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Union delegates agree united campaign for higher pay in Sri Lanka

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Workers in Sri Lanka are getting organised. Mahinda Devege reports from a recent delegate meeting called to coordinate a pay campaign across the island.

Over 120 delegates from more than 20 public-sector trade unions agreed to mount a joint campaign on pay. Against a background of rising prices and the threat of deep cuts in public spending in the government's November budget, any such move towards united action by Sri Lanka's fragmented unions would represent an important step forward. But the meeting of the Delegates' Forum of the Joint Trade Unions was important for more than that. It brought together unions from the National Trade Union Congress, which is politically associated with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, (People's Liberation Front) JVP, independent unions such as the Independent Ceylon Teachers' Union and unions such as the Joint Health Workers' Union and the Socialist Plantation Workers' Union which are politically affiliated to the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan section of the League for the Fifth International.

Trade Union delegates
Over 120 delegates agreed on the united pay campaign.

Until very recently, any such cooperation between these unions would have been impossible because of the political gulf between them. The JVP was an enthusiastic supporter of President Mahinda Rajapakse's civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and opposed public-sector strikes which it claimed were a threat to the "national interest". Meanwhile, the SPSL maintained a principled opposition to the war and unconditional defence of the Tamil right to self-determination.

If the JVP leaders, whose political roots lie in the Maoist movement of the 1960s but who subsequently adopted a virulent Sinhala chauvinism, thought that their Popular Front would guarantee them any benefits from a grateful Rajapakse, they were sorely mistaken. Once he was victorious, he immediately turned against his allies, even including his top General, Sarath Fonseka, to make sure only he, and the clique around his family, would benefit from the spoils of war. In response, the JVP transferred their allegiance to the ousted General only to see him trounced at the subsequent presidential election and to see their own vote collapse in the Parliamentary election as they lost 35 of the 40 seats they had previously held.

There is no reason to doubt that it is this record of political miscalculation, an unprincipled record in Marxist terms, that lies behind today's left turn towards working-class mobilisation. JVP trade unionists were encouraged to believe that their leaders' strategy would result in handsome gains as soon as the war was won but the contrast between this political utopia and harsh reality could not be sharper. Now, the leaders need to present themselves as champions of working-class interests if they are to keep their members happy, indeed, if they are to keep their members at all.

Recognising all this is no reason to reject the possibility of united action in defence of workers' interests and against government policy. The fact is that tens of thousands of workers are organised in the unions politically affiliated to the JVP and concerted action alongside them, drawing in other unions if possible, can both help to ensure real gains for the working-class and deepen the contradictions within the JVP's ranks.

The situation presents many parallels with that in the early 1920s when the Communist International, led by Lenin and Trotsky, supported the United Front of the German Communists with the German Social Democrats (SPD) even though the SPD had supported the imperialist world war and been complicit in the murder of the Communists' own leaders, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht. Some years later, Trotsky summarised how to formulate the basis of such a united front; it must be, "strictly practical, strictly objective, to the point, without any artificial claims, without any reservations..."

 Mahinda Devege
Mahinda Devege, National Secretary of the Socialist Plantation Workers’ Union, addressing conference.

This is the approach that we have adopted today. The basis for the proposed united campaign is two simple demands; an immediate increase of 8000 rupees (£45) and standardisation of pay rates across the public-sector. With rising inflation, the first of these needs no further explanation but the second is important to overcome the fragmentation of workers within the public-sector, thereby strengthening them as a workforce.

Nor are there any illusions in a quick victory. On the contrary, the unions recognise that they must first campaign to mobilise support for their demands, there can be no question of immediate strike action. Initially, meetings to explain the demands and the strategy for fighting for them will be held in four districts Kurunagala, Gampaha, Galle and Hambantota and there will be rallies and pickets outside key government departments in Colombo itself. Nonetheless, there can be no illusions that these demands can be forced out of Rajapakse without a determined fight and strike action across the country.

As the campaign unfolds, and as the government's own plans become clear in the November budget, there will be many decisions to be taken about strategy and tactics, how to mobilise, who to mobilise, how to conduct the strike, how to pull in non-union workers and workers from other unions. There can be no doubt that Rajapakse will try to make full use of the sweeping powers he has given himself as President. Quite apart from repressive legislation and the use of state forces, he can rely on the mainly government-controlled media to maintain a barrage of lies and propaganda against any strike.

He may well use the "national interest" argument that the JVP itself used during the war. If strike action is successful in closing down parts of the public-sector, some of the JVP's own bourgeois allies, even some of its own leaders, will begin to turn against the workers or support moves to demobilise the action "to allow negotiations" but in reality to allow the government to regain the initiative. Through all such developments, the SPSL will argue for the broadest mobilisations possible, for the building of local elected committees to run the strike and for all major decisions to be taken democratically at mass meetings of the rank and file.

This is the way for differences, which undoubtedly exist between the different unions and political currents, to be clarified and settled democratically. This is the way in which the Sri Lankan working-class, Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim can begin to overcome the divisions carefully fostered over decades and fight for its real common interests. The road forward to a unified, militant trade union movement and a workers' party committed to the overthrow of capitalism and the building of socialism in Sri Lanka will be a long one, but an effective trade union united front in the public-sector could be the first step on that road.