All they can do is to stoically endure the inconvenience. The less charitable think that the under-worked and overpaid workers of the organised sector are simply arranging a long paid weekend for themselves.

Even if we discount this as unwarranted cynicism, the fact is that at the ground level all this sound and fury will produce nothing. It produced nothing in the past because reforms were in any case not being pushed by any government. It will produce nothing now because this government is not going to listen to them.

This is a great pity because we need a trade union movement that will be heard, a movement which raises issues that matter to working people and comes up with an outcome that will alleviate their hardship.

What we have is a union movement that goes from one ritualistic expression of protest to another and touts this as a great achievement even though there is no palpable outcome. By pursuing this sterile strategy the labour movement has pushed itself into a corner.

It is no longer in a position to make a dent on policies that matter to working people. The working people have lost their voice in macro policy. Like any other social movement, trade unionism is about winning friends and influencing people. Our unions have achieved the exact opposite.

What they mean

To understand why unions have come to this pass we must move from what they say to what they mean. They say reform should be rolled back but what they mean is that nothing should change. Opposition to change is the agenda, that is what trade union struggle has been about for a very long time.

Let us move back in time and look at some of the issues they have fought bitterly. Throughout the 1980s the bank unions fought tooth and nail against computerisation. Banks that had bought the hardware could not even open the crates for fear of union reprisal. As we now know, the battle was lost.

All they achieved was to slow down the entry of computers, but at great cost to the banking industry and to the economy. In characteristic style the left unions that dominate the banks have glossed over their folly after a quarter century with the remark that small mistakes were made in the past.

Let us now move to an issue that is currently red hot. Bank unions are once again in the lead and the opposition is to the amalgamation of associate banks with the State Bank of India. Unions have come up with all kinds of reasons to show that the merger is wrong and bad. It is claimed to be anti-poor, against the interests of stake holders, and entirely dysfunctional.

The truth is that the merger might affect the career prospects of bank staff, especially in associate banks. The opposition is to change. Career prospects do, of course, matter but so do mergers and acquisitions. The wonder is not that the merger has happened but that it has taken so long. The unions have lost the battle yet again.

A waste all the way

Sadly, even as unions waste their energies chasing wild geese, there are plenty of worthy causes crying out for attention. There is crass misuse of contract workers throughout the organised sector. They are employed in droves to do the same work as permanent labour, but at a fraction of the wage.

At the minimum, they ought to be paid the same wage for the same work. There is growing refusal of the right to organise, often in collusion with the labour department, especially by multinationals. The informal sector is a cesspool of exploitation. The hours are long, the wage is a pittance and conditions of work are unspeakable.

Our labour laws are truly antiquated. We are stuck in this ancient groove even though commissions and committees have come and gone. The decent work that ILO speaks of is beyond the wildest dreams of all but a fraction of our working people. Trade unions can make a difference to this terrible situation.

They can make a difference if they want to influence change instead of trying to stop it. By attempting to stall change, unions have simply shot themselves in the foot.

The writer is a labour relations and HR consultant

Published on September 06, 2016
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