Trade unions and pawns in political games

For a few days last week, it was as if the country had been thrown back to the mid ’70s: Lengthy queues erupted near fuel stations, as the public tried to come to terms with a ‘work to rule’ campaign launched by workers of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC).

At first glance, the demands of the workers appeared legitimate. They had been promised a wage hike of Rs 5,000 which had not materialised. This was their response, although it caused serious inconveniences to many.
As this ‘work to rule’ campaign dragged on for a few days, there were fears that it would lead to more serious consequences. However, the government did not blink. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was overseas when the ‘work to rule’ was launched, merely discussed the matter with unions affiliated to his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and the ‘strike’ fizzled out, at least for the moment.

And that leads us to the question as to why the campaign was launched in the first instance, if it was called off with no demands being met, and the striking unions not even being invited for discussions.
The official version of events is that the striking unions will decide in mid-November on what action they would pursue to win their demands. And, these unions have publicly said, any such action will be a more concerted effort, with other vital sectors such as electricity, water supply and the port joining in.

To that declaration, we must pose the query as to how the struggle to win a Rs 5,000 pay hike for workers of the CPC, suddenly encompassed other vital sectors such as electricity, water supply and the port. And the answer is that this is a campaign launched by trade unions with common political affiliations.
Trade unions being affiliated to political parties is, by itself, no crime. Trade unions agitating for their demands is also not an offence; in fact, it is a sign of a healthy democracy. There have been instances in recent history such as in Poland, where Lech Walesa, an electrician, led his trade union, ‘Solidarity’ to the forefront of a struggle to restore democracy in that country, and eventually became President of Poland.

However, when trade unions are affiliated to political parties, they should take care not to let their political masters dictate terms to them in deciding what to do and when to do it. They should, at all costs, be wary of becoming pawns in the games of chess that their political leaders play.
Unfortunately, the recent events at the CPC leave a sense of uneasiness that this is what is taking place. It would not be revealing a secret to state that the ‘work to rule’ campaign was engineered at the instance of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It would also be accurate to surmise that the eventual outcome of the strike was decided by the JVP.

For good measure, the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) has entered the fray. It has stated that its own Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) would fully support any further trade union action that would be launched later this month.
And that really lets the cat out of the bag- that this is really a political confrontation that is being fought by proxies- trade unions and workers, some of whom genuinely believe that they are fighting for a just cause and not somebody else’s political battles.

We are not for a moment suggesting that the ‘work to rule’ launched by the CPC workers was for an unjust cause. However, we cannot endorse the manner in which that campaign ended, with no demands being met and threats being made to engage in further strike action in mid- November.
This smacks of political opportunism, as this would be the period when presidential elections are likely to be announced. As such, political parties using and abusing trade unions- albeit their own- for political expediency is a practice which must be abhorred.

In this country, arguably the only trade union which has managed to stay clear of such political interference is the trade union of the doctors, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA).
The GMOA has its own share of faults- often striking at the drop of a hat and putting patients’ lives in peril- but it has managed to traverse a path free of political meddling, through successive governments.
Unfortunately though, trade unions in most other sectors have fallen prey to the ‘system’. They now act at the behest of their political parties and do their masters’ bidding. And that certainly is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

We earnestly hope that, in the coming weeks and months, when political activity is likely to reach a crescendo, these unions will look again at their objectives and resort to winning not only their demands through legitimate means, but also their respect in the eyes of the public- without being identified as lackeys in an already corrupt and inefficient political system.