The Sunday Times Editorial

2nd June 1996

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Power to the people

The wildcat nature and the Thondaman style timing of the strike by CEB employees have to be condemned in the strongest possible terms and without reservations. No group of employees of any public utility can hold to ransom millions of innocent and already overburdened people.

The striking CEB unions claim they are concerned for the very people whom they have plunged into the darkest night or the worst nightmare in recent times. The unions say privatisation will give a few people control over a vital public service. Then what is the difference if a few engineers can act with such blatant disregard that we have a crisis where never in our history so much suffering has been caused to so many by so few?

Unions may consider it opportune or opportunistic to exert pressure on a government when it is at its weakest, as the Kumaratunga administration is today in the face of its biggest ever crisis since it came to office. But the nation is at war and we are facing a severe drought.

In these exceptional or extraordinary circumstances, we feel the action by the CEB unions goes way beyond the acceptable norms of trade union action. The unions say the privatisation of LECO would be a national crime. Most people would agree with us when we say that it is the unions that are committing a national crime against the people.

Part of the blame for the hell hole situation today could be laid on members of the very unions which have now launched a drastic devilish protest action. Some of these union members who have participated in technical evaluations have been quite ready to play ball with politicians and other vested interests to line their own pockets.

At lesser levels the corruption in the CEB has been notorious and if privatisation is on the cards, the CEB employees have only themselves to blame for it. They have provided a largely indifferent or inefficient service which has sown the seeds of the CEB's own demise.

All said and done the CEB unions have generously - or is it foolishly - diverted to themselves the opprobrium the government was reluctant to shoulder. By plunging the whole nation into darkness before schedule, the unions have invited upon themselves the public wrath that would have been directed against the government, Energy Minister or the big-talking CEB boss.

When trade union action at critical times pushes a government into a corner, it is forced to react with repressive measures. That then becomes the norm. No wonder Anuruddha Ratwatte said he would stop playing his role as Energy Minister and start playing his role as Deputy Defence Minister on the CEB strike.

It is common talk now that if the late President R. Premadasa were around, he would not have allowed the crisis to grow to such unbearable proportions. Responding to this President Kumaratunga told a news conference on Friday: "Short of killing people we will do what we can to restore power." Eventually , however she seems to have followed the J. R. Jayewardene example of dealing with errant strikers.

Having said all this, we must also say that this government took this matter far far too lightly until things got out of hand. That has been the trade mark of this government towards trade union strikes. If the essential services regulations had been imposed on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, the whole strike might have been prevented.

As in the recent GMOA strike it seems that while the government scrambles into negotiations at the last minute or as a last resort, the unions use the strike weapon as a first resort. Perhaps it is a sign of the cult of violence in our society or perhaps it's the sheer arrogance of government Ministers in dealing with the unions that they all choose to hit first and then talk.

The CEB strike could be connected to the thrashing the NSSP members received from the Police on government orders on May Day. The NSSP has some clout with the CEB unions. So does the LSSP which nearly got thrashed on May Day. With some VIPs in government circles becoming insensitive and arrogant, as Health Minister Fowzie was during the GMOA strike, is it any surprise that unions also have become insensitive to public welfare. And the country go to the dogs in the meantime.

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