Is the court ruling on strikes fair? - No. But union power should be curtailed

Parth J. Shah
The Economic Times, Aug 13, 2003

The recent decision of the Supreme Court that bans government employees from going on strike violates the fundamental rights of freedom of association and of expression. The government employees now do not have the rights that all other citizens enjoy. The Court has become a predator instead of a protector of rights. The argument is that consumers are impacted when government employees that provide essential services go on strike. It is especially severe when there are no alternatives to these government services. So the government monopoly on essential goods and services is used to justify treating its employees as second-class citizens.

Why have monopoly government services? Get the government out of business altogether, and not discriminate against its employees. One mistake forces us to commit more. Isn't it better to correct the first mistake?

However, recent privatisations have created not competition but private monopolies. Electricity is privatised in Delhi but the consumer does not really have a choice among power companies. A strike by employees of the private electricity company would be no less harmful. But the court has not taken away their right to strike. If providers of essential services cannot be allowed to strike, then it should apply to all providers, government or private. Let the court then list the services it considers essential. The absurdity of such a ban shall become obvious once it starts listing them: electricity, telecom, water, garbage disposal, banks, post office, health care, education, newspapers, radio, TV... Which one can you live without? Privatise government businesses such that no monopolies are created. No employee whether of government or private sector would then need to be denied her equal rights.

The labour unions, however, should not have any extraordinary powers. All unions whether of employees or employers should be equal before the law. The labour unions should not be able to force people to become members or use violence to shut out members who disagree with the decision to go on strike. The labour unions should be civil associations.

The author is President, Centre for Civil Society.