Politics of a railway strike | Sunday Observer

Politics of a railway strike

19 August, 2018
Railway  trade union leader Indika Dodangoda, one of the main  protagonists of the recent lightning train strike, pictured here with  SLPP strongman and former Minister Basil Rajapaksa
Railway trade union leader Indika Dodangoda, one of the main protagonists of the recent lightning train strike, pictured here with SLPP strongman and former Minister Basil Rajapaksa

Controversy and confusion raged around the wildcat train strike of the Station Masters, Engine Drivers, Train Controllers and Train Guards, a week after it concluded. Opinion within the collective differed on strike action with some willing to continue and others commenting that they “need to get something out of it as the waters have gone over our heads.” Refusing to take up responsibility some unions blamed the Government for agreeing to give their demands. The Railway Trade Unions Alliance (RTUA) launched the strike, which brought rail transport to a standstill, on the eighth evening, concluded on the 12th after representatives met President Maithripala Sirisena.

Politicians, social media as well as daily train commuters claimed that it was a cheap political trick used by opposition to drag the Government into disrepute. “There had been secret talks between the opposition and the trade unions about crippling transport, health and energy sectors. They don’t feel it. We have to suffer,” said Amith Warnakula, a daily commuter from Galle determined to “answer those behind dirty politics that take people for ransom, at the time of election.”

Some railway trade unions (TU) alleged that the leaders of the four trade unions are all involved in party politics and have close alliances with the 16 members who defected the Government, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) and the People’s Liberation Front (JVP). The Railway Services Trade Union Front (RSTUF) issuing a media release claimed Indika Dodangoda, Secretary Locomotive Operating Engineers’ Union (LOEU) is a relative of former Transport Minister Kumara Welgama and the person who instigated the strike action. “Last time the strike was during O/L exams this time it is during A/L exams. They have underhand alliances with the opposition, otherwise when the answer is at hand why would one go for strike action especially when A/L exams are on?” questioned RSTUF Secretary, Sampath Rajitha.

LOEU Secretary, Indika Dodangoda vehemently refuted the claims of being a relative of former minister Welgama. “We are not related at all. However, both of us are from Mathugama. During his tenure as the Transport Minister we worked together closely and that would have created this misunderstanding,” he said. Meanwhile, former minister Welgama neither confirmed nor refuted the claim when the Sunday Observer inquired of him about the same. Accepting that both hail from the same area “We in Mathugama are all related to each other,” he said.

Meanwhile Dondangoda washing his hands off the responsibility of strike action said, that the solution was a proposal of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Sub Committee appointed by the President. The Finance Minister appointing another Sub Committee, without implementing the decision is “hoodwinking the TUs and cannot be condoned,” he said.

Pic: Dushmantha Mayadunne

Nihal Gunarathna, Secretary of Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) the UNP trade union claimed that they could have averted the strike, with the backing of the Ministry. Sampath Rajitha, RSTUF Secretary agreed. “We can provide enough manpower if the Minister and the Government takes the responsibility,” he said and cautioned the Government to be careful when handling Railway TUs because they have a deal with the Rajapaksas, and urged the Government to be prepared with alternatives to negate strike action.

However, RTUA, Co-convener Lal Ariyarathne refuted the claims of political involvement in the rail strike. “As unions attached to professions and grades, our members belong to different parties. What we wanted was to create conducive environment to do our job efficiently, not to topple governments” he stressed. He said that if the grade anomaly is rectified they would be willing to call off trade union action. “We’re not requesting to rectify the salary anomaly. If the grade anomaly is rectified it would be enough, “said Ariyarathne. In 2006, a Salary Commission circular had put Class 3 salary earners on par with Class 2 creating the salary and grade anomaly.

Station Masters’ Union (SMU) President Janaka Fernando said that though the Salary Commission, in 2006 had assured that the nature of work would be taken into consideration in salary hikes, it had not done so and created both the grade and salary anomaly.

“It is more a question of the chain of command. When both the commander and the commanded are of the same grade, the commands are not carried out creating friction.”

The Railway TUs and the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) have become famous for their ‘unethical’ trade union action, which Government members believe are politically motivated by opposition politicos who seek to make the incumbent administration look dysfunctional and weak in the eyes of the public.

These Government officials claim that many of these pro-Rajapaksa unions launch trade union action against the current Government claiming restitution for problems created when the former regime was in power.

The railway salary and grade anomaly was created by the circular 6/2006 of the Salaries Commission. However, only one major strike was conducted by the Railway TUs from 2006 till 2014, while four, including two major strikes were conducted since December 2017.

The GMOA which did not resort to trade union action when SAITM was established, accepted as a medical degree awarding institution and was in operation during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, launched a series of crippling strikes against the private medical institute after the fall of the Rajapaksa regime in 2015.

On the flipside, political observers explain that it was natural for labour unions to strike when an economically right-wing party like the UNP was holding the reins of power. Be that as it may, with their recent action, both the Railway TUs and the GMOA have earned the wrath of the public, who were the real victims, whether the strikes were part of the political power play between labour unions and the incumbent administration, or shadowboxing by the opposition as it seeks to win back political power.