unions looked almost like history. The falling memberships,
membership apathy, raising unemployment, world wide down
sizing and reduced number of trade unions have brought back
memories of a hope that strikes have actually become old
fashioned. The right to strike was won with great historical
struggle and is closely associated with human rights, liberty
and in our country, even Independence. Yet, employers have
tended to believe that strikes are often uneconomical for
the society, disruptive for all and supportive of a defying
culture that broods no good for any one.
as we all are recovering from the euphoria of the growth
followed by the sullenness of the long drawn economic down
trend in most parts of the world, there is a peculiar happening.
In Britain, key public services such as power plants, airports,
schools and London underground seem to have lit the fuse
to create a wave of strikes. The Fireman throughout the
country went on an eight-day strike. It appeared to be a
recurrence of the “winter of discontent” of
1979. The fight between firemen and the government over
the pay raise soon spread with major workers’ unions
signaling solidarity across the public sector.
surprise is not the call for strike but that it actually
still works. It appeared archaic and buried along with the
leftists’ ideologies - a romantic concept of the unionism
of the past than a realistic possibility in the 21st century.
Yet, this hope among employers seems to have been belied
with trade unions suddenly becoming active and prepared
to go on a wide spread strike that could cripple vital services.
still is the fact that this seeming aberration to a pleasant
climate that permitted managerial macho is not limited to
Britain. France now is under a similar grip led by Air Traffic
Controllers who have been joined by several other groups
such as the postal and underground transport services. In
the US, strike crippled 29 west coast ports over a wrangle
on introduction of new technology with over 150 ships anchored
off the coast. It caused panic among all including the consumer
electronics association whose members include the Microsoft,
Intel and Sony that called President Bush to invoke his
powers to ban the strike and set in the compulsory cooling
off period, for the first time in years. The G.E is on the
brink of a general strike, the first since 1969 that will
have the participation of over 300,000 employees. Thousands
of workers of the Fiat in Italy took to streets amidst threats
to job security.
this contagion spread to other parts of the world? Will
it somehow spread to India, even after a lag? This is counter-intuitive
to the hope, if not evidence that strikes are getting irrelevant.
was in the 1960s that Ross and Hartman came with a proposition
that strikes would wither away in time. Other economists
such as Abraham Segal and Cark Kerr from USA also analyzed
the lumpiness of industrial actions and came with theories
that also would suggest the potential withering away of
strikes with structural changes in the demography and industry.
I was, indeed , so fascinated by these assertions that my
doctoral thesis was an econometric analysis of strike activity
eventually disproving these theories and also looking at
additional economic aspects.
Ross and Hartman conclusions were arrived on the basis of
statistical analysis of fifteen countries that included
India. They adduced three reasons and a possible one for
this trend of decline. The first was that the policies of
employers and organizations have been changing towards labour.
The second was the increasing role of the State and its
intervention to safe guard economic growth and its plans.
The third was that unions themselves have found strikes
expensive and hence have been adopting other means of protest
possible reason rested on the belief that the demographic
changes that inducted more women and white collar workers
would lessen the propensity for industrial disruption; that
there is increasing proportion of passive workers and a
reducing numbers of militant ones; and that the central
federations would be exerting greater pressures on the unit
level ones to refrain from strikes.
conclusions and reasoning was plausible and yet could be
faulted from both methodological and analytical perspectives.
I had, in fact, concluded that strikes will not wither away
but may come in waves – even if the heights and length
of such waves may be reduced over the decades. Do the recent
happenings worldwide prove this conclusion, right?
incidence, participation and length of industrial actions
have been on the decline in India. Yet, it is possible that
we are sitting on a volcano of disgruntlement, disappointment
and disillusionment arising from the consequences of changes
in technology, political assumptions and economic policies
as in other parts of the world. It only takes a short fuse
for the entire trade union movement to bring their anger
together and make their minds prepared for sacrifice. Justification
for their feeling of “relative deprivation”,
if not anger, may be questionable. The fact remains though,
that every one is angry. The anger streams from the continued
onslaught on the workers by administering relentless retrenchment,
closures, and retirement schemes whether voluntary or involuntary.
It also stems from the glaringly growing inequities between
the top management salaries and the stagnating wages on
the one hand and the over visibility of the new economy
and new fashion, a la the socialist caricature of “conspicuous
services and the new ware appear to be scoffing at the plight
of the workers who had given their best of life to a bundle
of blundering propositions. As Salvatore Lo Duca, 50, of
the Fiat wailed “I feel like 30 years of my life just
went down the drain….all of us here have poured our
life into this company….” Industrial growth
centers look like industrial grave yards and accumulated
acknowledge and skills have little relevance. Retraining
and reskilling has been a noticeable failure except for
the occasional “show-cases”.
scene is potent with explosive emotions that only need a
short fuse. Human resource managers will need to look deeply
at the social changes and the potential for employee discontent
that may make all our HR interventions look like paddling
in a little experimental poodle. While tides are just on
the rise in the horizon, do Personnel / HR managers have
the repertoire of prophylactic measures? Do we know how
to prevent the colossus of collectivist power? Even if managers
were to have contrived a way of scotching the turmoil, will
they be able to resurrect the dents on the HRD efforts?
What would it take to do so? How do industrial anger and
disruptions affect the HRD investment made and what would
be the new investments required to resurrect the morale,
camaraderie, team work and high performing self-managed
indeed is “white space” for the HR function
- to be able to align the HRD effort and strategies that
can avert the break-down drama and not wait till the mess
is cleared by the IR / Personnel tribe only to take account
of the huge sunk costs that have to be written off.