A striking irony

Summary

  • Supplementing Alvin’s Christmas special about unions
  • How strikes do not solve problems and actually create more
  • The other options one has apart from strikes

 

Over Christmas lunch yesterday, I enjoyed a conversation with a family friend whom had come to visit from Australia. Originally Singaporean, she renounced her Singaporean citizenship and had since the 1970s been an Australian citizen. Over the decades, she lived around Queensland and finally settled down in Western Australia.

Our chat inevitably turned to current affairs, and that then led to the recent illegal strikes.

Having been an employee for well over 30 years, she does not have good things to say about the unions in Australia. With strong papers from Australian universities, she had been unable to find decent paying jobs since the Great Recession of 2008 and had since taken low-wage cleaning work.

“I’ll tell you what’s stupid about strikes”, she said sharply. “The unions will call for all varieties of strikes. Don’t clear the waste, don’t work, don’t clean the windows. And after that, who pays my salary? Worse, after that, with streets full of garbage, worms and flies crawling from them, who cleans things up with double the effort?”

She pauses, as if waiting for me to reply.

“It’s us!”

Silence.

In her opinion, by participating in a sit-out for a few days, her work accumulates. Her work festers over those few days. When she finally returns, she returns to a work environment where non-unionised employees look at her with hostility, she faces an awkward relationship with management, she does not get pay for disrupted work and is greeted with a gigantic amount of garbage to clear. “What sort of good did these stupid strikes actually bring? It’s good for the unions and their committees for muscle flexing, but what about us? Childish!” The only reason why Alice (not her real name) partook in walk-outs is has been largely due to peer pressure.

“Transport strikes, bus strikes, stop work for this, stop work for that – it’s childish isn’t it? Isn’t there a better way to resolve things rather than disrupt civil society? You punish the employers for a few days, you end up punishing yourself for a few weeks and there is no guarantee that you’ll get pay or benefit raises”.

In my opinion, unions should be animals of diplomacy. Matters ought to be ironed out between unions and management in very diplomatic fashion. This does not mean any rigid form of bureaucracy or process. Its just, good old, friendship.

How do you get a friend to do something for you? What can you ask two friends in management and rank & file to do for each other using your status as a negotiating party? If a bottle of wine or a game of golf can raise the welfare and pay of many workers, why not? Remember the magic word – “friends”. You will have to agree with me that It is far easier to accomplish things when you negotiate with friends instead of enemies. Of course, we’re not being naive. There will always be people who do not want to be friends with you – that’s why we have an industrial arbitration court.

If you consider the cultural makeup of Singaporean society, you’ll realise that our model of operating is still very oriental. That means to save “face” and to show who’s boss, chances are strikes and civil disobedience will not be be taken lightly.

So, have a think: a strike is not just a tool to throw a casual tantrum with.

It is a weapon of last resort and its use should be carefully considered.

About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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