A strike unique in many ways

B. Sivaraman

Some strikes stand out as unique in terms of their overall impact. Take the case of 26 December 2018 strike by a million bank employees. Disrupting nearly 30 lakh cheque clearances worth anywhere between Rs.20 lakh and Rs 25 lakh crore in the estimates of bank union leaders and much more in terms of online transactions, it is akin to a de facto mini-general strike with huge losses all around.
And mind you, the loss is not notional and just a matter of delay of business by one day. A leading charted accountant in Chennai explains: “For a street-corner kirana shop, it might not be a big loss if the same customer comes and buys the next day. But for a big e-commerce firm, loss of transactions and payments on a particular day would count as net loss for the account books; it hardly matters even if the same customers were to book the same orders and pay online the next day. For book-keeping purposes, a day’s loss is a day’s loss and it doesn’t get offset by next day’s business. A day’ delay could still take a toll in terms of cost of capital and total volume of transactions for the month. It is akin to PVR cinema halls going without screening a movie on a particular day or having low occupancy rates due to some disruption. Even if the same viewers come and watch the same movie the next day, it doesn’t make up for the previous day’s loss”.
On 21 December 2018, the bank officers held a successful strike and all employees came together for yet another total strike on 26 December and the business community is puzzled at two successive bank strikes within a week. The 21 December 2018 strike was called by officers on their wage revision demand and against the Indian Banks’ Association’s (IBA) divisive tactics. The bank officers are graded into 7 layers and the IBA was first arguing that they would negotiate the wages of only first three levels of officers and not those of level 4 to 7 as they are executives. By joining the 26 December strike too, the bank officers successfully forced the IBA to concede their demand. As officers today outnumber clerks not only in private banks but in most of the PSBs also and as they possess the passwords for virtually all banking operations, they brought banking to a standstill and the IBA was not able divide them.
A unique feature of the 26th strike was that it marked the broadest confluence — from peons and clerks to executives, all stood united. In fact, it was even broader a confluence — besides all the employees of public sector banks, the employees of Regional Rural Banks too joined in demanding that IBA should implement the Supreme Court’s directive on extending the PSBs pension scheme to them also; cooperative bank employees also participated with their demands, and even the retired bank employees took part in demonstrations in large numbers in support of the strike over the anomalies in their pensions. The main demand, however, was against banks merger.
The BJP spokespersons are lamenting that this was the fourth bank strike in 2018 itself — with one on 30–31 May, one on 22 August, another on 4 & 5 September and finally on 26 December and, if we include the 21 December strike called by officers it is the fifth. Some wonder why the unions are going by this serial tokenism.VSS Sastry, a leader of the Canara Bank employees who is now retired, explains: “It is a game of low-key attrition. The government and the IBA hope that they could tire the bank employees out through delaying tactics and force them into accepting a low hike. It took a strike in 2017 and another in May even to force the IBA to come to the negotiating table and commence the wage revision talks. The initial offer was a paltry 2% and it took two more strikes to raise it to the present 8%. The unions are cleverly avoiding an immediate showdown and thus giving a handle to a rabid rightwing government for a major crackdown. Moreover, it is also a war of perception and winning public support by taking care not to cause undue hardship to the public”.
Sastry further explains that the wage issue cannot be settled through wildcat strikes. “It is a structured collective bargaining process and unions too have to play the game according to the ground rules and outsmart the IBA. A successful outcome is contingent upon preparing the consciousness of the employees and they are now fully aware that their struggle would be a long-drawn one”.
Lastly, the strike was against the policy of bank merger. Vasant Rai, president of the Karnataka Bank Employees Federation says, “We are opposing mergers because banks with high NPAs are dumped on viable banks and hence even SBI is showing operational loss. We have strong suspicion that the government, instead of reviving individual banks by going after defaulters, is doing this to ultimately privatise the banks. So the strike was to save the public sector banking industry”.
The bank employees are also joining the two-day general strike on 8–9 January 2019 and their demands would also figure in that general strike. The battle would go on. (IPA)

Saturday, 12 January, 2019