Friday, January 9, 2009

Can striking unions hold public to ransom?

Today, 9 January 2009 Friday is the third day of the strike organised by Oil Sector Officer's Association (OSOA). This strike is taking place across India as a result of which oil is not supplied to petrol pumps and the latter have dried up. There is no petrol and compressed natural gas (CNG) and therefore public transport is hit the hardest. Reports indicate that around 95 per cent of the petrol pumps across the country are running dry. In Bombay, as per my observation and estimate, almost 80 per cent of the taxis are already off the roads (at around noon) and B.E.S.T. buses are running jam-packed even after the morning peak hours. I am sure local trains must also be jam-packed. Today I had to go to Duncun Road (Gol deval temple area) for some work. 

I was quite hassled on my way back since I didn't find a single taxi who was willing to take mom home. While most of the taxis were off the road, the remaining few weren't stopping. The handful remaining few were seen refusing to take passengers. I don't know why but I could only guess that perhaps due to the scarcity of CNG, they may not want to venture out too far from their residences lest they run out of fuel in some far-flung area and have to walk back home, leaving the taxi deserted in that area!

Who and why? 
Reports say that around 45,000 officers across 12 state-owned oil corporations have joined the strike, demanding hither wages. Sources say that these public sector executives (PSU) executives get a hike in once every 10 years. Their last such hike was supposed to be in 2007, but the staff wanted a bigger hike -they claim the government had promised them - than the one the government decided to give them. But not all officers across all PSUs have gone on strike. Typically, the hierarchy of a PSU oil executive, as per my sources, is as follows (the red-coloured highlighted designations have gone on strike):

Executive Director
General Manager
Deputy Manager
Grade A Chief Manager
Senior Manager
Deputy Manager
Assistant Manager
Officer - grade I
Officer - grade II

Is the strike justified?
I am told that since these PSU executives get a hike every once in 10 years, as against their private sector counterparts, they are justified in asking for their pound of flesh. Probably, feeling cornered or atleast that's what they claim to feel, they have resorted to possibly the biggest weapon in their arsenal: strike. The strike has paralysed the entire country with choking oil supplies across sectors like power generation, cooking gas supplies, airline fuel, petrol, diesel and CNG for vehicles and public transport, alike. 

But clearly, I do not know who is right and who is wrong in this particular tussle, because I do not know how much they get and whether their demands are justified. What I do know, is that strikes should not be allowed. Such strikes should be banned and people/officers/workers who go on such strike should be put in their places by authorities. I am a Bombaiyite and I have suffered several times in my life due to these strikes, as all other Bombaiyites have too. Motormen going on strike and throwing train schedules out of gear, BEST staff going on strike and buses going off the roads and now oil company officers going on strike paralysing public transport and supply of piped gas supplied to our homes. But on the other hand, knowing our Indian masters and how miserly they can be - I am not saying the Indian government is, in this particular case they are the bosses - but I mean in general and across industries - must also wake up and realise that people who work for them deserve to be paid their dues. I should know! In the presence of a weak judiciary, it's not hard to see why employees resort to such cheap tactics like strike. Nevertheless, all things being said, a strike that cripples normal life is a nuisance and it needs to be nipped in the bud. It must be stopped. Enough is enough! 

Freeing oil prices and companies?
The current crisis could be averted if the oil sector and companies are allowed to be privatised. Also, oil pricing policy should be changed and be made market-linked. The current scenario where the administered price and the market price are very near to one another provides a good opportunity. Marking the oil prices to market also removes the burden from the ruling political parties who constantly resort to tweaking and manipulating oil prices as populist measures to win votes. Maybe it's also time to look into the merits of privatising oil companies. Once competition is brought in, such strikes could be averted and employees also are better rewarded. And if they are not happy with their employer, they would be free to go and work elsewhere. 

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