Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not and whether we are comfortable with it or not, labour unions are political bodies and they draw their strength from their political patronage and their ability to deliver votes to their parent.
Hence, the whole process will be political with intense power play. This is not for the faint-hearted, those with weak knees or evangelists. The aetiology will be political, the discourse will be political and the means will be intense, polarized and even intimidating. It can be civil, non-physical and largely non-violent. It is both self-regulated good conduct and deterrence that will keep violence away.
We need to ask the following philosophical questions: What are unions? Why do a certain constituency feel the need for them? What is their charter?
Unions are bodies with a commonality of purpose, created to demonstrate the coercive strength, to intimidate in order to win rights and protect the rights of their constituents. They arise and exist where there is perceived inequity or exploitation of the rights of a constituency. The first unions interestingly were clandestine and they fought for toilet and recouping breaks, working hours, weekly rest, holidays to go to home towns, fair wages, non-discriminatory pay among those who do the same job, job security and against squalor and the oppressive conduct of the supervisors who slave drive them for productivity. Strange that 150 years hence, we seem to be facing up to these as the reason for conflicts. It took 60 years of violent street clashes in the UK, France and the US between the unions and the private armies of the owners for the state to intervene with welfare legislation. The state did this only when the coercive power and the vote denying or transferring power of the unions were demonstrated. The essence of an association or union is based on the power imbalance perceived by a constituency. They then seek to restore balance by doing a deal with political bodies or parties, and trade support for votes.
The naive perception that conflict is out of workplaces, because now professionals manage them and not promoters, has been given a rude wake-up call in the past 18 months. When professionals become as oppressive as the promoters, the ghost comes back to haunt and scare them all over again. The tool of the union or any pressure group is to withhold what the other party needs. It then moves to the next level of thwarting and neutralizing the perceived oppressors, by showing them the potential to intimidate and threaten their economic interests. If this fails the group seeks legitimate use of force, and the culmination of inability to move the unmoving and the unwilling oppressor makes these pressure groups resort to violence. I am not justifying violence. I am merely unfolding the anatomy of the mind of a union system. If we do not understand this and deal with the idealistic pursuit of conflict-free workplaces, and that too forever, we will be rudely surprised. So the starting premise is that workplaces, though they have a commonality of overarching interests, also have serious differences on the means of achieving them and the equity and fairness with which the economic and social benefits are shared. Disagreements and debates on whether it is good will lead us nowhere.
If there is no perceived inequity or exploitation no sane person will seek the security of numbers, offer his brawn for intimidation or risk his own well being by resorting to violence. The exception being criminal and chauvinistic gangs. Yes, these movements do get hijacked by profiteers and privateers. But who provides the conditions for them to make the entry? And where is the counter pressure group to put pressure on these illegitimate and non-ideological intruders? You can talk to an ideological body but not to an extortionist. We have been opiated for 10 years and have lost touch with reality, specially the service industry. They have their ugly and tragic reckoning waiting for them. I hope and pray that sense prevails there and they do not foolishly invite the privateers and the Mafiosos to their doorstep. It is always a privateer who makes the first move; the ideological and mature unions are for some reason always late to arrive, like at Maruti.
In essence, the leaders of the working class see themselves as involved in a larger social and political process, of which the industrial and commercial process is just a part. We cannot unilaterally wish it away. If we do not legitimize this they will ignore us. For 150 years, mobilizing labour has been with the sole objective of influencing the electoral process, win enough power base in the legislature and influence the legislation, so that the rights, which otherwise the capitalists will not cede, can be won over through legislative process. Add to this the belief of the working class that money is the huge power that the capitalists use to buy their way into the legislature and, thus, influence favourable legislation for them under the garb of welfare legislation. The major unions both on the Right and the Left believe that the bureaucracy in all countries does not discharge its duties equitably and fairly. They are concerned that the bureaucracy usually ignores the violations and excesses of the managing class and hence use of disruption and intimidation is justified by them as a legitimate tool to get the state to take note and intervene. To this day, the very strong labour movements in Europe and North America see social and industrial disruption as a legitimate tool to coerce the managements or owners to take negotiations seriously, concede to their demands and to make the state intervene and push the owners and capitalists to come to the table. To believe that labour movement anywhere in the world can be divested from the social and political establishments is contrary to history and even the current reality. Also, to believe that intimidation and sometimes arson is not a tool the western unions use is naïveté. Watch the news on Spain, Greece, even Germany and France. Now even the Chinese unions in the last 12 months have indulged in arson. The word “strike” is of German origin, adopted by the Bolsheviks and later the social democrats in Europe. It means “to strike”, “use force”, “to intimidate and disrupt” and “to create the fear of violence and arson”. Like most social evolutions, the word and its use is now more socialized. Yet, from time to time its primeval intent gets played out.
Now to balance it out, for every ideologically centred labour establishment and their political patrons all over the world, the fringe ones exist. There also privateers and even those within the ideological labour establishment turn rogue and act as privateers. These are the extortionists. These are the ones who seek protection money not to unleash disruption. The history of labour movement in India is littered with these ideologically bereft privateers.
The 1960’s saw a wave of liberalism and socialism sweep the world. The US, France, the UK, Spain and Italy went with left of centre governments. The influence of communism was sweeping through Cuba, Vietnam, China, Korea and Central America. India was decisively swinging the Soviet way. Most welfare legislation were in place. Unions were now established power centres. The power shift now was decisively in favour of the unions. Public sector enterprises, nationalization and the daily demise of private enterprise were the order of the day. “Economics”, “profits”, “quality of output” and “capital” or “labour productivity” became bad words. Slowly, by the end of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s and 1980’s, the wheel had come to a full circle. The unions were indulging in widespread restrictive practices and had the managements at their mercy. Five hours of working, work to rule, no respect or obedience to the supervisor, threats and strikes galore, the office bearers and executive committee members becoming a law unto themselves, and widespread inter-union rivalry to monopolise the power. Industry-level wage settlement became the order of the day in order to use the muscle of numbers. This imposed on individual enterprises untold pressure of costs and work practice restriction and reduced everyone to the lowest level of inefficiency and indiscipline. The courts also were now excessively in favour of the unions’ cause. It is from here—on the back of economic liberalization, fast exploding service industry and a new turn after the collapse of the Berlin wall, Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister from 1979 to 1990), Ronald Regan (president of the US from 1981 to 1989), Deng Xiaoping (China’s vice-premier from 1975 to 1983) and a new India—that the last power shift happened over the 1990’s. So by the new millennium, the unions were losing membership as largely the white collar young workforce of the burgeoning service industry, whose share of the gross domestic product was huge, turned its back on the unions. A generation of veterans on both sides faded into oblivion. The few still surviving were consigned to the unimportant irrelevant lot. The epitaph on the power play of the preceding years of workplace strife was taken for granted. It is in this backdrop we are examining the return of violence at the workplace.
Now if we dispassionately look at violence at the workplace during the last 50-60 years, we will find the following central themes in them:
•Owner- and promoter-run establishments over long periods of time milking cost advantages and other flexibilities through pocket unions or shutting out unions. They pay off the privateers and buy peace. When they either stop this or new leadership from a political establishment seizes power or a new privateer takes charge, things go awry.
•A la the 1970’s, the Bengal and Kerala political landscape suddenly changes with the extreme left moving into places such as Kerala, Chhattisgarh, parts of Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.
•Weak managements in professional organizations over years cede the balance of power in favour of individual labour leaders, insiders or outsiders, and then one fine day seek to correct it too soon and things go awry. I have seen union office bearers and their sidekicks being treated like approving authorities for management decisions and none of them ever worked in their jobs. They sat around in the factory manager or chief personal manager’s cabin and the head office asked you to handle them without disrupting their privileges and buy peace. It fell upon the brave few to restore the balance, nevertheless with substantial personal costs, when the board and the head office sat out at a safe distance and demanded productivity.
•Professionally managed companies, where the power balance is in favour of the management, commits excesses in terms of compensation squeeze, coercive workplace practices, undignified conduct by the supervisors, misusing the term performance culture and seeking outputs that are unrealistic, whimsically using sacking policies, penalizing employees by cutting rewards, using discriminatory practices through mass use of non-regular and non-tenured employees, and paying them substantially lower than their counterparts who do the same job.
•Play one union against the other or there is a genuine union power struggle between unions or between power blocks in a union, even when the employer does not mess around.
•The forcible attempt of a political party backed or privateer union to enter an industry or organization and an existing union or the employer resisting it.
•Buying off some union leaders, only for the betrayed remnant rising in arms.
•Places where the management was foolishly idealistic in believing that unions will never get formed or enter because they nurture their employees or adopt equitable and fair practices, jolted out by a group trying to form an internal union or seeking external help to form an union and the hurt idealistic management coming up with retributory measures. This will be the tryst with destiny for the service industry during the next 10 years. The senior management and the operating management are oblivious of what unions are and they believe that they are going to ride it out forever.
•The practice of buying labour settlements. The closure packet that is delivered at the home of the union leader, the euphemism of the cherry on the cake. The proverbial discussion over a drink in some dark corner. This, when it gets messed up, leads to consequences which no one bargained for.
•The practice of promoters not professional- and governance-based set-ups going to the unions to cause disruption to keep the banker away or further an insurance claim should not be seen as an isolated fairy tale.
•Most industrial relations and labour management professionals have unsavoury images and are seen as fixers or people who somehow manage the ugly reality and spare their chief executive officers (CEOs) and boards of dirty hands and conscience. Most CEOs do not even get involved in knowing how ticklish issues are being resolved and whether it fits the values and codes they publicly profess.
Sure, there are some great institutions where none of the above is true and yet they become victims of mindless violence wrecked by chauvinistic political forces to make an example out of them to collect the haftas from others.
Make no mistake, this is not about immature trade unionists or the millennials. This is about a lost memory for a generation of veterans on both sides who are presiding over the return of the conflict-ridden and adversarial workplaces.
Unless we face up to what James Stockdale, the American vice admiral who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for nine years, said, “Those who refused to face up to the brutal facts of the current realities died in the camp and the pessimist, who lived by the current realities and planned the next day anchored to it, survived the night and eventually got out of the camp.” Victor Franklyn, the great philosopher who escaped Auschwitz (German concentration camp), recounts, “I envisioned the tomorrow positively but was never lost out to the fact that I have to wake up tomorrow by managing the current realities of today so that that vision could materialize.”
It is time that the heavyweights—the veterans on both sides of the divide—got together and hammered out a charter for a workplace free of violence. We can do without the wailing wives left in the wilderness, on both sides.
The author is the executive director of ICICI Bank.