Column by Dr YRK Reddy - HRD Newsletter


Trade 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.

Just 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.

The 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.

Worse 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.

Will 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.

It 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.

The 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 and pressure.

The 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.

The 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?

The 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 consumption”.

Goods, 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”.

The 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 teams?

This 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.

January, 2003 Issue

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