Democratization of trade unions urgently required


By Milinda Rajasekera

The lightening strike that a section of the railway staff staged last week brought to public focus once again the rights and wrongs of the trade union movement in this country. The manner in which the Colombo-bound train from Vavuniya was abruptly stopped a kilometer away from Galgamuwa railway station placing thousands of hapless passengers stranded shows the heartless and senseless way some trade unions seek to win their demands. While those passengers in that train were thus left high and dry, thousands of other commuters were left helpless at railway stations in Colombo and other places. This, of course, was not the first time that railway personnel staged work stoppages in this fashion. There have been numerous occasions when commuters had been put into much inconvenience by similar sudden strikes in the past too.

Though railway workers are notorious for actions of this nature, similar strikes are not peculiar to this department. Bus operators in both private and state sectors also are noted for their abrupt strikes for some reason or other. It is strikes in the transport sector that cause maximum inconvenience to the public. The adverse effect of strikes in other sectors of the administration is not felt immediately although their consequences cause immense damage to the country’s economy. What this abuse of employees’ rights demonstrates is the urgent need for a quick inquiry into the operation of the trade union movement in this country.

This investigation is imperative for revising existing trade union laws and introducing news laws that would eliminate the undemocratic and unethical practices prevailing in the trade union field today. These unhealthy practices were prevalent throughout history causing much damage to the country’s economy and threats to political stability. All political parties and their leaders were aware and concerned about this situation but none of them was courageous or farsighted enough to take the needed steps to put things to rights. The main reason that held them back was obvious. All these political parties made use of the trade unions under their control to gain political advantage and power. They manipulated these unions to serve their narrow partisan interests. When in the opposition they use trade union demands to activate employees and induce them to embark upon trade union action. After they thus occupy the seats of power they often fail to fulfill the demands they enthusiastically supported from the opposition.

The way left leaders found their way into cabinet office via 21 demands of trade unions, some years ago, is well known history. Today, all political parties have their trade union arm established in various state and private sector institutions. Their tentacles are extended to student organizations in universities too. The leaders of these unions are generally chosen by respective political parties and they are made to act at the behest their political leaders. The policies and attitudes of these unions are fashioned according to the needs of the controlling parties. It is this phenomenon that makes trade unions whose members have common problems and interests approach government policies and actions differently. If these unions are genuinely concerned about the members’ interests they should have a common attitude to various administrative policies and actions. Far from it, the same administrative measure having the same effect on workers are seen differently by unions supporting different political parties.

The unions affiliated to ruling parties, for instance, hail the budget proposals while those controlled by opposition parties condemn them. When some unions think that strike action is necessary to win their demands, other unions opine that disputes could be settled through negotiation. The ruling parties are also often inclined to accommodating demands put forward by unions affiliated or favourable to them while ignoring or rejecting those submitted by unions supporting opposition parties. Protests and demonstrations launched by opposition party unions are branded as treacherous acts aimed at sabotaging the good work of the government.

The Public Service *Nurses Union led by** *Ven. Muruthettuwe Ananda Thera, for instance, finds it easy to settle disputes through discussion while other unions find it necessary to resort to strike action to draw government’s attention to their problems. Democratic trade unionism requires that important decisions should be taken in consultation with the membership. But this does not happen in most unions in this country. It is the office-bearers who are often elected year in and year out without following proper election procedures that take decisions and pass them on to members for implementation. The election of office-bearers is often manipulated by controlling political parties. That is how the same leader or office-bearers rule the roost perpetually in some unions. The sharpest weapon in the trade union armoury is strike action. This is a weapon that has to be used when all other avenues for settling disputes had been tried.

When union leaderships find it necessary to resort to strike action it is incumbent upon them to apprise the membership of their respective unions of the situation and get the decision ratified by the members in accordance with their union constitutions. When unanimity for the decision is not obtainable, then it is the view of the majority that should prevail. The vote for this decision should be taken by secret ballot if they strictly follow the democratic procedure. Most unions today resort to open voting – if at all they take a vote - by show of hands because this method makes it possible for the leaders to influence or coerce the members into supporting strike the decision. It is imperative, therefore, that the operation of the country’s trade union movement should be thoroughly examined and reforms introduced for the unions to operate as independent and democratic organizations without falling prey to political party machinations. If this course of action is not taken as a priority task, the country would stand to lose much in various ways. Meanwhile it behoves the authorities to pay greater attention to formulating policies and systems for smooth functioning of state institutions where service problems constantly arise owing mainly to the absence of proper management systems.

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