When the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow inspired people to persevere by “striking with all your might while the iron is hot”, he would not even had a nightmare of how some Sri Lankan trade unions would strike with all their might. At peak time on Wednesday -- when tens of thousands of railway commuters, most of them middle class or poor people, arrived at stations to go home -- train drivers and guards staged a lightning strike in the main Maradana and Fort stations, young girls and women were left stranded while thousands of angry people threatened to attack the train drivers and guards if the unions were concerned only about their rights and not their responsibilities to millions of innocent people.
Wednesday’s strike also raised serious questions as to whether the national government should enforce an essential services order declaring strikes as illegal in important areas such as medical services, transport and fuel distribution. Since January 8, 2015 when the new government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took office, freedom has been restored to a large extent in most sectors. Unfortunately we have been seeing a widespread abuse of that freedom and Wednesday’s strike by train drivers and guards was one such instance where millions of sovereign people were made to suffer because of the personal or political agendas of some unions. The reason for the strike was largely a technical issue, a dispute over the standardisation of the recruiting procedure of railway assistants.
Transport Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and top officials held talks with union leaders on Wednesday and the Minister told national television yesterday that the issue was before courts and no decision could be taken till the court order was delivered. The union leaders, apparently aware of their power to strike the people with all their might, rejected this claim and threatened that they would call a strike from midnight on Wednesday. But even that basic principle was blatantly violated and the union struck work to paralyse train services at peak times from about 4.30 pm.
Of the tens of thousands of poor and middle class people who travel by train, a majority of them buy monthly season tickets. So on Wednesday evening those who come from distant areas may have had no option but to sleep in the station. One passenger was quoted by national TV as saying he had bought two loaves of bread to be taken for his family’s dinner and now he was wondering what to do and what his family would do.
When the revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818-1883) saw the way workers were being exploited and abused during that industrial era, the formation of trade unions and strikes to get a better deal became a popular and regular practice. But the world has changed today. With more openness and transparency through modern technology mainly in democratic communities, the abuse or exploitation of workers is rare and if it happens it is widely spotlighted.
Thus the trend today in conflict resolution is dialogue through mediation by the State or other institutions. But in Sri Lanka we see even the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), boasting that it is Asia’s most powerful trade union abusing its rights by making millions of poor people suffer. So much so that Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, at the Cabinet news briefing on Wednesday, quoted the former Sri Lanka Medical Council Chief Prof, Carlo Fonseka as saying there were two terrorist groups in Sri Lanka -- one was the LTTE and the other the GMOA.
Yesterday afternoon talks were held between the President’s Office and unions leaders. In the evening, it was announced that the strike was being called off.
We thank the government and the unions for negotiating in a spirit of goodwill and compromising on the middle path, because if the strike continued the people may have been forced to attack union leaders including doctors and turn against the government.