DO WE REALLY WANT UNIONS TO SHOW THEIR ‘TEETH’?

MRT Train

I remember the entire debacle so vividly. It was about 9 in the morning and I was scrambling to find my passport while doing last minute checks on the itinerary. The week-long trip to Budapest that I had planned with some of my fellow exchange friends was very much anticipated, after the fiasco that was our Swedish language examinations. However, in the midst of the morning flurry and fluster, I got a dingy call from my Canadian friend.

“Dude. Our trip is over. We are not going to make it to the airport,” she said in a defeatist tone.

It did not register to me at first when she told me about a transport workers’ strike that was happening in Malmö, a much larger city close by. To a naïve and sheltered Singaporean like me, a strike is just a bunch of unhappy workers demanding for better welfare; better wages, better work environment, better everything. As far as I am concerned, it was not a riot and hence I did not have to worry about flying machetes, tear gas, or water cannons. Since my safety was not compromised, of course it was fine for us to leave our dorms to go to the airport, right? Wrong.

Bless my heart.

Yes, it was fine for us to leave our rooms but that was about to be the only thing we could do for the rest of the day, or week(s). The Swedish train operation crippled that day and there was no way for us to get to Copenhagen’s Lufthavn Airport. Never mind our silly trip, imagine the horror of the working class that had to commute from one city to another that fateful morning.

As I recounted the depressing event to some friends who were on exchange in London and Paris, they dismissed my experience as trivial. Apparently, transport labour strikes are so commonplace elsewhere that people have pulled enough hair out of their follicles and exhausted their tears on the issue seventy years ago.

Transport labour strikes have serious ramifications. A quick research online on London’s tube strikes shows that a single day strike alone can cost London’s economy £300m, which BBC likened to employing a single tube driver for the next 6000 years. BBC also reported that London’s last tube strike led to a whopping total of 1000km of traffic jams in the city. These two adversities alone might cause clogged arteries to implode and the dead to dig six feet further so I will not go deeper into the other adverse impacts of transport labour strikes.

For that very reason, I was very relieved after reading a book from the library published by the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) which chronicled how SMRT almost experienced a labour strike.

(Note: This is not to be confused with the illegal strike by non-unionised bus drivers in 2012.)

The MRT train network in Singapore would have come to a halt on 13 October 2002 when SMRT staff were all ready to stop work and go on strike over the non-payment of increment. When the collective agreement between SMRT and NTWU was not honoured and the case came to a deadlock, the union was empowered to take industrial action in order to champion the rights of unionised workers. Fortunately, SMRT’s management relented on the eleventh hour thus averting a strike which would have been a first since the 1950s.

As if the incessant breakdowns of trains have not driven Singaporeans insane yet.

Case in point, we have taken Singapore’s industrial peace for granted. As we open our mouths barking for fiercer unions to show more ‘teeth’ in fighting for worker’s rights, let us remember Singapore’s tumultuous eras in the 50s and 60s. Inundated with numerous strikes—with most being wildcat ones—the situation was not a good one for Singapore’s economic climate. Apart from the fact that issues were not resolved, lives were lost in many occasions. The instability and chaos manifested during the Great STC Strike and the infamous Hock Lee Bus strike turned riot certainly will not help draw investments into the country. Therefore, it is only pragmatic for the spirit of tripartism to be upheld and in order for this to happen, trust must become its beating hard and lifeblood. This enlightened approach agreed upon by the social partners in Singapore’s tripartite system not only allow the parties to police one another, but it also accords power to the unions without damaging the social and economic bastion of Singapore.

Surely, the unions in Singapore are not done with their job and that more, can and must be done for workers; but this is simply because the responsibility of unions is a never-ending one. As the economy progresses, labour and productivity issues are bound to arise. However, there is no doubt that the tripartite system in Singapore is one to be proud of as we have tided through many obstacles over the years. As many more problems and issues come their way, I hope that the partners in the tripartite system continue to stride forward in knowing that negotiation and arbitration are far more powerful than taking to the streets with wooden signboards and screaming in tongues.

Especially when picketing causes a 1000km gridlock. No ma’am.

Anyway, the strike in Sweden lasted for two weeks. I had to cab down to Copenhagen to catch my flight back to Singapore. 100 euros just like that.

 

 

About the author

Abdullah Zaidani

Zai is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore and he is currently in his honours year. He reads like he breathes, unless he is stuffing his face in the bellies of his three fat cats. His tagline has always been, ‘Spread legs, not war’ but people always ask for more. He wonders why.

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