Sri Lanka: July 10 warning general strike marks new beginning

For a wage increase of just 5,000 rupees a month (£25)

The Sri Lankan government, continuing to bombard the north of the country in its 25 year-long civil war, has been faced with a new challenge. On Thursday 10 July, a warning general strike was held demanding increased wages to cover recent massive price rises. The strike was not 100% supported for a number of reasons – lack of preparation, the mood of fear that affects daily life etc. But it marked the welcome beginning of working class action after many, many years in Sri Lanka.

The strike was called by the unions which are run by the pro-war People’s Liberation Front (the predominantly Sinhala chauvinist but ‘Marxist’ JVP). It was also supported by other unions and by us in the United Socialist Party (USP).

The government and their coalition partners – the Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party – did everything possible, including using government machinery and the armed forces to sabotage the strike. At the same time, the government spread the news that this strike was to support the ‘Tigers’ – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam against whom they are fighting this war. All the media gave big publicity to government statements along these lines which were made to frighten workers about participating.

But, in spite of all that government suppression, the strike was a partial success as a beginning of action.

On the day, the streets of the capital, Colombo, had a holiday feel about them. Expecting a major stoppage, there were very few people even trying to travel. At the government printing works where we share in the union leadership and where there were preparatory mass meetings to mobilise support, the strike was a 90% success. As secretary of the USP, I was invited to speak at a rally there on the morning of the strike and there was a militant mood.

Joint rally of strikers at Ministry of Health, mid-day July 10th

Later we went to a mass picket outside the Health ministry, of about 1,500 strikers. The strike was roughly 50% successful in the hospitals, schools, postal service, tea plantation and bus services.

Big change

All these years almost all the trade unions in Sri Lanka have been supporting the capitalist communal government of Rajapakse, including the JVP. Now, with prices rising faster than in any other Asian country – on average around 30% – and because of the pressure from workers, the union leaders have been compelled to go for strike action. Some trade unions still did not support the strike call because they are against the JVP politically. Workers do not have much confidence in that party because the JVP is fully supporting the war and voting with the government in the parliament every month to renew the really anti-working class state of emergency provisions. It was under these measures that the army was deployed during the strike in the hospitals and on the public transport. (It was also these provisions which gave them the powers to try and stop our picket meeting at the government printing works.)

Secretary of USP being interviewed on day of strike

Speaking at the rallies and to the media we made the point that this strike was a beginning. Workers realised they had been together too long behind the capitalist class. Now there is a realisation that independent action must be taken. We are calling for bigger action, organised in a more collective way.

On July 10th, the second biggest Sinhala daily paper – Lakbina – had front page headline news on the strike with a statement from the JVP and one from the USP with equal space alongside each other. We pointed out that the ministers who say the government cannot afford the 5,000 rupee rise (£25) for the one million state employees should begin by cutting the number of cabinet ministers down by three-quarters. There were 110 of them and the day before the strike, another one was appointed! Each of them, with their fat salaries, cars, staff, subsidised housing and fuel etc. consumes at least 200,000 rupees a month of public money. We also pointed out that the JVP who called the strike are still supporting the government on the war and the emergency powers used against the strike. We were interviewed many times for the TV.

The USP campaign within the working class for joint action is now getting real support. On the basis of this strike experience, we are calling on all unions to summon a national general convention of factory level leaders to prepare for the next action which needs to be taken.

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July 2008