The criminal labour mafia

Finance Minister Chidambaram once drew applause for saying that however much he disliked strikes, he disliked banning strikes even more. The goal, he said, was to create conditions such that workers see reasons not to strike. As far as the privatisation of airports is concerned, Chidambaram may already have achieved this goal. But, as Gaurav Sabnis reveals, chances are that this alone is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent strikes from occuring.

That is because in contemporary India strikes are orchestrated and organised by the labour mafia that controls the trade unions. For example, not only do the airport workers see the benefits of privatisation of the civil aviation industry, they have already benefited from it. The unions, on the other hand fear that a growing job market will lessen their appeal, job insecurity being one of the key reasons for their existence. But like citizens living in a dictatorship, ordinary workers are unable to influence the unions’ agenda. In this climate, it is unlikely that merely hoping that the will of the workers will triumph over the vested interests of the labour mafia will prevent strikes and militancy in the name of worker’s rights. The televised unrest in Gurgaon has armed the labour mafia with the knowledge that it is possible to generate favourable public opinion far out of proportion of the actual support they enjoy from workers. It is not a coincidence that the return of labour militancy has coincided with the Communist parties holding the balance of power in parliament.

The political and intellectual discourse on labour reform revolves around the consensus that the freedom of association and the ability to engage in collective bargaining must not be trifled with. Yet it is the labour mafia, with its unchallengeable hold on trade unions, that denies workers these rights. Even based on the consensus that exists, there is a case to strengthen those legal provisions prevent the unions from being hijacked by their ‘leaders’. For example, many of the recent strikes were technically illegal. But there are few reports of those responsible for carrying out illegal strikes or instigating violence actually being brought to trial or punished. In addition to legal provisions, doing that requires political will. It is the inability to muster this up that causes the political class to hide behind invocations of democracy and rights, and ironically, deny workers those very things.

Update: When law is backed by political will, the results can be amazing:

The government, as reported in The Indian Express yesterday, had authorised the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security to implement the dreaded SUSCA (Supression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Civil Aviation) under which the minimum sentence is life imprisonment.

This triggered panic among some sections of the forum. [IE]

9 thoughts on “The criminal labour mafia”

  1. Well said Nitin. It is a mafia. 22k employees with 15k unionized staff taking the entire nation to ransom.

    The AAI cretins have created a blog supporting their case:
    Look at their line of reasoning:

    The AAI has been the most profitable goverment corporation giving a consistent return of over 30% on the capital. further the monopoly stats quo assures natural profit. Further India as being the fastest growing entity ,revenue is bound to increase. Why is government selling low ? Give the control to an independnt management team.

    Duh. Monopoly with high charges and low-quality service will naturally lead to profit.

  2. Ahh! AAI blog part is nice. Now will the people who write line-by-line rebuttal on liberatarian-vs-socialist discussion, give these people (AAI) a dose of common sense, in the comments?

  3. Labour mafia does not live in a vacuum. It thrives, just like other types of mafia, under the patronage of political parties. While I am not condoning commie affiliated unions, which are particularly anti-national, Congress and BJP use their own affiliates to play political football when needed. The leaders conducting illegal strikes will not be caught and tried unless the political parties have severed their affiliations to labour unions of any kind. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

  4. 1) I know its very common to say that union workers will not support their union bosses if they had the chance, but I think thats generally completely inaccurate. Oh, the best, hardest working workers would probably benefit, but the large majority of workers would not as it would prevent featherbedding. It would also lead to job loss. Now I think these organizations are hugely bloated and could stand job losses, but certainly the workers would be opposed to it.

    2) In principle, I would be all for taking action against illegal strikes. Yet, one has to be practical. Are you going to arrest union leaders ? What if that brings out more strikes ? What if the police go on strike ? You call in the CRPF, they go on strke (that has happend) ? Do you call in the army ? I don’t know of any easy solution to this.

    3) There is a reason that unions were formed, and its important not to forget that. We see how badly domestic workers in India are treated. Unions make take things to the other extreme, but its important to reemmber that they addresed a real need.

  5. Raj

    In principle, I would be all for taking action against illegal strikes. Yet, one has to be practical.

    Why should practicality be limited to allowing criminal union leaders to escape trial and punishment. Why don’t we extend the principle of practicality to murderers, rapists, thieves and terrorists?

    I’m not making an argument against unions, right to strike or collective bargaining. I’m arguing for stronger safeguards to prevent the unions from being hijacked by the labour mafia. Mistaking the two leads to the unhappy situation that India finds itself in.

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  7. “Why should practicality be limited to allowing criminal union leaders to escape trial and punishment.”

    I wasn’t commenting on that, which I agree with. I was commenting specifically on cracking down heavily on illegal strikes. The sort of things done in the US (example Reagan firing all the strikers, the court imposing a million dollar fine per day on the New York City MTA strikers) would not work in India.

    And there is no reason to assume a world where union bosses were less corrupt would lead to fewer strikes.

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