Aug 10, 2003


New Delhi: The question of right to strike has been settled by the Supreme Court in its various judgments implying thereby “ no trade union, political party, or organisation can resort to strike.” It has been declared illegal.

The latest judgment came in the case of government employees of Tamil Nadu, in which the division bench of the Supreme Court comprising Mr Justice M B Shah and Mr Justice A R Lakshamanan ruled that they have no “ fundamental, legal, moral or equitable right” to go no strike even for a just cause.

“Strike cannot be justified in the present day situation,” says the bench. “ Take strike in any field, it can be easily realised that the weapon does more harm than any justice. Sufferer is the society - public at large.” Thus, the protection of the public interest seems to be the first logic behind this judgment.

The second logic brought out by the bench was, “ Strike as a weapon is mostly misused which results in chaos and total maladministration.”
There were many other logics behind the judgment that included some earlier judgments of the Supreme Court in which strikes were declared illegal and strikers were said to have no right to go on strike.

There were two other major points of consideration. One of them was : in a society where there was large-scale unemployment and a number of qualified persons were eagerly waiting for employment in Government departments or in a public sector undertakings, strikes could not be justified on any equitable ground. The second was this observation : in the prevailing situation, apart from being conscious of rights, “ we have to be fully aware of out duties, responsibilities and effective methods for discharging the same. For redressing their grievances , instead of going on strike, if employees do some more work honestly, diligently and efficiently, such gesture would not only be appreciated by the authority but also by people at large.”

Let us examine the presumptions of the Court first. It was clearly presumed that the employees are more conscious about their rights than their duties. It is too general an assumption for a seat of justice. Is it true for all the employees? When the court says “ if employees do some more work honestly, diligently and efficiently”, what is pragmatics behind it ? Are the employees dishonest, do not attend to their work properly, and inefficient ? Is it true for all the employees? Sweeping presumptions can not be, or should not be the bases for a judgment. We know the general assumption for some tribes “as criminal,” but can we carry this bias for a judgment against any such tribal group?

There is another presumption that if employees do some more work honestly, diligently and efficiently, “such gesture would not only be appreciated by the authority but also by people at large.” It has been supposed with confidence by the bench that the authorities or the employers are such type of good people who appreciate “more work with sincerity, honesty and efficiency.” It is too sweeping an idea, as far as our experience in the workplace and with the employers goes. Sincere, honest, and efficient people, despite their hard work, are in trouble even in their workplace and they are generally disheartened by the attitudes of their employers. They are endangered species and they should be protected. They are, of course, few in number and the dishonest people are in majority. But they are desired for nation building, and therefore, should not be treated roughly or should not be equated with the employees who do not work honestly, sincerely and skillfully. This sweeping statement hurts them.

Now let us consider the historical development through out the world. It is a known fact that the working conditions have been pretty bad for the hard working people. They have been traditionally exploited by their employers with only few exceptions. It was in this backdrop that they revolted against their employers for justice. On numerous occasions they resorted to strikes and got justice up to a great extent.

It may not be out of place to mention here that the exploited employees and the victims of injustices have always been tried to be suppressed by stronger, the rich or the ruling class. “Strike” is the product of industrialisation, and 'the right to strike' was conferred to the working class much later. It, in a sense, is “non-cooperation” with the employer or ruling class. We can have two sets of people here. The first are those who do not believe in violence during strikes and the second are those who indulge in violence, disruption, arson etc. Despite the strikes was illegal, people resorted to them for justice and whatever better conditions we enjoy today are mainly due to the struggle against injustice, it is another matter that people suffered a lot during struggles. People do suffer without struggle, and people do suffer during struggle, but it brings overall better conditions for life later on.

The judgment says that we cannot strike even for a just cause. This last weapon has been snatched away even from the victims of injustice who are not in a position to get justice otherwise. In this situation there is a greater danger of their suppression.

Some errors are known to be cropped up out of our excessive emphasis on certain virtues. The judgment has also such an error which has cropped up due to excessive emphasis on the temporary sufferings of the people during the strikes. The overall continuous suffering of the helpless society has been ignored, especially when they cannot strike for even justice. There is an inherent danger in this judgment which removes all the pressures on exploiters from the victims, and therefore, there is more danger that unscrupulous elements may highjack the whole system for their personal ends. In that case, the number of suffering people would be much higher than the number of people suffers during general strikes.

Another logic in the judgment is that right to strike as a weapon has been “mostly misused.” But then there are many rights which have been mostly misused by the stronger, the rich and the ruling class. Can we agree to cancel all those rights ? Certainly not. Because, the good people among them do good to the people on the strength of those very rights. The word “mostly misused” implies that the right under question is also used for larger benefits of the people. So, the rights can not be truck down on the ground of misuse, but in the cases of misuse we should make some provisions against the persons or group of persons so that we can prosecute them. Our sufferings are mainly due to the misuse of rights by the rich, the stronger and the ruler class. If we are not going to rob their rights, how can we rob the “right” of their victims !

As for the duties are concerned, we cannot only remind the duties to the victims of injustice. There are also certain duties of the rich , the stronger, and the ruling class. It's strange that victims are said to be duty bound while the victimisers violate their duties and misuse their rights. It is a commonplace thing. A more impartial view would do better service to the people. Excessive emphasis on duties only for the sufferers, who are also robbed of their rights, is doing more harm to the society. If we can implement such a system, which gives more emphasis on duties for the people who enjoys more rights, the people would have to suffer less.

There are a number of people who do not respect the law of the land. They are taking revenge from the society, because they feel that they are robbed of their rights and are fettered in the name of duties only. If we go into their psychology vis a vis the psychology of the stronger, the rich and the ruling class, we get a very disheartening picture of the life where it stands today.
We are against general strikes, when it is misused, and we support them when it is against injustice, for we do not want perpetual suffering. Some times strikes hurts people in general but in the long run it prove to be more beneficial for humanity as a whole. Sometimes we prefer temporary suffering to the permanent miseries.

One can claims that we can approach to competent authorities for remedy, but the victims know by their experience of not getting justice in time, and by the time they hope to get justice it would be too late. Sometimes strikes are inevitable for the larger interest of the people. So we cannot, or should not ban the “right to strike” for justice. It's a milder option with the people compared to other options like revolution. Robbing the people of this milder right, may compel some of them to resort to more dangerous methods, especially when we are not able to secure justice for all through the present system.

We can prevent the people from greater danger and sufferings by allowing them a “right to strike” for justice after they fail to get it in the present system of things. We can draft some modalities for that, for example a certain period of notice before the actual strike. Providing the anger of the people a less harmful outlet would be better than waiting for a more dangerous volcano. If one strikes for justice, it includes certain rights including legal and moral rights as against their victimisers, but if we compare their rights, as the court did, with the common people other than their victimisers the strikers do lose all their rights. But the comparison in the judgment ignores the first proposition, which warrants a revision. (EOM)