Thursday, June 14, 2007

Strikes give us a bad name

So the employees of Indian Airlines are striking about something they feel is very unjust. Yet another strike in our country, so who cares!

The problem with such actions is the terrible reputation that this gives India, as a working economy. The remaining world sees our functioning economy as one entity, and disruptions like general strikes, or (please, not another) riot, kill this reputation. Readers outside India remember reports like this longer than we'd like to imagine. Many years after the Bombay riots, I was still asked about them by people new to Bombay, or to India. These reports continue to be written into tourist handbooks, cautioning the traveler against unreasonable travel delays due to bandh's or strikes.

We should also be wary of a group which chooses to make its presence felt in this catastrophic way. What if all the poultry producers of India went on strike tomorrow? We are programmed to shrug it off as a "misery of the common man" issue. In reality, the poultry producers are just providing a service, and ganging up against all the consumers should be viewed as monopolistic practice. Just as easily, all milk suppliers in the country could strike, and force the price of milk to skyrocket? Still think it is alright? How about all medicine distributors strike? How about all wheat and rice suppliers strike? Where do you draw the line?

I have lived through taxi strikes, bus strikes, cable TV providers strikes. As a consumer, I was enraged that all the people offering the services could so easily gang up against me, to enforce their will.

As a consumer, I do not support a single strike. Strikes are too reminiscent of the license raj, where a single company was allowed to make watches (HMT), and their workers could strike when they wanted, without fear of reprisal. Who else can you buy watches from, anyway? Luckily, now we can buy a watch which is cheaper, and more functional from a variety of vendors. How often do Casio employees strike? How often do all the watch makers in India strike now? In this case, the government has taken a tough stand, and refuses to negotiate while the strike is in effect. I would advocate a much tougher approach, but this one is a healthy start. Countries that don't negotiate with aircraft hijackers have fewer hijackings, I would guess.

When you see a strike, look for the monopolist, the sole supplier in the background, and ask yourself: do I really want to live at their mercy? What have I done to grant this group so much power, and how can I take some of it away?

Update: The strike is over now. The Government was "acting tough" and suspended 27 people. In a strike of 13,000 employees, that is 0.2%, or 2 out of a thousand. That is acting as tough as a purring kitten.