Law · Society

Strike Three

The article has been written by Kuwar Singh in which he discusses the legality of labour strikes in India and other countries of the world.

Every business owner dreads the thought of a strike. Even though they may act stoic, portray affected nonchalance at their workers’ threats, they know that a strike is the worst internal problem a business can face. Whether or not strikes should be constitutional is a question the world has been asking itself for centuries, and no one ideology has been in unanimous support or opposition of the subject.

It is an interesting dichotomy that in seemingly communistic countries like China and Russia, it is comparatively harder, if not impossible, for the workers to go on a strike whereas in capitalistic ones like the US, the UK, and France, striking is an easy affair. India lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Although strikes are not illegal, there are certain rigid restrictions and provisions that need to be followed. Striking in the public sector has even been made illegal: speaking for a Supreme Court bench, Justice MB Shah in TK Rangarajan v Government of Tamil Nadu stated that, “no such right (to strike) exists with the government employee.” Still, strikes are very much present and utilised in the private sector, but their validity seems to be in question lately.

Striking obviously causes a loss to the business. Important work hours of the capital and the workers are lost. Also, the demand of the strikers, if conceded to, does lead to a decrease in the profit margin of the producer, at least on the face of it. People often relate this loss to the businesses as the loss to the GDP, and hence, loss to the economy. Using GDP as the yardstick against which to measure the economy, and the nation’s well being, is a very common but often dangerous mistake. The business owners do lose a part of their profits, but the potential gains to the working class, which is always much bigger, can mean so much more for the economy, even though it is not figured in the GDP. GDP is not an absolute, and a direct relationship between its value and the nation’s well-being does not exist. Also, often have the demands of the workers, once met, let to better working conditions and increased efficiency, meaning a clear cut increase in the GDP. Albeit as far as concrete numbers go, a strike does lead to an aggregate decrease in the national product.

But the argument for strike has the element of common good attached with it. A democracy is the championship of numbers, and strikers are almost always more in number than their managers. Snatching away this very important tool from them would leave them helpless in the hands of the powerful. It is an indisputable fact that power has always been concentrated in the hands of the few. There has always been an oppressor and an oppressed. In spite of all the inconvenience they cause to the consumer, throughout history, strikes have served as the weapon of the weak to stand up for their rights. This goes back to the days of Ancient Egypt, when workers on a royal necropolis had dropped their tools in protest of the Pharaoh Ramses III’s practice of forced labour.

In 1968, women workers at Ford factories had gone on strike in demand for fair wages, due to which the 1970 Equal Pay Act was born. Strikes are thus very important in countries where the condition of labourers is inferior, like China and Bangladesh. In fact, the correlation between the number of strikes in a country over time and the state of labour laws in its constitution is uncanny. The western nations have excellent labour laws and have also witnessed innumerable strikes: it is even much easier to strike in a nation like the UK, for example, where only the assent of 50% of the present (and not total) members in the union is needed to go on a strike. Whereas in Bangladesh, labour strikes and labour laws are both almost unheard-of concepts.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the working class has been oppressed by the profit-driven business owners. Even things like workers’ health, which prove beneficial for business in the long-run, were often ignored by the managers in their race to cut the largest share of profits in the short-run. The government is in place to protect the common people, not solely the business magnates. The loss to the consumers in the form of nuisance is most definitely superficial because every consumer also happens to be a worker. Every individual held back due to the strike of the tram employees is most probably looking to go to his own workplace. In an isolated incident, strike does cause pain to the consumer, but the principle of strike is beneficial to most consumers, since they happen to be the ones who need its power as workers.

However, a way in which strike can hurt the consumer is by the phenomenon of the wage-price spiral. To meet the strikers’ demands while keeping the businesses afloat and profitable, managers may have to raise prices, which would therefore hurt none other than the common man. Thus, even a successful strike may close a full circle and return the state of affairs from where they began. Also, a strike induces consumers to look for alternatives which would fulfil their wants, and they may not return to the same business once the strike has ended.

India of course has erred on the side of caution with this issue. Although both rights to protest and to form unions are fundamental rights, right to strike is only a legal one. Section 22 (1) of the Industrial Dispute Act 1942, which describes the legality of a strike, mandates a minimum of two weeks’ prior notice to the business owner before the launch of strike. It is illegal to go on strike during- and one week after- any conciliation proceedings in the company, as well as during- and two months after the conclusion of- proceedings before a Labour Court or Tribunal. Strikes in the public sector are already illegal, a move that was met with criticism from abroad.

The present government’s insistence on making India business-friendly has hinted towards an even firmer stance on the strike, a move that might prove unlikely to achieve its aim. Because even though strikes can often be identified as anti-progress, it is an over-simplified construct with several exceptions. Like any tool, the power to strike can also be abused, but it can also be used effectively to negotiate for better work conditions, while maintaining a strong economy. Germany, a great example, stands as an economically firm nation in spite of- or maybe, even partly due to- a certain regularity of strikes and a membership of 6.25 million workers in its Federation of German Trade Unions (DGB). Trade unions today are often in the pocket of the business owners and for the benefit of the few trade union leaders, the entire working class is oppressed further. In such a scenario, what we need is not to make strikes illegal, which would further handicap our workers, but rather to make the process of striking more transparent and horizontal in nature.

For further reference:

The Right To Strike: http://www.thehindu.com/2003/09/10/stories/2003091000671000.htm

Ford Female Employees Win Strike For Equal Pay: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/ford-female-employees-win-strike-equal-pay-dagenham-england-1968

Right To Strike As A Fundamental Right: http://corporatelawreporter.com/2013/03/24/tk-rangarajan-government-tamil-nadu-2003-6-scale-84-review/

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