Changing Face of the Trade Union Action (Part one )


Sri Lanka is experiencing peace uninterrupted for a decade now. Not long ago Sri Lanka was fighting a civil war. Hope we have moved away from four decades of intermittent political violence that plagued the nation and reached a new era of peace and tranquility.

Recent teacher’s association strike often hit the media headlines. Some of my politically savvy FB friends often posted news articles, commented and expressed their opinions on this still inconclusive trade union action. Due to the covid lockdown the strike is temporarily in recess. While the action still going on, as an individual who experienced strikes often during the bygone Cold War era, I contemplated the broader implications of on going strike in today’s context. In and of itself, although the teachers strike appeared to have become a hot news item, the significant of it appears minor , regardless of the final settlement. The trade unionists once were the most vocal critics of the political establishment, however, nowadays have become an endangered species it seems. When organized labor and politics were intimately connected, the impact of the trade unionization globally peaked during the 1970’s and since then its gradual decline became more widespread though uneven and contingent. Intermittent skirmishes between government and the trade unions still do occur. But they hardly carry any political undertones. During the cold war era, on the contrary, there was a wave of politically motivated trade union action swept across developing countries. The corresponding effects of such strikes , at times, even brought governments to their knees and severely disturbed the political order. In 1953 Colombo Hartal, over the cutting of rise subsidy, paralyzed the entire capital city and prompted the resignation of the prime minister Dudley Senanayake. He was subsequently replaced by a man came from a military background, John Katalawala in order to clamp down the labor unrest. In the world scene, the military involvement in politics to control labor unrest became a pattern in some developing countries because the pressure of the organized labor upon governments became so intense. At times it became a three way tussle with the government, labor and military each warring with one another- government vs labor vs military. In 1960’s several Latin American countries experienced this variety of threesome tussle ( i. e. Peru, Ecuador ) . The politically motivated labor unrest that had been brewing since early 1950’s in Sri Lanka , averaging some 300 strikes per annum , hit the high point in 1962 when harbour workers went on a strike on a wage demand against center left Sirima Bandaranayaka government. The government called upon the military to carry out dock operations which had been paralyzed due to the strike. Trade unions, meanwhile in other sectors displayed their solidarity with the ongoing strike by calling a one day token strike. In this background, partly aimed at suppressing the growing wave of labor unrest, a coup d’ etat originated by some top personnels in the armed forces and police against the government. Led by former Sri Lankan cricket captain Derek de Sarem. This aborted 1962 coup ostensibly fits into the aforementioned labor vs government vs military variety. (Visiting Cambridge economist Joan Robinson during late 1950’s , after observing virtually non existent capitalist class but British replicated virulent trade union action made the following remark, “.. SriLanka is trying to taste the fruit of the tree without growing it..” ) . In USA, during the period from 1930’s to 1970’s , organized labor involved in yet another type of three way tussle between labor vs business vs mafia. Labor unions were infiltrated by mafia and created artificial trade union demands upon business to skim money through unions to mafia accounts. After some four decades of deliberations, the federal government finally cleaned up this labor racketeering mess during the 1980’s .

The motive of the trade union action has drastically changed in the 21st century. Once intimately held connection between organized labor and politics are no longer intact. As mentioned earlier, during the Cold War period, the politically motivated influence exerted by organized labor upon governments was often massive and as a result, the trade union action became highly complicated, confrontational and uncompromising. Not only in the trade union realm, such politicization of social institution beyond their assigned scope was a pattern during the Cold War era in most developing countries like Sri Lanka. Bureaucracy, trade unions, universities, clergy, military were all politicized and exceeded their assigned scope of conduct by encroaching into political sphere and sought to create unrest on the least possible pretext. Politicization of the trade unions came within this general context. Nowadays most organized labor demands are considered as bipartisan negotiable and manageable within the purview of trade union context itself. Unlike in the last, political parties are less likely to hijack organized labor demands for political expediency. Unions are returning to their original goals.

Today, in most cases, the governments of developing countries, if mindful, could significantly alter the sources of political instability and win their loyalty. Correspondingly, when it came to the 21st century, a remarkable global consensus had been reached in labor-capital relations and such truce in turn has broader implications in mitigating the previously existed social tensions between social classes. Using “class” as a yardstick of measuring social relations is increasingly becoming outdated in the highly mobile egalitarian modern era. Today, Ranil Wickramasinghe and Anura Kumara can sit down, banter with each other, discuss issues and find common ground while such bipartisanship was unimaginable between J.R. Jayawardane and Rohana Wijeweera four decades ago.

Prior to the enactment of government labor legislation, the first bipartisan agreement between a federation of workers organizations and a federation of employees took place in 1929 before the government had recognized unions as legal bodies. This bipartisan agreement was a positive start in labor- capital relations. During the early phase of 19th century industrialization, the unionization was illegal in both England and USA when early attempts were met with difficulties due to the lack of understanding between the two parties during this period. This was the period Karl Marx documented his labor theory of value. Sri Lankan labor – capital relations didn’t experience such a magnitude of antagonism. Our labor movement were recognized by the government from the very inception while there may had been frequent strikes and the organized labor at times may have had gone overboard when exercising labor freedoms during the early decades following independence. But the labor combativeness with the establishment came within the purview of late Westminister trade union context. Non revolutionary but reformistic. Democracy acted as a bonding agent between labor and capital which appeared reciprocally detached at the beginning of the western industrialization. Especially when 1956- 1977 era taken into account, with the expansion of the public sector, nations employment options had been monopolized by the state and the unions were as for the most part in partnership with the government. For an example T.B, Illangaratne, a trade union leader became labor minister of 1956 MEP government and had introduced several progressive labor reforms.

The in vogue traditional method of protest via trade union action marked the watershed by the end of the decade 1970. The final major trade union attempt was the 1980 aborted general strike. From that point on, new form of protest methods had been employed and the new protagonists occupied the center stage overshadowing the traditional Wesminister trade union method. Armed struggle and political violence. The insurrection of 1971 was a preview of what future may bring. A new era of protest and dissent was ushering in confronting the establishment. In the north, the traditional Tamil United Liberation Front’s constitutional struggle for political rights was sidelined with the advent of five youth militant groups. In the southern frontier , underground JVP militancy rose to the ranks of the active opposition when SLFP was in a deep political coma during this period. Youth political banditry spawned under the guise of various liberation theologies and the country was turning into an enclave of desperados while the older generation of Westminister politicians helplessly staring at the national drama unfolding before them with desperation. The JVP viewed the reformist attitude of earlier generation of left with contempt and interpreted such “collaborations with the class enemy” as a betrayal of the working class movement. The political violence, starting from 1971 southern insurrection, 30 year northern civil war from 1979 to 2009, again 1987-89 second southern insurrection defined the hallmark of protest methodology during that four decades.

Sri Lanka is experiencing peace uninterrupted for a decade now. Not long ago Sri Lanka was fighting a civil war. Hope we have moved away from four decades of intermittent political violence that plagued the nation and reached a new era of peace and tranquility. As I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, there are no signs of the return of afore discussed trade union driven politics. In 21st century Sri Lanka, bureaucracy, trade unions, the military, universities and clergy are less politicized than they were two decades ago. Such cooling off of politicization made it possible for these institutions to regain their lost faculty by returning to their duly assigned scope. Cont.

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