The Taming of the Union

by singaporearmchaircritic

If not for the late President Ong Teng Cheong, the last strike Singapore saw would not be in 1986; it would be in 1977, a whopping 35 years from this week’s strike by SMRT China-born bus drivers.

In the famous interview with Asiaweek in 2000, Mr Ong, who was head of NTUC and Labour Minister when the 1986 strike took place, said,

…in January 1986 I did sanction a strike, the first for about a decade. It was in the shipping industry where the management was taking advantage of the workers. I did not even tell the cabinet about sanctioning the strike. And some of them were angry with me about that. The minister for trade and industry was very angry, his officers were very upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore? – we are non-strike. I said: if I were to inform the cabinet or the government they would probably stop me from going ahead with the strike. It only lasted two days. Then all the issues were settled. It showed that management was just trying to pull a fast one. So I believe what I did was right (emphasis mine).

NTUC: Paper Tiger Not?

The 1986 strike is significant in more than one sense. It is a “legal” strike that broke free of the many fetters imposed by our laws – the Trade Disputes Act, the Trade Unions Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions Act) – which make a legal strike virtually impossible in Singapore.

Labor grievances have to be aired and settled through conciliation, mediation and referred to the Industrial Arbitration Court. Only when all channels are exhausted can the union hold a secret ballot to vote for or against industrial action. Workers in certain industries are prohibited from striking while those in essential services have to give 14 days’ notice of industrial action, which defeats the purpose of holding a strike.

By the 1980s, the so-called “tripartite relationship” between the government, the employers and the labor represented by the union, had grown so cozy that “non-strike” was (and is still) Singapore’s second name. Ong Teng Cheong’s revelation that the strike would not have transpired if he had pre-empted the cabinet brings home this point.

If we recall the context of 1985-86, Mr Ong’s move to sanction the strike is all the more remarkable.

Hit by recession, Singapore’s GDP growth slowed from 10% to 3% in 1985. Externally, our leading industries – shipbuilding and oil refining – were in decline with competition from the region and the Middle East. Internally, it was also a time when government took drastic steps to curb rising labor costs: employer’s CPF contribution was cut from 25% to 10%; there was simultaneously a wage freeze from 1986 to 1987 with the public sector taking the lead. These measures were no doubt begrudged by many.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the 1986 strike was initiated by a branch union of the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees’ Union (SMEEU) against the Hydril Pte Ltd, which deals in oilfield equipment, although the then NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Lim Boon Heng stressed that the strike “has got nothing to do with the economic situation” (The Straits Times, “Workers strike over ‘anti-union moves’ by firm”, 3 Jan 1986).

In the same week when the 2-day Hydril strike took place, there were two other presumably “illegal” industrial action: more than 40 workers downed tools at Aerospace over the non-payment of salaries and CPF contributions; 60 employees at Galeries Lafayette department store walked out to demand that 8 dismissed colleagues be reinstated (The Straits Times, “Labour gives a sharp reminder”, 4 Jan 1986).

When the Hydril strike erupted against all odds, the government was quick to damage control via The Straits Times. It capitalized on the event to warn employers not to use recession as an excuse to exploit workers (lest more restive workers take industrial action in the unfavorable economic climate). It also took the opportunity to somewhat restore NTUC’s credibility:

There was, until the Hydril episode, a gut feeling among employers that no union would be allowed to spoil Singapore’s strike-free record, especially during the recession…This perception of the union as a paper tiger apparently gained currency as a result of the prevailing industrial peace…If there is a lesson to be learned from the Hydril strike, it is that unions do have teeth. They can and are prepared to exercise their right to strike if the cause justifies it (The Straits Times, “Hydril episode shatters bosses’ misconceptions”, 1 Feb 1986).

That was then. Sadly, today it is hard to controvert that NTUC is not a toothless tiger.

Then and Now

It is not an overstatement to say that one person made all the difference in the 1986 strike. If not for late President Ong who, at the risk of antagonizing his colleagues, sided with the workers and approved the union’s action as NTUC head, the 1986 strike would not have made history. Comparing him to today’s NTUC chief Lim Swee Say and his disappointing handling of the last SMRT dispute only makes the people’s President more dearly missed.

Now that Singapore’s long prevailing industrial “peace” was broken, and by a group of foreign workers, what are the lessons and implications?

At the time I was writing this blogpost, news broke that four China bus drivers were arrested for “instigating” the illegal strike. This is a predictable outcome following the government’s statement that it has “zero-tolerance” for illegal industrial action.

In the past decades since Independence, Singapore’s industrial relations were transformed each time a major strike happened. Will this time be no exception? How will the government further tighten the space for strikes and other industrial action, legal or illegal?

The strike also shows how ill-prepared the government is for the consequences of its liberal immigration policy. Not only did it not foresee the strain of a huge foreigner influx on our infrastructure, the cost of living, and Singaporeans’ disgruntlement, it also failed to see how foreign workers, unlike “tamed” Singaporeans, are not as submissive and will fight for their rights when they perceive themselves to be exploited or treated unfairly. The China-Chinese in particular are no stranger to industrial action despite tighter controls and harsher clamp-downs in their homeland.

In Singapore, strikes and other industrial action were common in 1950s and 1960s. Then the government had used our young nation’s economic survival to justify the taming of the union and workers. After clamping down on a major “illegal” strike by Metal Box workers in 1977, Singapore had been strike free till 1986, and from then till 2012. Today, Singapore is no longer a third world country. Yet the withholding of workers’ rights for the sake of development has never been revoked.

The evolution of our union(s) shows how a supposedly short term trade-off has become cast in stone. And I think many of you would agree with me that the 1986 legal strike is probably the last we shall see in our generation.

If economic growth was then seen as a means to an end, i.e. the well-being of our people, today economic growth seems to have become an end in itself, such that even mooting slower growth is considered a sacrilege.

Next week we’ll chart the trajectory of how our unions and workers were tamed over the past few decades, looking into 1977 Metal Box strike and 1966/67 Public Daily Rated Employees Union Federation (PDREUF) strikes which prompted the government to curtail the power of unions and workers’ right to take industrial action.

Note: MOM reportedly told AFP news that the last illegal strike in Singapore was in 1980. Strictly speaking, however, the industrial action taken by the Singapore Airlines pilots in 1980 was not a strike but a “work-to-rule”, which means employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of a workplace to cause a slowdown.