सिकंदराबाद Secunderabad (SC): The 20-day strike by lakhs of railway workers in 1974 was an indicator of the strength of trade unions and how essential public services could be disrupted by disgruntled workers, the cogs and wheels of the development juggernaut.
“Trade unions and employee associations, especially in the public sector are aware of the enormity of their power and these have been utilised in rendering fearless critiques of key policy decisions as well, for example the move to privatise insurance sector or the Non-Performing Assets of banks,” says Chandrika, a labour researcher and co-ordinator of the TN labour blog.
“PSU trade unions are given fair opportunities for negotiating or expressing their opinions. They are also as well organised as the organisation they are working in,” points out a senior Railway official.
However, the power and influence of unions has been consistently on the wane due to a multitude of factors. “In the 50s, ministers would hold pre-budget meets with labour unions, but now only industry honchos are called. Casualisation of labour and privatisation in PSUs have weakened the unions. These policies are also implemented to keep the unions in check,” says R Geetha, of the Unorganised Workers Federation.
“Post-liberalisation, when labour unions raise worker issues, even public sector organisations don’t pay heed to implementation of labour laws,” alleges M Subramaniam Pillai, general secretary of the transport wing of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha.
The collective power of workers doesn’t often manifest since most industries have various unions that are tied to different ideologies. “Many of the unions are created by the top management; it becomes easier to handle the workers if they are divided. The collective opinion is dispersed; it’s a simple divide and rule formula,” Pillai says.
With various unions owing allegiance to political parties, the onus is shifted on political battles rather than resolving worker issues, which then works to the management’s advantage, Pillai explains. It also helps that the leadership in certain unions is corrupt and leverages power only to bargain or threaten the management for personal gain, instead of providing recourse for resolution of workers’ problems.
“There are many union leaders who claim to represent humble workers, but they themselves own palatial bungalows or high-end cars,” says the public sector employee.
Union leaders “have become a money machine and have captured the imagination of the workers”, says former Chief Operations Manager of Southern Railways, Abraham Jacob. “Leaders enter when labourers are punished for breaking discipline. They want to scuttle all attempts to discipline the workforce,” he says.
A K Padmanabhan, CPM politburo member, trashes the allegations of intimidation and blackmail by trade unions and terms it a ‘systematic campaign to malign’ the trade unions, a viewpoint which finds resonance with Geetha and Chandrika. “There are black sheep everywhere. Why single out the unions,” Padmanabhan argues.
With white-collar workers testing the union waters, would it lead to a resurgence of the PSU unions? Jacob says capitalism is becoming the dominant political philosophy and there is no need for unions as such.