Workers are finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet and it is natural that they are demanding pay hikes. Their consternation is compounded by the colossal waste of public funds they see around them. That pay hikes in an inflationary situation result in further increases in the general price level since the government resorts to inflationary sources to raise funds and enhanced salaries cause the demand to go up without a corresponding increase in the supply is not the kind of stuff that the people are ready to stomach. Pay hikes in the private sector will lead to a worse situation. They will send the cost of production up aggravating inflation further. Thus, an attempt to cushion the fallout of inflation with pay hikes is like trying to quench thirst with brine. However, hunger and anger blind workers to economic theories. All that they desperately need is commodities at affordable prices or pay hikes commensurate with price increases.
The government has sought to pacify workers in the state sector by granting them an interim allowance with effect from this month following a meeting with representatives of 50 trade unions. But, the JVP-led unions have refused to settle for anything less than Rs. 5,000. They are threatening to go ahead with their strike scheduled for July 10.
The scheduled strike has all the trappings of a political muscle flexing on the part of some of its organisers. They are trying to settle political scores with the government on the pretext of championing the workers` cause.
It is a supreme irony that the JVP-led strike has been slated for July. Twenty eight years ago this month, the JVP turned its back on the working class when a strike was launched against the JRJ government to win a small salary increase. It broke ranks with the other unions at the eleventh hour trotting out some lame excuses. Tens of thousands of workers were thrown out of jobs by the UNP government. Some of them were even driven to suicide. A powerful minister of the then government bragged that the Elephant had only shaken its trunk! The near decimation of the trade unions enabled the UNP`s trade union arm, the JSS to emerge powerful.
Today, the JVP, which betrayed 1980 July strikers, is in the forefront of a campaign to win workers` demands! The UNP which deprived so many workers of their jobs 28 years ago has endorsed the upcoming strike. Thus, it may be seen that workers` rights mean different things to different politicians at different times. Workers of this country have always been palanquin bearers for their political masters.
One of the main reasons for the rising cost of living is the burgeoning defence expenditure for which the JVP has to take most part of the blame. It was the JVP that pressured President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2004 to bring down the UNF government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose appeasement policy had brought about an absence of war and helped slash the defence budget. The JVP also extracted a pledge from President Mahinda Rajapaksa before the presidential election in 2005 that he would take on the LTTE militarily. When he decided to carry forward the peace process initiated by the UNF, what a song and dance the JVP made! After the LTTE captured the Mavil Aru reservoir in 2006, the JVP coerced President Rajapaksa into military action, which has snowballed into a full scale war.
So, the JVP cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for the economic fallout of the war effort. After all, it is claiming the credit for the success of the anti-terror operations and urging the government to go the whole hog and wipe out the LTTE. Does the JVP think a war can be prosecuted without the public being burdened with its cost? The JVP supported the government`s defence budget to the hilt last December, didn`t it? It also votes for the extension of emergency. So, it is without any moral right to talk of the high cost of living.
Now that the JVP has suffered crushing defeats on the political front and is about to face another one next month in the NCP and Sabaragamuwa, it looks determined to wrong-foot the government on the trade union front by luring workers with an attractive demand for a fairly big pay hike.
However, the fact that the JVP is leading workers` protests does not mean that the government can afford to dismiss their grievances as illegitimate. The success of the government in winning over workers hinges on its ability to separate workers` interests and the JVP`s agenda. The meeting President Rajapaksa had with some trade unions on Sunday was a step in the right direction, though it is too early to say whether his offer of an interim allowance will be acceptable to workers.
Trade union disputes are like wounds. They must be attended to urgently while they are fresh. Else, they are fraught with the danger of becoming fertile breeding grounds for ultra radical political maggots, as in the case of the teachers` struggle over their salary anomalies.
Meanwhile, the government, which uses the stock excuse that the country is in dire financial straits to deny workers their dues and asks them to bear with it, ought to set an example by desisting from squandering public funds. Its promise of an austerity drive has yet to be honoured.
It is hoped that the government will be reasonable in dealing with the working class and workers wise enough to avoid being a cat`s paw in the hands of anarchists seeking to pull political chestnuts out of the fire.