Railway workers have been the indicator of dissatisfaction among the government sector workers even before the independence. Still they act as the barometer to test the pressure in the government sector.
I attended the annual conference of the Lanka Railway Workers' Union, held at their headquarters at Ratmalana, very recently. Everyone talked about the strike action taken on December 7 and action programmes for the coming period. That day, thousands of Lankan commuters were stranded at railway stations, island wide.
The 24-hour strike was launched by the railway trade union alliance, demanding a solution to their salary problems. A large number of office trains were obstructed and all the postal trains had been cancelled as well, a railway worker reported at the conference. Even the Railway Department said only 15 trains operated on that day. He explained further that the decision to launch a token strike had been made due to the failure of the Salary Commission to submit the salary recommendations before the deadline.
If this dispute was not resolved a continuous strike by all unions was possible.
Though train services were used by most workers to go to their places of work the government had not paid due attention to the railway.
Hence the limited funding received by the Railway was found inadequate when the increase in world market prices of materials and spares that had to be imported periodically to sustain the service was considered. The Treasury was unable to provide the total allocation required by the railway. This resulted in the deterioration of the rail services gradually and public complaints being voiced from all directions. Needless to say that during the July 1980 strike the railway
lost many resources; and the hostility of ruling elites to railway workers had been a burning issue even under the so called people’s government.
Lanka to a large extent was spared of mass struggles after the war against the Tamil rebellion that ended with a brutal repression. While one section celebrated the victory others were frightened to come out,
even though there were serious workers’ issues, but the same cannot be said for 2012, which to say the least has seen an eventful period with protests, marches, demonstrations and strikes. While the workers’ struggle to defend the provident fund was remarkable, the event that stands out for the year is no doubt the lengthy strike launched by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), demanding not simply a pay hike for the academics, but additional funds for the Education Sector – to be precise, the allocation of six per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Over the last 35 years, Lanka witnessed many trade union actions including the July 1980 strike and mini hartal launched by government servants supported by other mass organisations. That led to a set back with the termination of thousands workers both in the government and commercial sectors.
However, the strike action launched by FUTA was perhaps one of the more lengthy industrial actions, dragging on for nearly three months and hampering academic activities in Universities Island wide.
Also it was a strike action that got support from all sectors of economic activity, and also from all communities.
In addition to FUTA actions, other unions, such as the General Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) representing another vital sector, also resorted to industrial action, putting forward various demands.
Following on the GMOA’s footsteps, the nurses also staged several demonstrations over various issues, which they claim neither the Health Ministry nor the government had bothered to resolve. As explained above the Railway strike became the last but not the least of this chain of
The demonstrations that erupted in the last year were neither confined to strike actions nor to Colombo-based activity. People in the North also took to the streets with placards and slogans, to express their anger over issues like land grab, resettlement issues and over the lengthy detention of Tamil political prisoners. The latter was widely discussed and led to countrywide demonstrations.
This matter got more complicated with the re-arrest of so called LTTE suspects and University students. It has drawn the attention of international democratic organisations, especially in the context of family members
of the Tamil detainees highlighting their grievances over their loved ones being forced to remain behind bars for years without trial or any other legal action.
On this issue a protest took place on the streets of Colombo a few weeks ago where parents and relatives of the forcibly disappeared and the illegally detained went on a barefoot procession, all carrying urns of smoking camphor.
This protest displayed the despair of families whose pleas for answers about the missing and the illegally incarcerated have been routinely ignored by a government that doesn’t really care for its people.
On the contrary the government has started re-arresting released prisoners and forcing them into a cycle of rehabilitation, both illegitimate and illegal. All this points to a New year beginning with powerful mass actions with perhaps railway workers wrenching the leadership of mass protest from lawyers and judges!