New Delhi, Aug. 6: The Supreme Court today brought its hammer down firmly on strikes in any form by government employees and trade unions, in a verdict bound to tone up the country’s moribund work culture.
The division bench also used the opportunity to rule that no political party or organisation can claim the right to bring a state’s, or the country’s, industry and commerce to a halt.
The verdict came as Justices M.B. Shah and A.R. Lakshmanan formally pronounced their judgment in the case of about two lakh Tamil Nadu government employees who were dismissed by the Jayalalithaa regime for going on strike last month. The judges ruled that the employees as well as the trade unions representing them have “no legal, fundamental, moral or justifiable and equitable right to strike”.
“Coming to the question of right to strike — whether fundamental, statutory, or equitable/moral right — in our view, no such right exists with the government employees,” they said in their 21-page judgment.
As for political parties or organisations, the bench said they cannot claim that they are “entitled to paralyse the industry and commerce in the entire state or nation”. No such organisation “is entitled to prevent the citizens not in sympathy with its view points, from exercising their fundamental rights or from performing their duties for their own benefit or for the benefit of the state or the nation”, the judges added.
The judges cited an earlier case involving the Kerala CPM to make their point. The party had come before the apex court on a special leave against a verdict of Kerala high court, which said no political party could call or enforce a bandh that interferes with fundamental freedoms of citizens.
The apex court had then (1998) said: “There cannot be any doubt that the fundamental rights of people as a whole cannot be subservient to the claim of fundamental right of an individual or only a section of the people.
“It is on the basis of this distinction that the high court has rightly concluded that there cannot be any right to call or enforce a “bandh” which interferes with the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of other citizens, in addition to causing national loss in many ways.”
Today, the bench said that even a “liberal interpretation” of Article 19(1)(c) of the Constitution — right to form associations or unions — “cannot lead to the conclusion that trade unions have a guaranteed right to an effective collective bargaining or to strike either as part of collective bargaining or otherwise”.
The judges said trade unions could involve in “collective bargaining” but that “does not mean that they have right to strike”, which affects society as a whole. In a democracy, government employees are part and parcel of the governing body and owe duty to society, the bench added.
If teachers strike, the educational system suffers and can ultimately prove ruinous for students, the judges pointed out. Likewise, if doctors strike, innocent patients suffer, while strike by transport employees affects movement, impacts business and paralyses society.
The judges also explained why they asked the Jayalalithaa government to reinstate the employees. They said they took into account the “gravity of the situation” and the fact that at times even if the employees are not prepared to strike work, they are forced to.
The judges, however, said the employees should tender an unconditional written apology and an undertaking in writing that they would not resort to strikes in future.
On the question of challenging the emergency ordinance amending the Essential Services Maintenance Act, the judges said the employees concerned and their legitimate, recognised and registered trade unions could challenge it, which should be “normally before the administrative tribunal”.
But the parties can approach Madras High Court as the administrative tribunal in the state is not functioning, the judges said.