Monday, 24 May 2010

Is the right to strike unfettered ?

The right to strike work is one the basic rights of workers and is recognised in law in most countries. But should this right be unfettered – and is the right to strike as valid now as it was when the principle was first enshrined ?

The right to strike was first recognised when the balance of power between employers and employees was heavily tilted towards the employer. The company could basically exploit workers as they pleased – a situation which is, alas, all too common even in present day China. Make people work in unsafe conditions, handle poisons, face serious risk of injury, withhold wages, employ children, take away passports / ID cards – these are the conditions that labour often found itself in the past, and still finds itself in , in some parts of the world. The only weapon that workers have to defend themselves is to organise themselves into a union and threaten strikes.

But in many other parts of the world, the situation is very different now. Power is much more balanced with legislation protecting such basic rights of workers. Disputes now are mainly in the area of pay and job losses. In both these areas, the balance of power is much more even. Workers have reasonable protection, including redundancy payments in case of job losses. The reasons for tensions on both issues are less to do with employers exploiting workers and more to do with competition forcing the employers’ hands.

Under such circumstances, is the right to strike absolute and unfettered ? Take the case of British Airways where the cabin crew are going on strike yet again today. Nobody can claim that British Airways cabin crew are exploited. Compared to BA’s competitors like Ryanair, BA crew are handsomely paid. This year has been a horrible year for BA – they just announced record losses. In addition to the earlier cabin crew strikes, the Icelandic volcano also contributed to their misery. Now the cabin crew are striking again. The very survival of BA is at stake. What about other workers of BA who are not striking – if BA sinks, everybody sinks with them. The current demand on which a last minute settlement has broken down is cabin crew demanding restoration of free travel perks which were withdrawn when they first went on strike. Hardly seems to justify a strike in the current atmosphere. No wonder there is very little public sympathy for BA’s cabin crew.

In today’s competitive world, strikes are simply unaffordable by any company. Customers will simply shift elsewhere and not come back. However, at the same time workers need to have some protection as well. Given half a chance, employers will exploit workers. So why not have arbitration by independent bodies to settle grievances and disputes. Sort it out mutually. If you can’t, somebody will arbitrate and the ruling will be binding on both parties.

Maybe its time to remove the right to strike other than for safety and health considerations. I would like to think that human beings have evolved something a little superior to bashing each other up as a way of settling disputes.


Exkalibur666 said...

Another conundrum with no easy answers. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

zeno said...

Very valid points. convincing arguments :)

gils said...

Right to strike (hartal) la start panni

// I would like to think that human beings have evolved something a little superior to bashing each other up as a way of settling disputes.

"Right" to "strike" nu mudichiteenga!!!

Deepa said...

With rights come responsibilities. But lately people are so pre-occupied with their rights that being responsible isn't even showing on thier radars. Whats unfortunate about this is that when people go on a strike for legitimate reasons, they are seen with a derisive perception created by these guys.

Once, a medium of empowering the people with a voice, its now turned into a medium of holding people on ransom. Ask the Calcuttians, where they could have been with the potential that they have, had they not been struck by this 'strike-epidemic'!

Ramesh said...

@Exkalibur - Yes, a difficult one I see here in China, how factory workers are exploited and then I find it very difficult to sympathise with the likes of the BA cabin crew. And , of course, there is no right to strike work here.

@zeno - Thanks

@gils - Ha Ha - Nice play on words. What's your view gils ? I've grown to hugely respect your view underneath the humour. What do you think ?

@Deepa - Well said. In all walks of life, we are vocal about rights and silent about responsibilities. Yes Calcutta is a prime example of what has been lost due to industrial action. I lived in Bengal in the 80s when industrial action was rampant. It was very ugly and in many cases bordering on the criminal.

gils said...

i feel almost every concept is seasonal..this "strike" might be stuff of the socialist era fused with non violence may be. To put it more direct, had it been Germans instead of British..i wonder how our ahimsa approach wud've helped. They wud've happly let loose their "Tigers" and "Panthers" tanks on the happy victims of Freedom fighters. (At times i feel we should cut Brits some slack for accepting non violence as a movement.) Point is..a tool like Hartal..might've worked in erstwhile communist and socialist era..but wud be frowned upon even by fellow colleagues at present. Not sure if it was Japan or elsewhere..there also employees went on strike..but after their office hours. They worked for 8 hours and then went on strike..which is 3600 degree opposite what happens here in India. People dont go to work and expect to be paid for that time too. Saying all this..there should be some mechanism of raising employees concerns to the deaf ears of the management and hartal has already lost its sheen as the option. May be time for a more direct legal the unions of UK and US??

Deepa said...

@Ramesh- We must have bumped into each other if you were anywhere near Siliguri or travelling via Calcutta (I refuse to call it Kolkata)! Just that I was so tiny that you wouldn't have noticed! :)

J said...

The crew (and union) should worry about the survival of BA as much as the management. I read that there were huge cancellations of flights. It is hard to take away the right to strike because the balance is power that you talk about also factors in the ability of the worker to strike. But there should be some penalty that the union (and individual striking workers) should face based on economic damage if the cause for strike is found to be frivolous by some independent authority. There needs to be some consequence to reckless strikes only then will the unions pick which battles they want to fight. There are probably such clauses in the labor laws but obviously not strong enough.

Vishal said...

Very valid points, Ramesh!

It is really time to remove the right to strike. Writing this on a day when few of my colleagues faced a lot of discomfort due to Air India strike. I wonder if strike is a right way to enforce your demands on the management every time. In the current case, it is not yet clear what are they demanding. Removal of the gag order? How can this be a ground for strike?

Ramesh said...

@Deepa - Oh yes - I used to see a very cute baby when I passed by Siliguri :)

@Gils - Interesting angle. The political hartal is an entirely different matter altogether. Industrial strikes are usually purely economic. Imagine if there were regular strikes in the IT industry, the industry would just die in a couple of years. That's why I feel alternate grievance redressal mechanisms like arbitration are better.

@J - Irrespective of the strength of the case, I believe a strike is unwarranted. The responsibility of running a company is as much on its managers as on its workers. If any stakeholder puts the business of the company at peril, in today's competitive world, it often can be a threat to its existence. That's why I think arbitration might be better. In the BA case, there is no winner, only losers all around. A grumpy defeated cabin crew will result in no service , which will kill the airline. A defeated management, will simply start slashing and burning to survive. Nobody wins.

@Vishal - That's my argument without allowing workers to be exploited. As I said, if you tilt the balance of power too much, employers will exploit workers.

Sandhya Sriram said...

every day morning, i go through this routine. my baby refuses to brush his teeth. i resort to 2 actions.

1. Drag him to the bathroom, brush his teeth forcibly and then later pacify his crying. (of-course coupled with it is the scolding of all other house members for having made the baby cry)

2. Persuade him, give him carrots, request him, convince him and somehow get him to brush his teeth (success rate 80%) - time taken - 300 % more

either of the party can be the mother or the child. option 2 is normally time consuming, not always successful and requires lots and lots of perseverance. option 1 is an easy way out and that is what is happening.

But given that companies always have greater muscle and financial power and would find a way to read between any specific lines on where all can one strike, i would still prefer that probably specific lines on for what all one should not strike could probably help.

Sandhya Sriram said...

PS: For me option 1 is normally a dream. i get right royally banged for option 1 and so always resort to option 2 :-)

RamMmm said...

"Teachers in California are planning to go on strike, no pay increments for the past 2 years, 2% raise planned from 2012, not certain if the government cuts education spending. Negotiations are still on"

How would you categorize this?

I'd agree with a balance of power, there is no need for strikes. But when is the balance of power considered lopsided?

Aside, aren't the French known for their strikes?

Anonymous said...

In the current global scenario except for the chinese industrial gulag and the likes of it..North Korea and others, strike is the most organized form of Goondaism and it should be firmly dealt with.

Anonymous said...

i think strike by name itself carries a negative meaning and creates a negative impact. Just like how "Argument" loses over "Discussion". Both have same meaning bt usually the result differs. If the working group feels that they are deprived of something and if the management also beats around the option is the solution. By causing loss of revenue or disruption of service or by inflicting chaos and confusion (as in case of BA and AI)..they lose out on the validity of their claim and also on moral and public support. One wrong thing cannot be undone by another.

Anonymous said...

pona anony naanu..and naanu isikoltu gils...munthina anony yaru??

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - Brilliant analogy. And I don't believe one word of what you say your dream is. You will never do Option 1 - its just not in your blood.

@RamMmm - Zero sympathy for teachers in California. I have posted a few times before on California's dysfunctional budget. Through some crazy Propositions put to referendum, they have severely limited the revenues they can raise. And then they want to spend like a zillionaire. There is just no money - for all its greatness, California is essentially bust.Voters have to take the responsibility for the mess they have created - so teachers (who are also voters) have no case. And yes of course, the French are master strikers - even more than the Calcuttans !!

@Anon - Wow that's a strident view. Can understand it, although its a trifle harsh !

@Gils - Very nice point gils ; your comments are wonderfully sharp and incisive. Me thinks you should stop writing movie reviews and write on business instead !! Have no clue who the earlier Anon is !

gils said...

business bloga!!! nasama poachu..mokka podratha padikkavay aal illa :D

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

I profoundly disagree with you, and with the comments of some of your followers.

The Marxist dialectic may have fallen into disuse as a political philosophy, but its uses as a tool to analyse the relationship between the elements of production of goods and services still remains valid. It has informed much of economic thinking around the theory of the firm. So lets not discard it just yet.

The right to strike evolved over time in order to correct the imbalance between capital and labour. Over a period of time, as the holders of capital failed to realise the aspirations of labour, the right became a necessity, creating the need for legislation to guarantee it as a right.

Fast forward to modern times. In the west, thanks to the migration of manufacture to China (that bastion of democratic rights) and to other Third World countries, the service industries touch the lives of people more than manufacturing. If BA has consistently failed to keep pace with the price expectations of its paying passengers and now has a strike on its hands, it is as culpable as the labour force you excorciate.

If the labour strike that you decry inconveniences passengers, the rules of capitalism apply. Passengers will migrate to other carriers, BA will find it harder and harder to maintain itself, and one day will either bankrupt itself or be purchased in a fire sale. Either way, its how the market should work when there is an overpaid labour force.

But it does not mean that the staff has no right to strike. True, in my view they are in lala land. But let them strike. Its their right.

Do I hear you say "What about this great institution, brought to its knees by this Calcuttan Cabin Crew". My answer is why the lacrymose response? If the airline has to die - like Ted Heath's government in 1974 - it will. Wherer is the room for sentiment?

I find it appalling that the Royal Courts should bend over backwards to find reasons to declare the strike illegal. Next time they will look at the colour of toilet paper in Unite's offices.

What I cannot understand is why people fly BA at all. Third rate airline, staff who could not give a monkey's...I could go on.

Ramesh said...

Wonderful comment. Agree with your take that the balance of power between capital and labour should not go out of skew. But is a strike a civilised way of settling disputes. Nobody wins in a strike. Why not consider binding independent arbitration ?

On the BA case - nobody will shed a tear if BA goes. But does it have to go ? Whatb about the livelihood of all other workers who are not striking ? People like me fly BA because in intercontinental routes they have the best schedules. And they are much better than any American airline and equally better than their cousins in Europe. Of course Asian airlines are the best, but you can't fly India or China to Europe or US with Asian airlines without having to touch your nose around your head.

Vinod said...

On a lighter note, strikes or bandh/harthals as we know back home has been honed into a practice that they even have a strike schedule...

A website even keeps tab of this and reports them out !

Harthal Schedule

Here is the link to the site..

kiwibloke said...

Timely and topical post. I'm sitting at 57*N,2*W at Inverness, 120miles north west of Edinburgh, wondering how I will make it to LHR tomorrow evening and then on to FRA to connect to BLR. I switched to BMI. I was booked on BA on GLA-LHR tomorrow afternoon. After this episode will think twice before getting on to a BA plane. First it was E15 spewing ash and now cabin crew.You are right, the consumer simply shifts in todays world of multiple options

Ramesh said...

@kiwi - What on earth are you doing at Inverness ?? Maybe you were Nessie hunting - Did you go to Loch Lomond on the way ?

Hey, getting to London from Inverness is no issue. One of the more beautiful train journeys, I thought.

I passed that way in 1995 !!

Ramesh said...

@Vinod - Nice to see you here from your new home !!

Well, one of the by products of Gandhiji's freedom movement is this propensity to do a hartal at the drop of a hat. This must be the only country in the world where a ruling party can organise a hartal !

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