Empire strikes back

I don’t tire of comparing onions and unions, both of which bring tears to our eyes when cut up. But while onions, as philosophers and poets aver, yield sheer emptiness when peeled to the end, unions somehow have escaped this treatment given to their tear-jerking comrade – namely onion.

So, it is with absolute impunity that they lapse into strike with Pavlovian penchant and precision to bite the hand that feeds them. The latest 10-day strike by Tamilnadu government employees and teachers under the avaricious auspices of the JACTTO-GEO (an umbrella union which is just another acronym among many that makes no sense to the harassed and helpless citizen) is yet another display of blatant blackmail, nay labour terrorism, by a well-entrenched, secure lot.

No entrepreneur starts a business just to pay employees. Employment generation is incidental. This does not mean that the workers are irrelevant but the point is the welfare of the organisation is the stream from which benefits to the employer and employees flow. If the financial health of the entity is under threat, it automatically cascades to the last worker. Organisations that are unable to sustain simply go out of business and the fate of the employee, despite all the protections that law offers, is sealed.

But, we know the government can never go out of business. Job security and pay, come what may, to this ungrateful mass, therefore, has become an irrevocable guarantee that no other individual or group in India enjoys. Lesser mortals outside government will have to earn their living but not these blessed souls who deem even the simple chore of signing the attendance register, let alone doing their duty diligently, a great act of service to the nation.

Rather, the itch to shirk work and strike arises from a criminally imbibed impression that it is the duty of the government (read tax-payer) to take care of them. Their job is deemed a birthright. But alas! What can we do? We can change a government we hate once in five years but not the loathsome government servants who are virtually immortal in their protected paradises.

Or, is it so, really? Indeed, it seems the union onion can also be peeled right to the end of its endless bluff. In 2003, when the same gang crippled the State’s administration and the livelihoods of people, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, for the first time in the unholy Unions’ strike history, arrested tens of thousands of employees under the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA). Over 1.7 lakh workers were sacked. A happy happening unheard-of. The Supreme Court appreciated her but suggested they be reinstated on compassionate grounds. She did, and with their backs broken, the government employees buckled and limped back to their perches.

A misplaced compassion surely, because habits die hard. The latest attack by this parasitical swarm again threatened to paralyse life in Tamilnadu with students to pensioners facing a pitiless enemy, ironically paid by them. For 10 days, the battle of wits raged. CM Edappadi Palaniswami, however, replicated the steel of his mentor Jaya and refused to blink.

The High Court, for its part, came up with stinging strictures and statements. Some samples:

* Teachers are not mere workmen. They are like Godly figures.
* Will they accept if teachers of their children in private schools go on strike?
* Government school teachers have greater responsibility as underprivileged children study in such schools
* Teaching is a noble profession, how can they barge on to roads to conduct agitations like labourers?
* Do they know how poorly overworked teachers in private schools are paid?
* Don’t they know graduates and postgraduates compete with others for menial jobs for a salary of Rs 6,500 in HC?
* Don’t they know graduates are employed in courier and food service organisations for meagre salaries?

Thus, shamed by judiciary, totally lacking in public sympathy and an unrelenting government all set to open up recruitment for the countless, faceless, jobless millions, the cornered comrades, creatures of a crooked ideology, have now crawled back to work. The denial of pay for the days they struck work is just a minor gain for the exchequer. The real victory is that the perennial peril posed by this practised protestors has been permanently put away.

Indeed, with unemployment raging at an all-time high of 6.1 per cent, strikes by government and public sector employees strikes a very jarring note. Clearly, many or most of them are where they are thanks to non-merit factors, some unkind ‘cuts’ and, of course, correct connections not to speak of quotas; something beyond the means of the milling unemployed millions who lacked that luck or could not muster the pluck. Indeed, it is this pitiable lot, often having to make to do with paltry State doles, who need a collective voice and mobilisation.

A right law can set this anomaly (unions’ favourite term) right so that come next strike-call, those waiting outside employment exchanges could actually exchange their forced idleness for gainful employment in the stead of the strikers. But there is an even more pressing law that needs consideration, in public interest: Do organised sectors like PSUs, Banks and Governments, whose employees form a very, very meagre percent of the populace, but who have the monstrous and grossly disproportionate capacity to control the fate of hapless millions be allowed to have Unions, particularly given their proven, self-serving track-record?

So, getting back to para 1 wisdom, onions continue to extract tears, but for a change, the unions are shedding them. Ah! How they have withered away.

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Jawahar T R