Strike threats and political motives

This week saw the second stage of a ‘work-to-rule campaign’ led by employees of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), which drew strength from the support extended by workers of the National Water Supply & Drainage Board (NWSDB), Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).

The campaign was a sequel to a similar exercise launched a fortnight ago by CPC employees which disrupted fuel supplies, leading to chaos in the streets. On their second attempt though, mercifully for the general public, the impact was much less and there was hardly any disruption of everyday life.

Yet, the unions responsible for the ‘work-to-rule’ campaign have responded defiantly, rejecting the interim relief that has been offered to them, and threatening to launch a ‘non-stop’ campaign to win their demands for substantial wage hikes.

We are not for a moment, suggesting that these employees be denied their legitimate right to engage in trade union activity, to win their just demands. However, the manner in which it is done and the underlying motivation calls into question the bona fides of those engaged in this ‘struggle’.

Recent reports in the media - yet to be contradicted or denied - suggest that the average wage of an unskilled worker at the CPC is about Rs.43,000. We are not grudging these emoluments, if this is indeed the case, but it does negate the claims of the CPC unions that their employees are a neglected lot, because this wage is several fold more than what many more qualified wage earners and professionals earn in this country.

We would also therefore, call into question the motivation of the striking unions. It would be only too naive to imagine that these unions are acting entirely of their own accord, and it is an open secret that the strike has been launched at the instigation of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

The fact that the striking unions enjoy political patronage does not by itself negate the objectives of the campaign. Nevertheless, the striking unions should be able to convince the general public that their demands merit the drastic measures that they are adopting, because these tactics are inconveniencing millions of people and depriving the country of valuable revenue.

These unions should also be in a position to reassure the country that they are not mere puppets in the hands of their political masters. Sadly, in the current ‘work-to-rule’ campaign, the unions responsible have been able to do neither.

It is therefore, time for the unions to call off the bluff and resort to decent ways to win their more reasonable demands. Of course, to do so they would need to act independently and not merely at the behest of their political lords who dictate what should be done.

We have seen such a scenario being enacted before in the Plantation sector, where the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) gained notoriety for staging strikes for political reasons. Today, the same CWC is a mere shadow of its former self, and no longer commands a monopoly in the Plantations.
Perhaps there is a lesson in that for the JVP and its affiliated unions. For, if they are not careful, the very fact that the public is being severely inconvenienced, as a result of their actions, could lead to an erosion of their vote base, which is not considerable to begin with, anyway!

Indiscipline in universities
The authorities at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura were forced to close the Arts and Management Faculties of that university this week, following clashes between student factions that left State property damaged and several students injured.

This latest incident once again brings into focus the insidious trend of lawlessness that has crept into our higher educational institutions. Every now and then, we hear of protest marches and various student demands which reach a climax with an incident such as the one witnessed at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura this week.

And that prompts us to question whether the authorities are doing enough to instil discipline into what is purported to be the crème de la crème of our intelligentsia. Last week’s skirmish was not the first of this kind and we dare say with some degree of certainty, it will not be the last too.

Shouldn’t there be a culture of responsibility in our seats of higher learning? Sri Lanka is, in fact, one of the few nations in the world where higher education is absolutely free. The State is spending billions in providing higher education to each and every student it enrols in our university system, and that is money in which every citizen of this country has a stake.

Therefore, shouldn’t the State also ensure that those who partake of those funds behave in a fitting manner? And shouldn’t those who don’t, be dealt with more stringently, if only to serve as a deterrent to would be rabble-rousers?

We are not saying that students do not have rights, or that they should not be treated as minions. But, if they are to be accorded the privileges that they richly deserve, they too should reciprocate in kind, and that is not happening right now.