The RTC employees’ strike in Telangana and the tough stand of the Telangana Government inferring the dismissal of around 48,000 employees, have raised the question whether there is a right to strike for employees in this country, which is being diluted and reduced in to a feeble voice of the workers as against market and private/public management forces growing in strength day by day.
The en mass dismissal of employees as threatened by Telangana Government reminded such a massive dismissal action against striking government employees in Tamil Nadu in 2003, by the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. Around 1.7 lakh employees and teachers were removed from services. It is really unnerving for any government to see more 13 lakh employees and teachers organised by around 80 unions going on strike at once. Jayalalitha had threatened to use the weapon of the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA). People did not believe it. Government warned that it would deploy people to work in place of permanent employees. Unions did not believe it.
Unemployed youths thronged the collectorates and the secretariat for temporary employment ready to give an undertaking not to join unions. Simultaneously, the TN Government passed an ordinance empowering it to dismiss striking employees under ESMA. Firstly, a joint secretary and 15 deputy secretaries were dismissed. After that, in Dindigul alone, 7,200 employees were removed. Finally, laying off employees continued to reach a total figure of 1.7 lakh. The whole nation was stunned as the arrests and dismissals were going on, the unions gradually weakened and disintegrated even as the opposition went into silence.
Some of the leaders and employees rushed to the Madras High Court. Justice Dinakaran heard the matter. The only prayer of petitioners the court accepted was the release of arrested employees. All other demands of the petition were rejected by the single bench. The government refused to concede the direction of release of arrested leaders and preferred a writ appeal against it to a division bench. The Chief Justice at that time was Justice B Subhashan Reddy, who was leading a bench suspended the interim order given by the single judge and advised the petitioners individually to go to Administrative Tribunal for relief. How and when these lakhs of cases should be heard by a single bench of Administrative Tribunal? The message was clear to the government. The arrests and dismissals continued. Majority of unions were requesting the Chief Minister to reinstate the employees.
Some unions and a DMK leader approached the apex court on the question of the illegality of invoking ESMA. On that technical point, the Supreme Court refused to interfere. Renowned Advocates KK Venugopal and PP Rao argued for Jayalalithaa’s government who justified dismissal of employees and invocation of ESMA. The Supreme Court Bench of Justice MB Shah and Justice AR Lakshmanan criticised the employees for holding the ‘state to ransom’ and ‘bringing the administration to a grinding halt’. It suggested the government to reinstate the employees, who had not indulged in violence. The government agreed to take dismissed employees back, except 2,200 against whom FIRs were registered for indulging in violence during the strike. The leaders and employees belonging to DMK and Left parties were not reinstated.
A shocking judgment from SC
The Supreme Court did not show any sympathy to the striking employees. Instead, it chided them for thinking strike was their birthright. It was the first-ever shock to labour rights that have come from the guardian of the Constitution — the Supreme Court. It said there is no moral or legal right for government employees to strike. It disapproved stopping of work by the employees which result in halting the entire administration saying that no political party or organisation can claim a right to paralyse the economic and industrial activities of a state of a nation or inconvenience citizens. Justice Shah went on to say that even the trade unions, who have a guaranteed right for collective bargaining have right to go on strike.
The government agreed to take back 156,106 employees who furnished apology and undertaking not to indulge in a strike in future. It was a sad day for the collective bargaining power of the employees and workers, spelling danger to labour rights in India. In Tamil Nadu, it was a strike by government employees and teachers, not by the workers of a factory or employees of a corporation like RTC.
Worker’s demand for merging in govt
After the Andhra Pradesh Government merged RTC employees into the government, the Telangana employees also started demanding their absorption into the Telangana government service, which is a policy issue. Under the Constitution, the courts can examine the constitutionality of a policy but cannot direct an Executive to take a policy decision simply because a neighbouring state has done so. It is absolutely for the government to take a considered view on such an issue independently.
The Telangana CM reacting to the RTC strike issued a strict warning against the striking employees saying that those who do not report to duty by 6 pm on October 6, 2019, will not be taken back. The CM stated: “It is an unpardonable crime that they went on a strike during the festive season and at a time when the TSRTC was incurring a huge loss of Rs 1,200 crore and its debt burden had gone up to Rs 5,000 crore….. Now, the RTC is left with 1,200 employees. We shall soon start the recruitment process for making fresh appointments. However, the new recruits will have to give an undertaking that they would not join any unions.” From the language of the CM, it is being inferred that around 48,000 employees are being dismissed.
He also ordered to hire three to four thousand private buses and hire new employees on a condition of not joining any trade union. The government has also threatened to invoke the Essential Services Maintenance Act to suspend those who continue to strike the work. The transport minister reacting on RTC strike threatened to remove those who fail to get back to their duties.
The employee’s unions and opposition supporting RTC strike are blaming the government’s heavy taxing and non-payment of arrears to the RTC as the main causes of losses. They are demanding the concessions given to Hyderabad Metro should be extended to RTC to make the latter also viable, instead of blaming the workers.
The RTC in Hyderabad and other parts of Telangana is used by more than one crore people, and it forms an important public transport. It should be encouraged as a matter of policy since the common man cannot afford to use other transport services. Any welfare state should prioritise public transport facilities rather than encouraging private transporters to exploit the lower-income groups not only during regular days but also during RTC strike.
It’s a crisis in Telangana today as the public transport will be paralysed because of the strike and tough measures by the government. Unfortunately, the governments, the labour law and the judicial process nowadays are not fully in favour of labour, which is another factor that deepens the crisis. It is necessary for both sides to negotiate the reasonable demands of the workers instead of insisting on policy issues.
(Author: Prof. Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu is a former Central Information Commissioner & Professor of Law at Bennett University, Greater NOIDA. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author)