Monday 6 May 2013

The day SMRT union nearly went on strike

Rail staff would have stopped work in 2003 if management had insisted on pay freeze
By Robin Chan, The Sunday Times, 5 May 2013

On a quiet day in September 2003, some 3,000 SMRT rail workers were being gathered at their offices in City Hall and the Bishan train depot.

Some came early in the morning, others after their work shift.

Unknown to most Singaporeans, these men were gathering to conduct a secret ballot.

They were about to go on strike.

The workers were fuming because their employer wanted to freeze their wages that year.

They would not get a 3 per cent annual service increment they were entitled to just midway into a three-year-long collective agreement.

SMRT management wanted to make up for a sharp reduction in the company's investment income that year by freezing wages, according to a union worker involved in the dispute.

The unhappiness had been simmering since the beginning of the year, but after several months, there was little progress in negotiations.

Finally, Mr Ong Ah Heng, then the executive secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union, called a general meeting of the union's executive committee.

After much discussion, they decided that they must take a stand. They would force the management to stick to its word.

He went to then labour chief Lim Boon Heng for approval to call a strike. Mr Lim said yes.

After that day of balloting, the results showed overwhelmingly that the workers were in favour of a strike. More than 80 per cent voted yes.

The union leaders had even decided on which day it would take place.

It would be a Sunday morning, when it would be least disruptive to Singaporeans, but uncomfortable enough to send a strong message to SMRT management that the workers were to be taken seriously.

After the balloting was done, Mr Lim gave word to the Ministry of Transport officials and told them to talk to SMRT management one last time.

That same day, faced with a possible historic strike, management gave in.

"We had people all charged up, ready to go on strike. And then now, no strike," recalls Mr Lim, in an interview with The Sunday Times.

"They actually wanted to teach the management a lesson. But they saw the point, it was not necessary to go on strike any more."

With the recent Labour Day rally a reminder of the illegal bus strike that took place just late last year, Mr Lim reveals for the first time this near miss to show that unions here do contemplate going on strike in Singapore if management is deaf to workers' needs.

But a strike must always be used only as a "weapon of last resort", he says.

In fact, there was at least one other time it almost happened.

This occurred earlier in the late 1990s in the insurance industry. But it was resolved before it got to a secret vote.

In Singapore, where the tripartite harmony between workers, employers and the Government is heavily emphasised, talk of strikes is rare.

So why was Mr Lim willing to go through with it not just once, but twice?

"You needed to let the union members know that the union can do something and will do something necessary in their interests," he says.

"At the same time, you have to do it in such a way that you don't send the wrong message to the rest of the world.

"A transport strike in Singapore, or a transport strike in any city, will be global news. And you have to be very careful about what message you send to the world."

Mr Lim, now a director on the board of Temasek Holdings, knows quite a bit about strike actions.

In 1986, he was also part of the team under then National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Ong Teng Cheong that sanctioned a shipyard workers' strike.

It was the first strike in Singapore in over a decade and it caused an uproar even though it lasted for only two days.

Looking back, Mr Lim, who remembers being grilled by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew about it, still stands by the decision.

He says that the American company had used tactics to force its workers to resign as it prepared to downsize while the economy was going into a recession.

But its aggressive moves rubbed the workers the wrong way, especially as they had just been poached from rivals with the promise of higher wages.

The workers' union wanted to negotiate with the company, but the management refused - several times.

Even when the then Ministry of Labour was approached to mediate, the company still refused to come to the table. That was when the workers decided to go on strike.

"Before we actually went on strike, we told the Ministry of Labour, please ask the management one more time to come to the table. They did. They (the management) refused. So we went on strike."

That is still the last legally sanctioned strike in Singapore.

But on Nov 26 last year, Singapore's industrial harmony was dealt a rude shock by 171 China-born SMRT bus drivers.

Some 88 of them stayed away from work the next day. Five have since been convicted, serving jail terms of between six and seven weeks for instigating the illegal strike.

In his May Day Rally last Wednesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded workers: "The Government will not tolerate unlawful acts or those who deliberately undermine industrial harmony in Singapore."

Mr Lim agrees.

"We have put in place a system for dispute resolution and we should exhaust all the avenues before we consider strike action. When we do use this last resort, we should do it properly," he says.

"The foreign bus captains of SMRT did not join the union and so had no one to take up their grievances. Even then, they could have joined the union and asked the union to take up those issues. It was not necessary to go on an illegal strike."

Looking back at the 1986 incident, his reprimand from former PM Lee Kuan Yew and the several more close shaves since, he offers this perspective on industrial action:

"I learnt an important point. It is that you don't go on strike on trivial issues, and you should regard the right to strike as the last resort."


"We had people all charged up, ready to go on strike. And then now, no strike... They actually wanted to teach the management a lesson. But they saw the point, it was not necessary to go on strike any more."

- MR LIM BOON HENG, former labour chief, on the strike planned in 2003

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