Public sector employees have been disgruntled with the way the government has operated for quite some time
There’s a curious contradiction with respect to the strikes that we are seeing now. The strikers are enthusiastic about what they are demonstrating against, and are not in any mood to placate the powers that be, in return for petty favours
Sri Lanka has turned into a Picket Republic. The trade union movement has a front guard in the form of the professionals and a rearguard in the form of the blue collar workers
2015 and 2016, years of optimism, hope, and a little growth, have been followed by 2017 and 2018, years of cynicism, darkness, and not a little regression. The writing, some would say, is on the wall, and unless the government acts swiftly, it can only lead itself to its own defeat at the hands of a newcomer to the political race (I am, of course, talking about the Gotabaya Rajapaksa phenomenon). On all fronts, the people are being assailed with one overbearing issue after another, from petrol prices to bus fares. Those in power, roosted atop their comfortable nests, do not seem to mind or care, and even if they do, the problems assailing us aren’t assailing them. But the administration is feeling the heat, even if it’s slow to react to that heat, and this in the form of the most potent wave of strikes this country has witnessed in recent years.
Inevitable, some might say. Yes, but to an extent only. The truth is that public sector employees have been disgruntled with the way the government has operated for quite some time and 2017 marked a turning point of sorts for the trade unions attached to that public sector. Fears of the private sphere taking over the public, be it in health, education, or even essential services like electricity and water, have compelled the unions to take to the streets and challenge the status quo in ways which have not been matched before, especially not during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. (Obviously, given that the Rajapaksas were not going to be tolerant with the unions, they were too cautious when treading on territory they are basically rampaging through now.) And yet, this is not the most neo-liberal regime this country has inherited. It is a far cry from the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime and this because, despite the UNP’s blatant right-wing economic policy, it has on paper at least become a social market, not ‘laissez faire’, party. As such, the issues with the unions are more complex, more multifarious.
There’s a curious contradiction with respect to the strikes that we are seeing now. The strikers are enthusiastic about what they are demonstrating against, and are not in any mood to placate the powers that be, in return for petty favours, but what they are doing is being described by commentators as a licence for the former regime to step in and institutionalise harsher and stronger anti-union policies. W. A. Sunil, in an article written to the World Socialist Web and tellingly headlined “Sri Lankan unions betray national postal strike”, complains that the postal union leaders more or less conceded ground to the government because of their fear that continuing the strike would lead to the rest of the public sector walking out on the regime, giving the Pohottuwa carte-blanche to enter the political sphere and take leadership. “Why not oppose both - the government and Mahinda Rajapaksa?” he quotes a postal office worker from Hatton.
The problem is that it is difficult to oppose both because the one implies a marked absence of the other. In Sri Lanka, as with even the United States, change, radical or democratic, has been premised on substituting one order for another. It is not in the interests of the government to shift the leadership to its sworn enemy and this the public sector, or so supporters of the government claim, has not properly heeded. For this reason, editorials from the state media are rife with accusations to the effect that the postal workers and strikers from other essential sectors (like water and electricity) are working for power-hungry politicians. This, of course, is erroneous, since those power-hungry politicians - the lackeys of the Rajapaksas - are as derided by the strikers as those in power. As Ranjan Jayalal, the fierce, almost Jacobin Secretary of the Workers Union at the Ceylon Electricity Board, stated in no uncertain terms at a protest held in Colombo on June 20, the anomalies they were facing with regard to their salaries in relation to the salaries of engineers have a great deal to do with Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom they (the union workers) would dearly love to see being punished alongside Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya.
The CEB Union led the longest ever strike last year, at eight days. That record was matched and then broken by the postal workers’ strike this year. What’s next? One can only guess, so I am guessing that we will continue to see further disruptions to water, the government petrol bowser operators (the private operators have already threatened the government), and even the SLCTB (which has not struck work in a long, long time).
Either way, it is important to note that all these strikes and disruptions to essential services (the CEB strike last year, for instance, left outstation, faraway places like Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura without electricity for six days) can be traced to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. Ranjan Jayalal did not wake up one fine morning in April and September 2017 and decide that the union needed to continually refrain from work as a sign of protest. No. Even in 2012, he was actively protesting against the salary scale anomalies which the Rajapaksas and the then Minister for Power and Energy had sanctioned (hiking it from 1:6 to 1:9). There was another dimension to the problem: CEB depots in Karawella and Galapitamada were allegedly to be privatised, to be passed over to Chinese hands. With the present government’s ambiguous love affair with China, which led last year to a complete shutdown in fuel distribution owing to (surprise, surprise!) a strike by petroleum workers, it is not hard to determine that we may well see a return to the old order if, with no feasible alternative in sight, it decides to privatise in part at least those services again. “We will never ever let the consumer be burdened by price hikes!” these strikers roar confidently. Perhaps, but I sadly believe that they are shouting to deaf ears. Not too difficult to find out why.
Fears of the private sphere taking over the public, have compelled the unions to take to the streets and challenge the status quo in ways which have not been matched before
The nationalists, the professionals, those opposed to the government on economic as well as cultural grounds, cannot be counted on to sympathise with workers who would be hard done by even with the government of their (the nationalists) preference in power. There has never been any love lost between the public sector and Mahinda Rajapaksa, barring exceptions like the SLCTB, which owes its resurrection to Dinesh Gunawardena. The interests of those professional nationalists, of the Viyath Maga and Yuthukama Sanvada Kavaya camps, therefore, are miles away from the interests of Ranjan Jayalal, Chinthaka Bandara, and the other prominent trade union leaders. To give just one example, the CEB engineers may be reliable when it comes to opposition to the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore (which many professional fronts are opposing anyway), but they are not reliable when it comes to crackdowns on lower level staff, i.e. the staff who are represented by Jayalal and the CEB Workers’ Union.
Sri Lanka has turned into a Picket Republic. The trade union movement has a front guard in the form of the professionals and a rearguard in the form of the blue collar workers. These two used to coincide in the heady, tumultuous days of the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime (Sri Lanka was left in the dark, literally, for three days because both the workers and the engineers stopped work at the National Grid, protesting against the regime’s drive towards privatising the CEB and LECO). They do not coincide. Not anymore. Probably this explains why and how Mahinda and his cohorts have done their best to court and curry favour with the former group, the front guard, especially through Viyath Maga. The type of industry the purveyors of VM envision is one that is buttressed by a ruthless admixture of populism and economics, anti-union in the strongest sense of that term. That, plus the fact that these policy anomalies which the unions are combating, go back to the former regime (even for the postal workers, who are taking to task a circular issued in 2006, one year after Rajapaksa assumed his first term in office), means that the rearguard is swearing vengeance on both the incumbent and his predecessor. The problem here, however, is that the idealism expressed by the likes of W. A. Sunil and outfits like the World Socialist Web just doesn’t work out in reality: if you demonstrate against this government to such an extent that you become capable even of toppling it from power, the most immediate consequence would materialise in the form of a Rajapaksa Restoration.
Once you topple the one, and bring in the other, it won’t be too far away when these unions, swept away by the rhetoric of Marx and Lenin, will face a more repressive threat, not just to the resolution of their problems, but also to their very lives. The sad addendum here is that neither the unions nor the government seem to have grasped this. The one continues to agitate. The other continues to merely resist the agitation.