So the strike of Air India pilots has finally been called off after 58 painful days. The total loss to the government has been put around Rs 610 crores. Forget the inconvenience caused to the general public. The pilots couldn’t care less. Even if the strike was called because of delay in payment of salaries, it had no validity. In this case the protest began over what was really a “personal plaint”, as the media noted, which was that pilots from India Airlines should not be trained to fly the new fleet of 787s. that was a petty reason.
The Pilot’s Union thought it could browbeat the government into submission. In that it failed miserably. The pilots have lost face – and deservedly so. The truth is that a strike as a Union technique has long ceased to be meaningful. As a weapon to force whether industry or government to give in to workers’ demands, it has turned out to be utterly irrelevant. We can go back an entire generation when the Mumbai workers went on strike in 1981 when an estimated 200,000 to 3,00,000 walked out forcing the entire textile industry to be shut down for over a year. The workers wouldn’t listen to the INTUC-affiliated Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh which had represented them for decades, preferring the leadership of one, Datta Samant. The strike was a disaster, it collapsed leaving tens of thousands of mill-workers unemployed. Millowners quietly moved away from Mumbai rather than continuously face union militancy.
There have been other majour strikes both before the Mumbai fiasco and after. The CPI(M) in Kolkata sought all sort of dirty tricks to bring industrialists to their knees. Vicious techniques like ‘gherao’ were tried on a massive scale. The result was only to be expected. Industry stayed away from West Bengal and in the end it was the Bengali working class that paid for communist terrorism. Then there is the case of Cochin Refineries which had about 900 employees. The Cochin Refineries Employees Association, with a membership of 440 went on strike beginning 8 April 1985. The striking workmen had hoped to cripple the refinery and disrupt the production and distribution of petroleum products in Kerala and other southern states.
Nothing of that sort happened. With the active cooperation of officers numbering about 200 and an equal number of probationary workmen, the Refinery managed to overcome shortages created by the go-slow tactics of the strikers during the preceding months. The Refinery was also able to sustain the production and distribution of petroleum during the strike that lasted 80 days. In the end a settlement was arrived at, but the workers had been taught a lesson. Then there was the case of the strike in five textile mills in Delhi which together employed about 20,000 workers way back in 1986. The strike by the workers of the Delhi Textile Mills lasted for 110 days. As was noted by the Chief Labour Commissioner, in the strike “there were no gainers, but only losers” and in short it was a “lose-lose situation”. The total losses of the DCM Group were around Rs 10 crore and their workmen lost around Rs 5 crore in wages.
There are several such cases but the important thing to remember is that it is only when workers realize that a strike is not necessarily paying as does agreement to listen to conciliators and mediators that wisdom prevails. This happened when on 3 July 2002, all central trade unions operating in the coal industry formed a Joint Forum to protest against a Bill for the privatisation of coal mines, threatening to go on a 7-day strike from 5 to 11 August 2002. The Charter of Demands was frighteningly long, with 21 demands, and it seemed that the Central Trade Unions were determined to carry through their agitation programmes as planned. Wisdom, however, seems to have prevailed among the trade unionists and after long and protracted discussions, an agreement was arrived at. The settlement benefitted 4,97,000 workmen of Coal India Ltd and its subsidiaries and 97,500 workmen of Singarani Collieries Ltd. More importantly the settlement averted the proposed 7-day all-India strike in the coal industry, thereby saving 4.2 million man-days and consequential loss of around Rs 5 billion, with Rs 1.4 billion being the estimated loss of wages to workmen and Rs 3.6 billion that of production in the coal industry.
Leftist trade unions do not realise that a strike is not the best way to get alleged in justices rectified. This has been made clear time and again by our Courts. Here a problem arises. It is one thing for private unions to go on strike and quite another for government servants to do so. One gets the impression that according to the courts, government employees have no right to strike, whether fundamental, statutory, equitable or moral. But even presuming that court judgements are government employees-specific, rightly or wrongly, the principles they have laid down deserve attention. Thus, in Communist Party of India (M) vs Bharat Kumar, a three-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court, in approving the Full Bench decision of the Kerala High Court reportedly said that “that there cannot be any doubt that the fundamental rights of the people as a whole cannot be subservient to the claim of fundamental right of an individual or only a section of the people”. In supporting the Kerala High Court decision it added: “There cannot be a right to call or enforce a ‘bandh’ which interferes with the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of other citizens, in addition to causing national loss in many ways”. The Kerala High Court judgement is reported to have said: “No political party or organisation can claim that it is entitled to paralyse the industry and commerce in the entire state or nation”. The point was made that government employees cannot claim that they can take the society at ransom by going on strike and that even if there was injustice to some extent they have to resort to the machinery provided under different statutory provisions for redressal of their grievances.
Similar thoughts are also seen to have been expressed by the Court in other cases such as Kameshwar Prasad vs State of Bihar and Radhey Shyam Sharma vs Union of India. The fact remains that strike as a weapon is mostly misused resulting in chaos and total maladministration, affecting society as a whole, is feudal in concept and unacceptable in today’s world, especially considering that mediators and conciliators are available, willing to listen and just as anxious to see that justice is not only done but is seen to be done. In any event, the stand taken by the Government of India vis-à-vis the Air India pilots deserves to be applauded.