11. Industrial Disputes and Strikes – Industrial Relations, Trade Unions, and Labour Legislation, 2nd Edition

Chapter 11

Industrial Disputes and Strikes

Chapter Objectives

This chapter will enable students to:

  1. Understand the basic causes of industrial disputes and their relative importance in Indian industries
  2. Describe different forms of strike and their salient features
  3. Explain the various factors conditioning the outcome of strikes
  4. Explain the effects of strikes on the parties involved
  5. Explain the impact of strikes on the society at large
  6. Present arguments for and against the right to strike

Complexities of Industrial Disputes and Strikes

With the spread and strengthening of trade unionism and improvement in the status of workers, apart from monetary matters, many other issues such as union recognition, technological changes, personnel and disciplinary matters have increasingly been involved in industrial disputes in almost all countries of the world. The relative importance of specific issues involved in disputes has varied at different intervals of time and changing circumstances. Besides, in many industries, industrial disputes are no longer confined to particular establishments; rather they have acquired dimensions at higher levels of union and management hierarchies, widening the area of combat with wider repercussions. In the industrial warfare, the unions’ right to strike has been recognized, but the state has to regulate and control it for safeguarding the interests of the community or the nation. Strike may take various forms and may have diverse coverage and intensity, but they affect not only the parties directly involved, but also the community at large.

In the quest for maintaining industrial harmony and smooth production of goods and services, measures have been adopted in most countries of the world to prevent industrial disputes from arising, and also for providing machineries and methods for settling industrial disputes when they have arisen. In this process, efforts have been made to reconcile the workers’ right to strike and the need for the protection of the interests of the community from its evil consequences.

Industrial Disputes

As explained in Chapter 10, there are two dominant aspects of industrial relations—cooperation and conflict.

Conflict, as one of the features of industrial relations, is a general concept. When it acquires a concrete and specific manifestation, it becomes an industrial dispute, that is, industrial conflict is general, whereas industrial dispute is specific. Industrial disputes may be said to be disagreement or controversy between management and labour with respect to wages, working conditions, other employment matters or union recognition. Such a dispute may include controversies between rival unions regarding jurisdiction also. There can be as many industrial disputes as there are points of contact between management and labour or one industrial dispute may cover many issues of conflict. When issues of conflict are submitted to the management for negotiation, they take the form of industrial disputes. Therefore, the specific causes of industrial conflict may be treated as causes of industrial disputes also.

 

Industrial Disputes

A dispute between employers and workmen or between employers and employers or between workmen and workmen which is connected with the terms of employment, conditions of labour or employment or non-employment of workers or other concerned persons.

Specific Causes of Industrial Disputes

In the background of the general foregoing comments, it would facilitate understanding if the causes of industrial disputes or industrial conflict were more definitely categorized and specified. A brief illustrative check-list of the specific causes of industrial disputes is given in Box 11.1. This check-list of the specific causes of industrial disputes is merely illustrative.

Box 11.1

CHECK LIST OF THE SPECIFIC CAUSES OF INDUSTRIAL DISPUTES

Economic

  1. Division of the fruits of the industry

    1. Wage structure and demands for higher wages

    2. Methods of job-evaluation

    3. Deductions from wages

    4. Incentives

    5. Fringe benefits

  2. Methods of production and physical working conditions

    1. Working conditions

    2. Technology and machinery

    3. Layouts

    4. Changes in products

  3. Terms of employment

    1. Hours of work

    2. Shift working

    3. Promotion and demotion

    4. Layoff, retrenchment and dismissal

    5. Job-security

    6. Retirement

Institutional

  1. Recognition of unions

  2. Membership of union

  3. Subjects of collective bargaining

  4. Bargaining unit

  5. Union security

  6. Unfair practices

Psychological

  1. Clash of personalities

  2. Behavioural maladjustments

  3. Demands for recognition of workers’ personality

  4. Authoritarian administration

  5. Lack of scope for self-expression and participation

  6. Undue emphasis on discipline

Denial of Legal and Contractual Rights

  1. Non-implementation of labour laws and regulations, standing orders, adjudication awards and so on

  2. Violation of collective agreements, wage boards’ recommendations, customary rights and privileges and so on

The points of contact between the employer and his employees are so numerous that no exhaustive list can be prepared. Besides, the check-list contains the main causes of industrial disputes but does not indicate their relative importance as causative factors. If industrial disputes were to be classified on the basis of causes and their relative importance, it would be found that their relative importance would vary from country to country and in the same country from time to time. In one country, at one time, wages may constitute the single main source of industrial disputes, whereas at a different time or in a different country, the relative importance of wages may decline and some other issue may become more important. In which country and at what time, which issue will become predominant will depend upon the importance the workers attach to their problems, within the prevailing economic and political climate. It is well-known that in the earlier stages of industrial development, wages were the most important cause of industrial conflict. As the wage-level rises, hours of work and other working conditions may gain in importance as causative factors. In times of unionization, issues relating to recognition of unions and union security may figure more often in the industrial disputes. During times of depression and slackening of businesses, retrenchment and lay-off will become prominent. Thus, as industrial conflict and industrial disputes are the results of clashes in the goals and aspirations of the workers and the employers, the variations in the causes of industrial disputes will indicate the changes in the pattern of workers’ goals and aspirations.

A study of the classification given above indicates that some of the sources of conflict are individual and others collective in character. For example, the issue of non-payment of wages or the denial of leave may relate to an individual workman, but the demand for a general wages increase or the recognition of the union is a matter which always concerns a group of workmen.

Interests and Rights Disputes

Another way of looking at industrial disputes could be to classify them on the American pattern, wherein disputes are categorized under two heads: (i) disputes concerning interests and (ii) disputes concerning rights.

There can be disputes regarding creation of specific rights and there can also be disputes regarding the implementation of these rights. The former disputes are said to be disputes regarding interests and the latter disputes regarding rights. An illustration would be useful to explain these concepts. A dispute concerning a general wage increase or the acceptance of seniority as the basis of promotion may be said to be a dispute regarding interests. The resolution of this dispute may create certain rights, that is, right to a higher wage or right to promotion on the basis of seniority. Later on, if the employer refuses to make payment according to the terms of the agreement or the adjudication award or refuses to make promotion in a specific case on the basis of seniority, disputes regarding implementation of the rights will arise. Therefore, they can be said to be disputes regarding rights.

Under the Indian context, disputes regarding the implementation of labour laws and regulations, standing orders, adjudication awards, collective agreements and settlements, wage boards’ recommendations and administrative orders of the government will fall under the second category of disputes concerning rights. These disputes in American parlance are called grievances. The American union and managements are not prepared to submit to arbitration their disputes regarding interest, but often resort to arbitration as the last stage in settling disputes regarding rights. In the United States, a trade union would be rarely prepared to submit its demand for a wage increase to arbitration, but once an agreement has been signed, the union may perfectly be willing to submit to arbitration disputes flowing from the implementation or the interpretation of the agreement.

Strike

In spite of the elaborate machineries that employers, employees and the state have evolved everywhere to bring about a peaceful settlement of industrial disputes, strikes and lock-outs have not been completely eliminated. Analysts continue to identify the causes of strikes, and attempt to refine the methods and machineries for the peaceful settlement of industrial disputes.

Strikes and lock-outs are the methods adopted by workers and employers, respectively, to settle their differences. When the workers fail to secure a redressal of their grievances and fulfilment of their demands by peaceful negotiations with the employer, they try to force the employer to come to a settlement by temporarily withdrawing their services in the form of strike. They may succeed or fail in their attempt to do so, but for the time being, the issue that gave rise to the dispute is settled either in the favour of the workers or in the favour of the employer. The strike has been and is the main weapon in the armoury of labour to achieve its goals. Likewise, the employers resort to lock-outs. According to the view presented here, strikes and lock-outs are not to be identified with industrial disputes. They are not disputes in themselves; they are just one way of settling disputes for the time being.

What is a Strike?

A strike may be defined as a concerted and temporary cessation of work by workers with a view to furthering or protecting their interests and rights, in general, and securing a fulfilment of their specific demands in particular.1 From this definition certain basic ingredients of a strike follow. Firstly, a strike involves a combined withdrawal of their services by workers. Concerted or combined refusal to work is one of the basic ingredients of a strike. Secondly, the cessation of work is for a temporary period; work is to be resumed whenever the strikers feel like doing so. A strike does not imply the termination of employer–employee relationship. The strikers think that they continue to be employees, though not working. Finally, the cessation of work in a strike has certain objectives. The strikers have a certain purpose in view when they cease working for a temporary period. The purpose, of course, is furthering and protecting their interests and rights and securing fulfilment of their specific demands at a particular time.

 

Strike

A voluntary stoppage of work on the part of a body of workers, by common agreement or understanding, or by order of their union with a view to protecting or promoting their rights and interests, in general, or for the fulfilment of specific demands.

The interests and rights the workers may seek to promote and protect through strikes are multitudinous. They may relate to the terms and conditions of employment of the strikers or of other workmen, or to the political and social interests or to showing solidarity of the working class or, to any issue which the workers may consider worth striking for. Historically, strikes have been used for all these purposes and for many more, though the primary purpose behind strikes has been, and still continues to be, to bring pressure upon the employer to commit or desist from committing certain actions relating to terms and conditions of employment.

Causes of Strikes/Industrial Disputes

It has been stated above that the ‘strike’ is one of the means adopted by labour to achieve its goals. Therefore, looking for the causes of strikes means searching for the causes which lead the workers to choose the method of strike in preference to others, if available. If this be so, then the only cause of a strike is that either no other alternative methods are available, or if available, the workers feel that the use of the alternatives will not be as effective as the strike in the attainment of their goals. Strikes are costly to workers, involve loss of earnings, cause emotional tensions and strains, deplete union funds and lead to the loss of employment for many workers. If, in spite of these risks, the workers decide to go on a strike, they do so because they feel that they have no other way of achieving their goals and aspirations. In the case of a civil dispute, two individuals may decide to settle their dispute by fighting each other in the ancient method of setting dispute, that is, trial by combat. Today, the state does not permit the use of violence for the settlement of civil disputes between two individuals and has provided alternative elaborate judicial machinery for the processing of such disputes. But in the case of industrial disputes, strikes are recognized as a legitimate method of settling differences between the employer and his employees. However, in certain countries, the state has evolved elaborate machinery for the settlement of industrial disputes with a code of industrial jurisprudence. Under these conditions, the state has prevented altogether or imposed serious restrictions on industrial warfare for the purpose of settling industrial disputes. Experience everywhere shows that when alternative methods are provided in the form of mediation and conciliation services, adjudication, wage boards and consultative machineries, the incidence of strikes goes down.

From this point of view, the causes of strikes are different from the objectives which are sought to be achieved through them, though most students of industrial relations tend to identify the objectives with causes. Securing a higher wage may be the objective of a strike, but not its cause. The cause is the absence of another equally or more effective method acceptable to workers for obtaining the same higher wage. If the demand for a higher wage is treated as the cause of a strike, the refusal by the employer to concede the demand could equally be listed as the cause. Both the demand for a higher wage and the refusal by the employer to concede the same are causes of the differences, that is, causes of industrial disputes and not causes of a strike. If no other method of settling the dispute is available, the workers may seek to settle it by going on a strike. However, a common practice has developed of treating the purposes of strikes as their causes. Thus, the causes of industrial disputes become the causes of strikes also. An attempt has already been made to specify the causes of industrial disputes in the preceding section and these need not be listed here.

In the history of strikes there have been numerous issues which the workers have considered worth striking for. Among such issues, some may be treated as being more important than others because of their more frequent occurrence. Of these, wages and other related issues have been more important. In all countries more strikes result from disputes over wages than from those on any other single cause. In times of business prosperity, rising prices and increasing costs of living, strikes for wage increases gain in frequency, whereas resistance to wage cuts figures more often in strikes in times of depressions. In the United States, wages as causes of strikes have rarely accounted for less than 50 per cent of the strikes; occasionally, the percentage has gone up as high as 70.2 During the great depression of 1929, 50 per cent of the strikes were for the purpose of resisting wage-cuts. Similarly, in Great Britain wage-issues have figured in more than 50 per cent of the strikes. Likewise, the Indian experience in the past has been of the same pattern. Surface manifestations of unrest and dissatisfaction which appear to be responsible for a work-stoppage may cover deep-seated and more basic causes which cannot be observed at first sight.

Table 11.1 gives a picture of the various issues involved in industrial disputes and strikes in India during 1961–2007.

 

Table 11.1 Percentage Distribution of the Causes of Industrial Disputes Resulting in Work-stoppages in India (1961–2007)

 

Source: Government of India, Ministry of Labour. Various issues of Indian Labour Year Book and Pocket Book of Labour Statistics.

 

CHART 11.A: Percentage Distribution of Causes of Industrial Disputes Resulting in Work-stoppages in India (1997) (See Table 11.1)

 

CHART 11.B: Percentage Distribution of Causes of Industrial Disputes Resulting in Work-stoppages in India (2007) (See Table 11.1)

 

Table 11.1 shows that monetary issues comprising wages, allowances and bonus constituted the most important issues in industrial disputes in the country. The percentage of such disputes to total number of disputes stood at more than 30 in all the years up to 1985, the highest of above 50 percent recorded in 1967. However, a declining trend in the percentage of such disputes is observable since 1985. Next in importance has been disputes concerning personnel matters including retrenchment and lay-off. The percentage of such disputes varied between 23.6 (1967) and 29.9 (1976) during the period 1961–76 and thereafter between 10.2 (2005) and 24.2 (1978). Although there has been a decline in the percentage of disputes on personnel matters especially after 1985, the percentage of disputes relating to matters of indiscipline and violence has substantially increased from 2000 onwards. This is a highly distressing trend in the industrial relations scene of the country. The percentage of disputes on charter of demands has been below 10 up to 1998, but has shown an increasing trend from 1999 onwards. Non-implementation of agreements and awards has constituted between 3 per cent and 5 per cent of the total number of disputes. The ‘others’ category covers disputes relating to union rivalry, work-load, surplus labour, and improvement of amenities and service conditions.

Resorts to strikes for political purposes have also been frequent in India, as in many other developing countries. Of late, quite a number of nationwide general and industrial strikes/bandhs have taken place in the country in protest against the economic and industrial policy of 1991 and specific measures initiated in pursuance of the policy. A detailed mention of such strikes/bandhs in which political parties were also involved has been made in Chapter 5. It has rightly been said that strikes are due to ‘a multitude of causes, and it is not always easy, in specific instances, to ascertain the particular cause or causes involved. Surface manifestations of unrest and dissatisfaction which appear to be responsible for a work-stoppage may cover deep—seated and more basic causes which cannot be observed at first sight. Moreover, the relative importance of the causes, when more than one are present, is often very difficult to gauge. For these reasons, any classification of strike causes is bound to be of limited value’.3

Forms of Strike

Over the course of time, strikes have been known by various names depending on their purpose, coverage or technique, such as a ‘general strike’, ‘a sympathetic strike’, a ‘stay-in or sit-down strike and a ‘slow-down strike’.

Some of the more common forms of strikes (which are not always clearly differentiated from one another) are described below.

Authorized and Unauthorized Strikes

On the basis of the nature of initiation, strikes may be classified as (i) authorized and (ii) unauthorized strikes. An authorized strike is one which is called only after the union has given its consent. An unauthorized strike, commonly known as a wild-cat strike, is one which is called without the approval of the union. Strikes called by a section of workmen on the spur of the moment without any formal preparation, any formal notice to the employer or any authorization from the proper authority of the union are known by this name. A ‘wild-cat’ strike is sometimes an emotional outburst caused by any sudden provocative action on the part of the management or supervisors. Unauthorized or ‘wild-cat’ strikes also represent ‘a rebellion on the part of the rank-and-file membership against the union leadership or rebellion by part of the membership against the total membership’.4 Strikes of this type were very common in the United States during the Second World War period. ‘Wild-cat’ strikes also became frequent in Great Britain during the 1960s. One of the objectives behind the enactment of British Industrial Relations Act, 1971, was to discourage resort to such strikes.

General and Particular Strikes

On the basis of their scope, that is, workers and areas covered, strikes may be classified as ‘general’ or ‘particular’. A general strike has a wide coverage, but the degree of generality or the nature of coverage varies considerably from strike to strike. For example, there may be a general strike which covers a wide range of industries and all or a large part of the country. However, a strike covering all the industries and an entire country as envisaged by extreme radicals can be envisaged only in imagination. Examples of general strikes having a very wide coverage are the General Strike of 1926 in Great Britain and the French General Strike of 1938 (see Chapter 5).

In India a number of nationwide strikes were resorted to in opposition to the new economic and industrial policies of the government introduced in 1991. Some general strikes are confined to a city or an industrial town. Bandhs are typical examples of such strikes in India. The objective behind organizing bandhs has primarily been political in nature. Whatever may be the purpose, bandhs often lead to widespread sufferings and inconvenience particularly for the local community. In some cases, workers employed in different industries in a city or area may call industrial strikes simultaneously without having any political objective. Another example of a general strike may be one which, although confined to only one industry, covers many employers, sometimes extending beyond one city or industrial area.

In contrast to general strikes, particular strikes are limited in scope and are usually confined to a single plant or a few plants and to a single trade or occupation in a particular town or city. Majority of such strikes in India are called by the plant level unions.

Types Based on Techniques

Strikes can also be differentiated on the basis of the techniques adopted. There is a set of strikes in which the workers continue to attend to their workplaces, but still intend to reduce their output. In others, they formally quit their workplaces. The most common of the former category of strike are: (i) slow-down strike, (ii) quickie strike, (iii) sit-down strike and (d) work-to-rule strike (see Box 11.2).

Box 11.2

TYPES OF STRIKES BASED ON TECHNIQUE

Slow-down Strike: In a strike of this type, workers do not actually stop working; rather they slow down the pace of their work. Such strikes are a common feature in the Indian sugar industry during the crushing season and in docks during heavy pressures for unloading goods from ships. Employers vehemently resent this form of strike and call it immoral.

Quickie Strike: In a quickie, workers remain in their place of work, but they stop work for a brief period, that is, for a few minutes or a few hours.

Sit-down Strike:  In a sit-down strike also, workers remain in their place of work but they do not work. The duration of the stoppage in a sit-down strike is longer than that in a quickie. The difference between a quickie and a sit-down strike is only of duration; all quickies involve sit-downs but all sit-downs are not quickies. Further, in a slow-down strike workers pretend to be working, though at a slower pace. In a sit-down strike, they stop working altogether.

Work-to-rule: Under a work-to-rule situation, the employees are not formally on strike similar to the slow-down situation. The employees declare that they will perform their tasks strictly in accordance with the rules prescribed. In some industries, the nature of the business and the rules prescribed are such as to lead to a considerably slowing down of the pace of work if the rules are strictly followed. Therefore, in actual practice, many of the rules are very often overlooked without causing any damage to the quality and quantity of work. Under such conditions, if the unions and workers declare that they will work according to the rules, they succeed in slowing down the pace of work and reducing output without going on a formal strike and without any dereliction of duty. The procedure of work followed during work-to-rule movement shows a departure from the customary procedure, but not from the prescribed one, and the ultimate result is slow-down. A work-to-rule movement, thus, becomes a very effective instrument of exerting pressure on the management. In some services like insurance, banking, post and telegraph and government offices, employees have often resorted to work-to-rule method for the fulfilment of their demands. The work-to-rule movement is generally a slow-down movement.

Ordinary Strike: The strike situation in which the workers continue to be present in the workplaces is not very common. The most common strike which is distinct from others noted above is one in which workers formally quit their places of work and prevent others, occasionally by violence but mostly by persuasion and picketing, from replacing them. In this form of strike, picketing, processions and demonstrations become necessary for the success of the strike.

Types Based on Generic Purposes

Strikes have also been named after the generic purposes for which they are undertaken. These strikes are: (i) sympathetic strikes, (ii) jurisdictional strikes, (iii) political strikes and (iv) general strikes.

Sympathetic Strike

A sympathetic strike, as the term itself indicates, is conducted out of sympathy for the cause of another group of workers, whether on strike or not. Thus, the workers resorting to a sympathetic strike have no immediate grievance against their employer. The strikers hope to strengthen the morale of the workers for whom they are expressing their sympathy by going on a strike. A sympathetic strike is an expression of solidarity with and support to a cause. The workers on a sympathetic strike may also expect their employer to use his good offices for the success of the cause of the fellow workers for whom sympathy is being expressed.

 

Sympathetic Strike

A sympathetic strike is cessation of work by workers of an establishment in sympathy with the workers of another employer or in order to put pressure upon the government to adopt measures to fulfil the demands of other workers whether on strike or not.

Jurisdictional Strike

Jurisdictional strikes are conducted with a view to force an employer to recognize or bargain with a particular trade union instead of another. Two unions may claim to represent the same set of workers and may clamour for recognition for this purpose. One of the contestants may go on strike to pressurize the employer to accept its representational claim. As a matter of fact, two unions quarrel for their respective jurisdictions and the strike is the result of this dispute. Hence, such strikes are known as jurisdictional strikes. Jurisdictional strikes were very common in the United States and were subsequently brought under the restrictive provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, 1947. In India also, strikes pertaining to recognition of unions are very common but the law does not have any special provisions to deal with such strikes. In a situation of acute trade union rivalry, as pertains to India, jurisdictional disputes tend to become very frequent.

 

Jurisdictional Strike

A strike called by the workers of an establishment not because of a direct grievance against the employer, but on account of a disagreement between rival unions as to which should be recognized as the official representative of the workers in the establishment.

Political Strike

Strikes of this sort are intended to put pressure on the government to do something or desist from doing something. Such strikes are also intended to express workers’ support to a particular political cause. Political strikes have been very common in India. During the days of the imperial rule, workers would go on strike very often to protest against the imprisonment of the national leaders and to voice their support to the cause of Independence. In the post-Independence period, the reorganization of states, the claims of linguistic groups and languages, location of a particular industrial unit in a particular region, the general economic situation, economic and industrial policies of the government, and many foreign issues have provided the occasions for political strikes. Bandhs discussed earlier also come under this category. Such strikes are not caused by industrial disputes.

General Strike

General strikes are similar to political strikes in nature and purpose. A general strike which involves the entire working-class of a country can rarely be caused by industrial disputes. A general strike may be a part of a revolutionary movement. The syndicalists looked upon the general strike as a method to abolish capitalism and usher in a new economic order.

 

General Strike

A strike having a very wide coverage extending over a number of industries, employments regions or employers. The degree of generality or the extent of coverage of general strikes varies considerably from strike to strike.

Gherao

Here, it is relevant to refer to the phenomenon of gherao which was very frequently resorted to by the workers for a few years after 1967, though its occurrence is rare now. Gheraos, not necessarily confined during the periods of strikes, are one of the methods designed to exert pressure for the fulfilment of demands. The practice involves confinement of authorities (often managerial personnel) in their offices, by the workers. This can last for hours or even days, and they are prevented from going out pending the fulfilment of the demands. In some cases, persons under gherao are forced to remain without food and water for hours and are at times not allowed to go out even for natural calls. The workers squat around the office-room of the officers, often in batches, encircle the premises and close all exits.

 

Gherao

The practice involves confinement of authorities mostly managerial personnel in their offices by agitating workers in connection with their demands and preventing them from going out.

The movement first began in West Bengal but soon Kerala followed suit. Gheraos were at their highest peak during the regime of the United Front Governments5 in these states and they gradually spread to other parts of the country. The movement did not remain confined to industrial establishments, and it also entered government offices, educational institutions and commercial establishments.

At one stage, the movement in West Bengal became so widespread that many industries began to close, a number of workers were thrown out of employment, expansion of industries stopped, and head offices of many companies began to shift from Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. At that time, the police was also directed by Minister of Labour in office, not to take action against employees participating in gheraos. This led to a further deterioration in the situation. The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, could not provide any solution as the question of gheraos fell outside the jurisdictions of the authorities constituted under the Act.

The question ultimately came up for decision before the Calcutta High Court. The Court which gave its judgement in September 1967, held that gherao which involved wrongful restraint on a person belonging to a management, was a cognizable offence punishable under sections 339 and 340 of the Indian Penal Code and offenders were liable to be arrested without warrant. The Court also castigated the West Bengal Labour Minister for giving direction to the police and declared void the ‘guideline-circulars’ issued by the state government to deal with gheraos.

The problems resulting from gherao also received the attention of the first National Commission on Labour which held that ‘gheraos, apart from their adverse effects on industry and economy of the country, strike at the very root of trade unionism’.6 The Commission deprecated resort to gheraos ‘which invariably tend to inflict physical duress on the person affected and endanger not only industrial harmony but also create problems of law and order’.7 Further, according to the Commission, gheraos ‘cannot be treated as a form of industrial protest since they involve physical coercion rather than economic pressure’.8 The Commission, however, did not suggest any concrete measures for discouraging the practice and contented itself by saying, ‘It is the duty of union leaders … to condemn this form of labour protest as harmful to the interest of the working class’.9 An amendment of the Industrial Disputes Act in 1982 included gherao in the list of unfair labour practices on the part of workmen and their trade unions and prohibited it.

It may be noted here that gheraos are not new to the labour movement. During the early years of the growth of workers’ combinations in England, workers often resorted to obstructing supervisors and managers in the discharge of their duties, confined them in their offices, particularly in isolated areas, physically assaulted them, and deliberately broke the machines in protest against the miserable working and living conditions. This was one of the reasons why the Combination Acts of 1824 and 1825, specified certain offences for which the members of workers’ combinations could be imprisoned. These included: ‘violence, threats, or intimidations, molestation or obstruction for the purpose of forcing a person to leave his work, forcing or inducing a person to belong to a trade union or observe a trade union’s rules, and forcing an employer to alter his manner of conducting his business, or to limit the number of employees’.10 Most of the practices associated with gheraos were covered under the terms ‘intimidation’, ‘obstruction’, ‘molestation’ and ‘picketing’ which, under certain circumstances constituted offences under special statutes. In the early trade union movement of the United States also, workers often resorted to violence and physical duress of the foremen and managerial personnel. Thus, gheraos are an essentially primitive method used by the early trade unions, particularly in England.

The practice of gherao has now mostly fallen into disuse. There is neither any political support to this movement nor can it secure any moral sanction. Industrial warfare in the forms of strikes and lock-outs and exerting economic pressures of all kinds is accepted as legitimate in the settlement of industrial disputes, but the use of violence against a person is condemned on all sides.

Factors Conditioning the Outcome of Strikes

Of the many strikes that are launched every day, a few succeed in achieving their objectives, some are partially successful and some miserably fail and strikers return to work unconditionally. An idea of the results of strikes launched in India during 1961–98 can be had from Table 11.2. These figures have ceased to be published since 1999.

 

Table 11.2 Percentage Distribution of the Outcome of Industrial Disputes Resulting in Work-stoppages in India (1961–98)

 

Source: Government of India, Ministry of Labour. Various issues of Indian Labour Year Book, Indian Labour Statistics and Pocket Book of Labour Statistics.

Note: Results/outcomes are based on the extent to which workers’ demands are met.

 

Thus, ‘unsuccessful’ means that workers’ demands were not accepted. ‘Indefinite’ means that no final decision was reached at the time of resumption of work.

Table 11.2 shows that the percentages of successful strikes in the country have been lower when compared to the percentages of unsuccessful ones. This has been the feature all through the period under study. The average proportion of successful strikes was 31 per cent in the decade 1961–70, 29 per cent in the decades 1971–80 and 1981–90 each and about 31 per cent during 1991–98, while that of unsuccessful strikes being 34 per cent, 38 per cent, 41 per cent and 47 per cent during the corresponding periods. When compared to the figures of the total number of strikes, the percentages of unsuccessful strikes have recorded an appreciable increase since 1971. The successful and partially successful strikes taken together have constituted 47 per cent during 1961–70, 54 per cent during 1971–80, about 56 per cent during 1981–90 and 48 per cent during 1991–98. The percentage of strikes in the ‘indefinite’ category recorded a declining trend since 1981.

Thus, it is evident that the weapon of strike, commonly regarded as the last weapon in the armoury of labour, has not been very effective in producing results for the workers. However, it is not easy to evaluate strikes in terms of their outcome with respect to the demands for which they are undertaken. A very common practice in India is that strikes are called off without any agreement being signed. But immediately after a strike is over, demands are conceded and concessions are made through pure administrative orders. What looked like a failure ultimately turns out to be a success. Similarly, many of the strikes are withdrawn as a face-saving device just on mere verbal assurances which never materialize. Therefore, in most cases, a classification of strikes between ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ ones is highly misleading in the Indian context.

Further, there is a viewpoint that the outcome of a strike cannot always be measured in terms of immediate gains and losses in the conditions of employment. This viewpoint emphasizes that the strike is a weapon that strengthens the labour movement, sharpens class consciousness and that trade unions grow through struggles. Therefore, a strike never fails.

Strikes are intended to coerce the employer to accept the workers’ demands. At the same time, they inflict losses on the workers also. A strike is really a trial of strength between the workers and the employer and the outcome of a strike depends on the relative strength of the union and the employer. But this relative strength is itself determined by a number of other factors which can be discussed under three heads: (i) factors operating on the side of the union, (ii) factors operating on the side of the employer and (iii) general factors.

On the Side of the Union

The main factors operating on the side of the union are: (i) extent of unionization, (ii) composition of union membership, (iii) union finances, (iv) substitutability of the services of the strikers, (v) union leadership, (vi) the morale of the workers, (vii) support from other unions and (viii) the history of past strikes.

As the strike is a double-edged weapon cutting both ways, the factors affecting the strength of the union, determine the outcome of the strike by conditioning the staying power of the strikers. Under such conditions, a strike is a game of patience. The longer the strike lasts, the greater are the sufferings of the strikers. Therefore, during a period of strike, the union has to arrange for strike-benefits and has to do everything possible to maintain the morale of the strikers. Moreover, sympathetic strikes by other unions and the boycott of the employer’s products may weaken the employer’s resistance. The character, wisdom and experience of the union leaders play a decisive role in determining the outcome of a strike. It is the leaders’ responsibility to read the situation, to gauge the strength of the employer’s resistance, to seek and mobilize support from other sections of the population and political parties and to mould the government’s thinking and reaction. In short, it is for them to evolve an effective strike strategy, adopt appropriate tactics and organize a competent publicity programme during the strike period.

If the services of the strikers cannot be easily substituted by other workers or by machines, the chances for the success of the strike are brighter. Support and sympathy of other unions in the form of donations in cash or kind prolong the staying power of the strikers. On the other hand, trade union rivalry is a weakening factor. Many strikes in India have become unsuccessful because of the counter and strike-breaking efforts of the rival unions. The history of past strikes may also Act as a damper or a booster to the morale of the strikers.

On the Side of the Employer

On the side of the employer, the important factors are: (i) the economic position of the enterprise, (ii) the attitude of the employer, (iii) the availability of alternative ways to produce the goods and services and (iv) the support available from other employers.

The employer’s staying power is an important factor conditioning the outcome of a strike. If he can outweigh the strikers, it is quite likely that the strike will fail. If the economic position of the enterprise is such that it can continue in existence for a considerable length of time in spite of the stoppage of production, the economic hardships of the strikers will correspondingly increase and their staying power reduced. In the same way, if he can continue supplying the orders of the customers by transferring business to other branches, or to friendly producers or by employing substitutes, he can face the strike situation for a longer period. In many instances, employers have shown the same degree of solidarity, if not greater, as the workers do in facing a strike situation. No less important is the employer’s attitude. If an employer is out to crush the strikers even at the cost of going out of business—if economic calculus does not enter into his mind—and if he is guided by considerations of prestige rather than by economic gains and losses, the strike may end in failure.

It is with a view to minimizing the resistance of the employers that the unions have to adopt a particular strategy and tactics while going on a strike supplemented by picketing and boycott. The unions are on the lookout for the time when the employer is most vulnerable and generally they so time their strike as to inflict the heaviest losses on him. When the business is in a prosperous condition and a producer has urgent and profitable orders to supply, his losses will be heavy, if work is stopped. Therefore, the timing of the strike is an important factor in determining its outcome.

General

Amongst the general factors, the chief ones are: (i) the prevailing economic climate, (ii) policy of the government, (iii) public opinion and (iv) composition of the labour force.

The unions and the employers fight out their differences through strikes in a particular economic and political environment, which has its influence on the outcome of a strike. In a generally depressed economic environment, when unemployment is widespread, the conditions for the success of a strike are not propitious. The easy availability of unemployed surplus manpower, acts as a drag on the strike. The policy of the government contributes materially to the outcome of a strike. The legal restrictions on strike and penal clauses of the laws have a deleterious effect on the success of strikes. A pro-employer government may easily intervene protecting employers’ interests in the name of law and order; strikers may be arrested or restrictions may be imposed on processions and demonstrations, thereby demoralizing the rank-and-file of the strikers. On the other hand, if a government is sympathetic to labour, the effect will be favourable to the strikers.

Similarly, public opinion, both by influencing the policy and attitude of the government and by extending or withdrawing material and moral support to the strikers, plays an important role in determining the success or the failure of a strike. The importance of public opinion, as a determinant of the results of a strike, is growing every day. The extent of the role of public opinion can be gauged by the resources, devoted by both the sides in a strike situation, to educating, influencing and mobilizing the public opinion in their favour. Leaflets are distributed, paid advertisements are inserted in newspapers, meetings, processions with placards are organized, and whenever available, radio and television are also utilized to project the respective stands. Each side seeks to present itself as the most reasonable and just, and the other as the villain. Each side tries to emphasize that it is not acting against any public interest.

Here, it ought to be realized that strikes do cause some inconvenience to the public as the consumer of goods and services. Public opinion may be presumed to be always against the strikers. Therefore, trade unions have to cultivate it more carefully and assiduously. But most of the unions in India, because of their small size and poor financial resources, are not in a position to undertake any extensive campaign to educate public opinion. However, public opinion, most of the time, is divided along class lines. In a society where the labour force consists predominantly of wage-earners, the public sentiment will generally be in favour of the strikers, but in a country like India, where the size of the self-employed in the labour force is predominant, public opinion is generally against strikes. The self-employed persons do not have the need to resort to strikes and, therefore, can appreciate neither the usefulness of strikes to the wage-earners nor the pressures under which they have to resort to strikes. Under such conditions, it becomes all the more difficult for a trade union to secure public support.

Effects of Strikes

Any attempt at a precise assessment of the effects of strikes is extremely hazardous. In an economy where everybody performs some specialized service and is in many ways dependent on others, the ramifications of a strike are too many to be evaluated. However, in the main, the effects of a strike primarily depend on: (i) number of workers involved in the strike, (ii) its duration and (iii) the nature of the struck product or service. The larger the number of workers involved, the longer the duration of a strike, and the more essential the commodity and the service, the more widespread are the effects of a strike. In general, the possible effects may, for the sake of convenience, be discussed under the following three heads:

  1. Effects on the parties to the strike
    1. On the employer
    2. On the workers
  2. Effects on others:
    1. Consumers of the struck products
    2. Suppliers to the struck firm
    3. Suppliers of goods and services to the strikers
  3. Effects on the society as a whole
    1. On the state
    2. On the economy

Effects on the Parties to the Strike

On the Employer

The economic losses of the employer caused by a strike are incapable of precise calculation. The loss of profits is only one item in the total losses that an employer may suffer. The employer’s business may be crippled because of the loss of market connections beyond the period of the strike, goodwill may be lost, and the idle machines may get spoilt. Additional expenditure may have to be incurred on protecting the plant and on strike-breaking activities. Publicity and propaganda are yet other items adding to his costs. Besides, the loss of mental peace, respect and status in the community cannot be calculated in terms of money. Thus, strikes involve both economic and non-economic costs for the employer and, if at the end of the strike, he has to concede the demands of the strikers, additional burdens are imposed. However, certain other elements which mitigate the losses should also form a part of the economic calculation of the cost of a strike.

The stoppage of production prevents the depreciation of machines. The sales made at a higher price, as a result of the scarcity created by the strike, may enable the employer to recoup a part of his losses. The strike may present an opportunity to the employer to dispose of accumulated stocks. The loss of production may partly or wholly be made up by increased production in the post-strike period. The loss of production might have been anticipated and made good by stepping up production during the days immediately preceding the strike. A part of the production may be diverted to friendly plants or own branches. The time of the strike may coincide with a slackened business which needs curtailment of production. Strikes engineered by the employers under such conditions are not unknown. In addition, the strike may leave the union weakened and divided to the satisfaction of the employer. The strike might fail and the employer escapes the burden of conceding the workers’ demands.

The employer does calculate and compare the costs of a strike to him and those of averting the strike, by agreeing to the terms of the union. If he feels that the costs of agreeing to the terms of the union are less than the costs of the strike, he will avert the strike. On the other hand, if the anticipated costs of the strike are less than the costs of the agreement on the union’s terms, he will face the strike. It is a part of his business to calculate the comparative costs and Act accordingly. The anticipation may be wrong, the strike may not fail as anticipated, and he may ultimately have to bear the costs of the strike as well as the costs of agreeing to the union’s terms. It is a game that he plays with a union with all the risks of uncertainty.

On the Workers

Of the adverse effects of a strike on the workers, the important ones are: loss of wages and fringe-benefits, contracting of debts, personal hardships and loss of employment.

Table 11.3 contains figures of wage and production losses per industrial dispute from 1986 to 2007. The table shows that between 1986 and 1997, the loss of wages per industrial dispute resulting in work-stoppage was below 7 lakh in all the years under study. However, from 2000 onwards, there has been a more or less continuous increase in the wage-loss varying between 12.7 lakh (1999) and 150.3 lakh (2007). The loss of wages resulting from industrial disputes does not appear to be high when compared to the average daily employment in industrial establishments and the earnings of workers. The value of production loss per dispute has been below 100 lakh during the period 1986–97, but it increased to between 133.5 lakh (1998) and 2,141.8 lakh in the period 1998–2007. Except for the year 2007, the value of production loss per dispute generally constituted a small fraction of the monthly production for a manufacturing establishment of even a moderate size. It also cannot be said to be appreciable when compared to the production losses resulting from interruptions in power supply, slackening of demand and similar other situations not related to industrial disputes.

 

Table 11.3 Loss of Wages and Value of Production Loss per Industrial Dispute in India (1986–2007)

Year Loss of wages per dispute ( in lakh) Value of production loss per dispute ( in lakh)
1986
4.0
85.3
1987
5.2
69.6
1988
5.8
74.3
1989
4.7
49.8
1990
3.1
34.5
1991
3.4
55.8
1992
3.5
59.7
1993
5.0
98.6
1994
4.5
83.1
1995
8.9
87.6
1996
5.0
91.9
1997
6.8
66.5
1998
17.8
133.5
1999
12.7
190.4
2000
57.3
416.6
2001
27.0
326.9
2002
26.7
346.7
2003
34.6
280.9
2004
67.6
271.5
2005
79.5
285.2
2006
100.0
385.2
2007
150.3
2,141.8

Source: Compiled on the basis of data published by Government of India, Ministry of Labour in Indian Labour Year Book, Pocket Book of Labour Statistics and Labour Bureau Statistics.

 

In general, it is difficult to assess the wage and production losses in account of a strike. Any calculation of wage-losses from payroll gives only a partial picture. A full account of such losses cannot be had unless answers to many questions are available. How many of the strikers obtain other work during the strike period? How far do the strikers make up their losses by working more, nearly full-time or over-time, after work is resumed? How many remain unemployed in case the strike fails? What wage-losses are suffered by non-strikers? What strike benefits are available to the strikers out of the union coffers or donations from outside? These are important questions the answers to which materially affect any estimation of wage-losses suffered during the period of a strike?

Under the Indian conditions, where a large section of industrial workers maintain connection with the village and agricultural land, the strike may present an opportunity to visit the village home to do agricultural operations and to meet a few social obligations. It is this connection of the workers with their village homes that enables many trade unions in the country to face successfully a prolonged strike situation. The termination of strike is followed, in many cases, by notices giving enough time to workers to return to work.

Other adverse effects like contracting of debts or buying goods and services on credit at higher prices, disruptions in the family life, personal hardships and mental agonies, tortures and tension are still more difficult to estimate. Going on strike is not like sleeping on a bed of roses. A life of suspense, hopes and dark forebodings, with tensions increasing as days and weeks pass by is not easy to sustain.

 

CHART 11.C: Man-days Lost per Strike and per Lock-out in India (1997–2006)

 

The possible favourable effect of a strike for the workers is dependent on the terms of the settlement and the philosophy with which a strike is undertaken. If the strike ends successfully, the targeted goals are achieved, and all the losses and hardships faced by the workers are more than compensated. In many cases, strikes seem to be completely irrational when the costs are compared to the gains of the workers. Sometimes, the losses incurred during strikes may take years to make up, since the wage increase, after a strike, is usually quite meagre. According to the economist’s yardsticks, many strikes should not have been undertaken and are a mere reflection of the union’s inability to assess the costs of these strikes. The union calculates both the economic losses and the gains from the strikes. It compares the costs of going on a strike with those of desisting from it, and if the comparison is favourable, the strike is undertaken.

The costs of a strike are incalculable. The anticipated costs of a strike may ultimately turn out to be a complete under-estimation. The union may fail to correctly anticipate the strength of the employer’s resistance, popular reaction and government’s attitude. It may also over-estimate the strength of its own organization, the morale of its members and the support it expects from its friends and allies. Wrong calculations may lead to wrong steps and the strike may fail, disrupting the union. Economic calculations may make many strikes look like a losing proposition.

However, strikes are not always undertaken for the fulfilment of economic demands only. There may be non-economic issues by the agitating workers and their unions much more passionately than immediate economic gains—a principle may be involved. Union recognition, promotion by seniority, disciplinary and grievance procedures, management’s right to hire and fire, union’s insistence on control over jobs and recruitment, are matters which cannot be easily converted into monetary terms. To many trade unionists, the gains of a strike cannot be calculated in terms of wage increases or other concessions secured—to many of them a strike never fails—to others, it may serve to maintain the fighting spirit of the workers, keep powders dry and prevent the weapon from getting rusted and blunted; to others, still, it may be the preliminary step towards the future revolution. These viewpoints are not a mere rationalization of the failures of many strikes, rather they are passionately held and nursed with conviction by many trade unionists and workers. That is why any interference with the right to strike is strongly resented.

Effects on Others

Consumers of the Struck Products

strike injures not simply the parties to a strike but others as well, who may be subjected to substantial inconveniences. In this group of people, consumers of the struck product come first. The more essential the commodity and the more difficult it is to have its substitutes, the greater are the inconveniences to the consumers. When a strike takes place in industries providing basic necessities of life and public utility services like electricity, gas, transport and communication, sanitary services, and others, the consumers are subjected to untold hardships. If the struck commodity happens to be used in other productive operations, then other producers, their workmen, and consumers also suffer. For example, a strike in coal mining industry affects not only the household consumers but other industries also which consume it as a source of power. If plentiful stocks of the struck commodity are available, consumers’ sufferings may be mitigated to a certain extent.

Suppliers to the Struck Firm

Similarly, the suppliers to the struck firm, such as those of primary material equipments and transportation, are subjected to material losses when they have to curtail their operations because the struck firm has reduced its demand for their goods and services. A strike in a sugar mill adversely affects the suppliers of sugar cane, the people engaged in transportation of sugar and sugar cane and other suppliers to the mill. These people suffer for no fault of their own.

Suppliers of Goods and Services to the Strikers

When the strikers suffer wage-losses and curtail their consumption, local merchants, vendors, bus and taxi drivers, rickshaw pullers, barbers, washer men and laundry-owners and a host of others, who live by supplying goods and services to the workers, are forced to reduce their activities. The surrounding areas which normally buzz with economic activities present a deserted look.

Effects on the Society as a Whole

An idea of the man-days lost due to strikes and lock-outs in India and in selected countries can be had from Tables 11.4 and 11.5, respectively.

 

Table 11.4 Number of Man-days Lost per Strike and per Lock-out in India (1986–2006)

Year Man-days lost per strike (000) Man-days lost per lock-out (000)
1986
12.9
32.1
1987
10.4
47.3
1988
9.6
48.6
1989
7.6
56.5
1990
9.7
36.7
1991
7.3
26.3
1992
15.0
22.9
1993
6.1
30.7
1994
8.2
36.5
1995
7.8
31.6
1996
10.2
30.9
1997
7.9
20.9
1998
14.1
29.4
1999
19.4
41.8
2000
23.2
48.6
2001
15.0
60.3
2002
32.8
59.6
2003
12.6
91.1
2004
20.5
79.0
2005
47.6
82.4
2006
22.7
77.5

Source: Compiled on the basis of data published by Government of India, Ministry of Labour in Indian Labour Year Book, Pocket Book of Labour Statistics and Labour Bureau Statistics.

 

Table 11.5 Number of Industrial Disputes, Workers Involved and Man-days Lost in Selected Countries (1981–2007)

 

 

Source: Year Book of Labour Statistics, Copyright © International Labour Organisation.

Note:

  1. Average man-days lost per dispute have been calculated on the actual figures.
  2. The actual figures have been rounded up in lakh and thousand wherever applicable.

 

Table 11.4 shows that the number of man-days lost per strike in the country has been much less than that lost due to lock-out in all the years under study. During 1986–2006, the number of man-days lost per strike per year has varied between 61,000 (1993) and 476,000 (2005). The figures stood below 20,000 in most of the years. On the other hand, the number of man-days lost per lock-out per year during the same period has varied between 2,09,000 (1997) and 9,11,000 (2003). In 2003, the number of man-days lost per lock-out was as high as seven times the corresponding figures of man-days lost per strike. In most of the years under study, the man-days lost due to lock-outs has been twice and even thrice the figures relating to strikes.

The figures in Table 11.5 give an idea of the extent of industrial disputes, workers involved and man-days lost in selected countries during the period 1981–2007. The table clearly shows a very high incidence of industrial disputes, workers involved and man-days lost in India in comparison to most of the countries under study except the United States where the man-days lost due to industrial disputes has also been very high. From the point of view of man-days lost per dispute during the period has generally varied between 65,000 and 13,000 in India, between 5,24,000 and 40,000 in the United States, between 54,000 and 4,000 in Canada, between 23,000 and 15,000 in the United Kingdom, between 700 and 300 in France, between 900 and 100 in Japan, between 1,600 and 400 in Australia, and between 6,200 and 100 in New Zealand. In most of the countries under study, except India and the United States, there has been an obvious declining trend in regard to man-days lost and workers involved in industrial disputes. In New Zealand, Japan and France, the number of workers involved in industrial disputes has been less than 50,000 in most of the years under study, whereas in India it has varied between 6.5 lakh and 30 lakh per year and has remained 20 lakh in most of the years under study. In India, multiplicity of unions, prevalence of low labour standards, spread of unionism in the hitherto unorganized sectors, ineffectiveness of industrial relations laws and governmental labour policy have been some of reasons behind the higher incidence of workers involved and man-days lost in industrial disputes. In Japan, New Zealand, Australia and France, industrial relations have tended to be more peaceful in comparison to other countries under study.

The figures in Tables 11.4 and 11.5 present only a partial picture of the effects of strikes and industrial disputes. However, many areas of the effects of strikes on society can be discerned from the preceding discussions. In addition to the effects highlighted above, strikes create law and order problems, necessitating increased vigilance on the part of the state, causing additional expenditure out of public exchequer. The attention of the public servants is diverted from other issues to dealing with strike situation. The strife and bitterness left by the strike even after it has been called off, continue to linger endangering happy social relations. Apart from these, the consequences of long-drawn strikes in basic industries of the economy may bring all economic activities to a standstill. In a modern economy of today, where inter-sectoral dependence is a basic feature, the losses caused by such strikes are incalculable. As a matter of fact, a strike in a basic industry is like a big stone thrown into a pond causing rippling waves till the entire pond is engulfed.

In any assessment of the impact of a strike on the society as a whole, a reference ought to be made to the changing pattern of trade union movement, collective bargaining and strikes. Originally, strikes were resorted to against individual employers without completely shutting down an entire industry. For example, a strike in any particular coal mine did not, and even today, does not materially affect the supply of coal to vast bulk of consumers. The pressure remained primarily directed against the particular colliery owner. But now, with the development of industry-wide trade unions and collective bargaining, industry-wide strikes have become very common. The result is that an industry-wide strike completely deprives the consumers of the product of that industry. If the industry happens to be a basic one, the impact on the economy and the consumers is very serious. Like a war, a strike in an economy of today becomes a total strike. As in modern wars, the casualties and sufferings do not remain confined to the soldiers fighting on the front, so is the case with strikes today. The adverse effects do not remain confined to the employees and the employer of the struck plant. Further, though initially starting locally, a war has every possibility of engulfing the entire humanity; so a local strike may and does occasionally assume national proportions.

It is this realization of the changing pattern of strikes and their ever-increasing detrimental effects on the community that has led to attempts being made everywhere to control and regulate them. Generally speaking, the control measures have been attempted on three dimensions: (i) time, (ii) industry and (iii) dispute. Strikes, which are tolerated during normal times, are either completely banned or severely restricted during times of emergencies, such as wars. In the same way, the right to strike, though permitted in other industries, is severely restricted in public utility and essential services in many countries, as is evident from the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, and the Essential Services Maintenance Act, in India. On the other hand, in many places only individual strikes, depending upon the scope of damages done by them, are sought to be controlled, as in the case of the United States, where under the Labour Management Relations Act, 1947, the president has the power to declare a dispute an emergency one and to take other steps for its settlement. In Great Britain also, under the Industrial Relations Act, 1971, the government was empowered to request the NIRC to order for a deferment of strike either in progress or apprehended if such a strike, in the opinion of the government, was likely to endanger national security, health and supply of essential services. The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992, has made secret ballot before a strike compulsory and has imposed a number of restrictions on trade union practices, having a bearing on industrial actions including strike.

An Evaluation of the Right to Strike

Today, it has become an urgent and complex task to reconcile the right of the workers to go on a strike, with the right of the community to continue to enjoy the basic necessities of life uninterrupted. The foregoing discussions have made it clear that the right to strike, like all other individual rights, is not absolute. A study of the history of labour movement indicates that the industrial working class gained this right after a long and bitter struggle everywhere. The right to strike is an integral part of individual freedom and liberty, under which man has the right to decide to work or not to work for certain given terms of employment. In other words, he cannot be legally coerced or forced to work. By quitting his work and breaking his contract of employment, an individual may commit a civil but not a criminal offence. In Great Britain, during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, when trade unions came into existence and the workers started exercising the right to strike, the law held it to be a criminal offence. What was lawful for an individual became unlawful for the group. It was said that concerted withdrawal of labour, that is, strike was in restraint of trade and, therefore, a criminal conspiracy. In those days of nascent capitalism and rugged individualism, the rights of property prevailed over individual human rights.

Gradually, however, as the working class gained in strength and maturity and trade unionism became widespread, the restrictions on the right to strike were removed. Through a series of criminal law amendments and other statutes in Great Britain, it came to be recognized that what was lawful for an individual was also lawful for a group. That is, the concerted withdrawal of labour, if done in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute, was lawful. In other industrial countries also, the working class forced the state to remove the taint of criminal conspiracy and restraint of trade from the right to strike. Since then, the working class has been preserving this right as a cherished treasure and using it as and when the situation has demanded.

This brief recital of the history of the right to strike shows how a strike is a weapon of the industrial working class. Whether the exercise of this right for the protection and promotion of the interests of the working class as a whole, or a particular section, conflicts with the interests of the society, depends upon the extent to which the two interests coincide and become identical. While discussing the effects of strikes, it has been shown how strikes, though helping particular sections of workers, cause damage and loss to the other sections of the community and that is why people who suffer on account of a strike, decry the use of this weapon and insist on restricting its use.

However, it has to be remembered that in a society, where everybody is the seller of either a commodity or a service, where he is free to insist on the highest possible price for what he supplies and where he is free to withhold the supply if he does not find the price satisfactory, the workers, when they go on a strike, also exercise the same right of withholding their supply as others do. If suppliers of other services and other commodities, however great their importance may be to the health and life of the community, are left free to behave as they like, why should the workers be deprived of the right to withhold the supply of labour, when by doing so, they can protect their interests? Therefore, any judgement about the usefulness or otherwise of the right to strike and the restrictions to be placed on the same, can be made only in the context of the basic political and economic philosophy of a particular society. If the society decides that the entire range of economic activities of individuals and their groups, are to be so controlled and regulated as to serve the general interests of the society, the right to strike can also be legitimately controlled and regulated. On the other hand, if the pursuit of individual self-interest continues to be a basic guiding philosophy behind the organization of economic activities in a particular society, restrictions on the right to strike would neither be legitimate nor tolerated by the working class.

There are many industrial psychologists and sociologists who view a strike as a safety valve, which lets out the excess steam and protects the main mechanism from bursting out. They also find, in the strike, some elements which make for social and economic health under certain conditions. They feel that the concrete industrial situations are full of conflict and tension. If such tensions are allowed to accumulate, someday, they may result in a violent explosion. The strike serves a useful social purpose by letting off the steam occasionally. To many, this way of serving the social purpose is extremely costly, and is a luxury which few countries can afford.

In conclusion, it may be said that as more and more segments of the economic life of a society come under the control of the state and it assumes a direct responsibility for the economic growth and welfare of its people, strikes are likely to become an outdated method of settling industrial disputes. Here, it is relevant to refer to the observations of the Supreme Court relating to the right to organize. While disposing of petitions challenging the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to sack over 1.7 lakh employees who had gone on strike, the Court observed (on 6 August 2003) that ‘the trade unions, which have a guaranteed right for collective bargaining, have no right to go on strike’. The Court further ruled that the government employees have ‘no fundamental, legal or moral right to go on strike’.11 The judgement has aroused widespread resentment among trade unionists, government employees and industrial workers and has become a subject of national debates and protests.

SUMMARY
  1. Industrial disputes are concrete manifestations of the element of conflict—a dominant aspect of industrial relations. The specific causes of industrial disputes are numerous, but they are mainly of two broad types—disputes concerning interests and disputes relating to actual or apprehended denial of rights available to the workers through various sources.
  2. A strike is a concerted and temporary cessation of work by workers with a view to furthering or protecting their interests and rights in general, and securing fulfilment of their specific demands. The root cause of a strike is non-availability or failure of other peaceful methods of settling industrial disputes. However, there is a general tendency to consider the specific issues involved in strikes as their causes. Of the various issues involved in strikes, those relating to monetary and personnel matters, indiscipline and violence have been most outstanding in India.
  3. Strikes may take different forms depending on their purpose, coverage or technique adopted. Some of the more common forms of strikes are: particular and general strikes, go-slow, sympathetic strike, jurisdictional strike, ordinary strike and ‘wild cat’ strike.
  4. A number of factors operating on the sides of workers and employers condition the outcome of strikes. The factors operating on the side of the workers and their unions include composition of union membership, union finances and leadership, extent of substitutability of the services of the strikes and the history of the past strikes. Those operating on the side of the employer include the financial condition of the enterprise, employer’s attitude towards strike, availability of alternative ways of producing goods and services, and the support available from other employers. The governmental policies and measures in regard to work-stoppages have a profound influence on the outcome of strikes.
  5. Strikes have both beneficial and harmful effects on the parties involved. Wage loss, loss of production and man-days are the general features of all strikes. They involve many other kinds of losses for the workers and employers, but both of whom often gain from strikes under certain conditions. The effects of strikes on the consumers and community are always adverse and often disastrous.
  6. While the workers’ right to strike is commonly accepted, the state has to control and regulate it to safeguard the interests of the community and the nation. Legal and other measures have been adopted in many countries of the world to restrict, control or prohibit strikes in essential services and in specified situations such as wars and economic emergencies and also for requiring the unions to observe certain conditions before resorting to strike.
QUESTIONS FOR REVIEW
  1. Explain the various causes of industrial disputes resulting in work-stoppages with particular reference to India along with their relative importance.
  2. Define ‘strike’ and describe its various forms.
  3. Examine the factors that condition the outcome of strikes.
  4. Explain the effects of strikes on the strikers and employers.
  5. How do strikes affect consumers of the struck firms and the community at large? Explain.
  6. Present arguments for and against the right to strike.
KEY TERMS

 

Industrial dispute

Strike

General strike

Sympathetic strike

Jurisdictional strike

Gherao

Case Study 1

What subjects are involved in industrial disputes?

In an automobile industrial establishment near Chandigarh employing about 10,000 workers, there is only one recognized union which entered into agreements on many issues concerning terms and conditions of employment of workers. Besides many matters relating to terms and conditions of employment are covered under other instruments such as minimum wages and quantum of bonus by labour laws, allowances and criteria for promotion by industrial awards, and disciplinary matters and grievances by standing orders. With a desire to improve the terms and conditions of employment of the workers, the union has placed a charter of demands before the management. The demand included upward revision of minimum wages, enhancement of the quantum of bonus over and above the maximum fixed under law, additional welfare amenities, recreational facilities in workers’ colonies, withdrawal of arbitrary punishment of a section of workers, return of unauthorized deductions from the wages of a few workers and revocation of the order of promotions to some favourites. The management considered the demands and invited the union for negotiations, but it made it clear that it will not negotiate on the issues of raising of minimum wage and quantum of bonus as it will be contrary to the legal provisions.

Questions

What issues in the demand constituted disputes concerning interest?

What issues are related to the denial of rights?

Was it lawful for the union to demand enhancement of minimum wage when it was regulated by law?

Why did the management refuse to negotiate on the question of maximum bonus?

Case Study 2

What are the various forms of strike?

In an iron and steel factory near Mysore, an industrial dispute arose on the issue of enhancement of wage-rates and allowances. When negotiations with the management failed, the only trade union in the factory informed the members about the failure of negotiations and asked them to adopt agitational methods. Demonstrations against the management and shouting of anti-management slogans became frequent. At the instance of the union, the workers went to their jobs, but did not handle tools or machines. When they did not get any response from the management, the union asked the workers to go on strike. The strike started and continued for 20 days, but the management was rigid on the resumption of work by the strikers as the first condition for starting talks. In the meantime, the workers of the ancillary industries of the area which supplied equipments and materials to the steel factory resorted to frequent work-stoppages for short periods in sympathy of the strikers of the steel factory in complete defiance of the directive of the proper authority of the union to which they belonged. The trade union in the nearby colliery which supplied coal to the steel factory organized a two-day strike in support of the demands of the workers of the steel factory. A group of more militant workers of the factory occasionally confined some of the senior executives of the factory in their offices for hours together and did not allow them to leave. Ultimately, the state government declared the strike illegal and referred the dispute an adjudication authority for disposal.

Questions

What term will you use for the strike in which the workers went to their workplace but did not handle tools and equipments?

What was the form of strike in which the workers of the factory resorted to overt stoppage of work?

What type of strike was resorted to by workers of the ancillary establishments?

How will you term the strike resorted to by the colliery workers?

What term will you use for the confinement of management executives in their office chambers for hours?