External membership of unions

The ostensible reason for the violent crackdown on protesting students at Alighar Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia last month was the involvement of “outsiders” in these protests. In both cases, campus authorities claimed that student protestors had been joined by “outsiders” who had gone violent, which forced them to call in the cops.

And then the cops did what cops do – making the protest more violent and increasing the damage all round, both physically and otherwise.

I’m reminded of this case from a few years ago from some automobile company – possibly Maruti. The company had refused to recognise an employee’s union at a new plant they were starting, because of an argument on the membership of non-employees in the unions.

The unions’ argument in that case was that external (non-employee) membership was necessary to provide the organisational and union skills to the union. If I remember correctly, they wanted one third of the union to consist of members who were not employees of the firm. The firm contended that they wouldn’t want to negotiate with outsiders, and so they wouldn’t recognise the union with external members.

I don’t remember how that story played out but this issue of external membership of unions, whether student or employees, is pertinent.

At the fundamental level, unions need to exist because of the balance of power – the dominance in favour of an institution over an individual employee or student is too great to always produce rational outcomes in the short term (in the long term it evens out, but you know what Keynes is supposed to have said). The formation of unions corrects this imbalance since the collection of employees or students can have significant bargaining power vis-a-vis the institution, and negotiations can result in more rational decisions in the short term.

The problem I have is with external membership of unions. The problem there is that external members (who usually provide leadership and “organisation” to the unions) lack skin in the game, and the union’s incentives need not always be aligned with the incentives of the employees or students.

Consider, for example, the protests in the universities last month which became violent. The incentive of the protests would have been to peacefully protest (to register their dissatisfaction with a recent law), and then get back to their business of being students. The students themselves have no incentive to be violent and damage stuff in their own institution, since that will negatively impact their own futures and studies at the institution.

External members of the unions don’t share this incentive – their incentive is in making the union activities (the protest in this case) more impactful. And if the protest creates damage, that can make it more impactful. The external members don’t particularly care about damage to the institution (physical and otherwise), as long as the union’s show of strength is successful.

It is similar in organisations. It is in the interest of both the employees and the management that the company does well, since that means a larger pie that can be split among them. The reason employees organise themselves, and sometimes go on limited strikes, is to ensure that they get what they think is a fair share of the pie.

The problem, of course, is that negotiations aren’t that simple, and they frequently break down. The question is about what to do when that inevitably happens. Each employee has his own threshold in terms of how long to strike, and at what point it makes sense to back down and accept the deal on the table.

In an employee-only union, the average view of the employees (effectively) guides when the strike gets called off and the negotiations end. External members of the union lack skin in the game, and they have a really long threshold on when to back down from the strike. And this makes strikes longer than employees want them to be, which can make the strikes counterproductive for the employees.

One infamous example is of the textile mills in Mumbai in the late 70s, and early 80s. There was massive union action there in those times, with strikes going on for months together. Ultimately the mills packed up and relocated to Gujarat and other places. The employees were the ultimate losers there, either losing their jobs or having to move to another city. If the employees themselves had controlled the union it is likely that they might have come to a settlement sooner or later, and managed to keep their jobs.

In the automobile case I mentioned earlier, if I remember correctly, the union demanded that up to 33% of the membership of the union be comprised of outsiders – a demand the company flatly refused to entertain. Now think about it – if external members control a third of the union, all it takes is one fourth of the employees, acting in concert with the union, for something to happen. And there is a real agency problem there!

The Ramanamurthy Spectrum

The basic point of the protests ongoing throughout India opposing the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act is that it doesn’t follow the “Ramanamurthy Principle“. Let me explain.

The Kannada classic Ganeshana Maduve (1989) is set in a cluster of houses owned by one Ramanamurthy, where all houses apart from his own has been let out to tenants. His battles with his tenants is one of the running themes of this comedy.

One notable conflict has to do with whitewashing. Ramanamurthy decides to get his house whitewashed, but his tenants demand that their houses be whitewashed as well. After a long protracted hilarious battle (starring a dog, also named Ramanamurthy), the tenants come to an agreement with Ramanamurthy – that if he gets his own house painted, he has to get the entire cluster painted.

In other words, the conflict between Ramanamurthy and his clients had only two permissible solutions – all houses are painted or no houses are painted. All solutions in the middle were infeasible. This gives us what we can call the “Ramanamurthy spectrum”.

Here it is visually.

 

 

The protests against India’s citizenship amendment act can be summarised by the fact that the act fails to follow the Ramanamurthy Spectrum. The act, as it has been passed by parliament, uses an arbitrary criterion (religion) to determine which incoming refugees will be given Indian citizenship.

And the protests against that come from both ends of the Ramanamurthy spectrum. In Assam and the rest of the North East, areas that will be most adversely affected by the act, they want the solution that Ramanamurthy finally adopted in the movie – “I won’t get my house whitewashed as well”. They don’t want any of the incoming people to be given citizenship.

Elsewhere in the country (now I must admit I haven’t been able to follow this crisis as closely as I would like to, since it is very difficult here to separate news from “reaction to news“), the protests seem to be at the other end of the Ramanamurthy spectrum – that everyone should be let in.

In any case, the incumbent government has utterly failed in recognising this important principle of politics, and going ahead with a regulation that is neither here nor there in terms of the Ramanamurthy spectrum.

No wonder that the whole country is rioting!

On people returning awards

So it seems to have become a fashion nowadays for writers to return any awards they’ve received from the government. It all started with Nayantara Sahgal, and it has set off a virtual procession. Maybe I don’t follow the right kind of people but one in twenty tweets or so on my timeline talks about someone who is rejecting some award or the other, all in protest against the “intolerance” of the government. There’s even a 16 year old who has returned some award.

I must admit I don’t read much fiction, but I must mention I haven’t heard of too many of the people who have returned an award. Maybe the first few returns in Sahgal’s wake were an attempt at cashing in on the free publicity this would get them, but now I think the marginal utility (in terms of publicity) of returning an award has fallen far enough to this to not be the primary reason for the return.

At a more fundamental level, I don’t know what gives these writers legitimacy in making a political statement. I mean everyone has the right to make any statement they want, but I don’t know why we should take these guys’ political views seriously only because they are writers.

While politics forms a significant portion of several novels (for example, my entire understanding of the Islamic Revolution in Iran comes from reading Marjané Satrapi’s Persepolis), that someone has written a political novel doesn’t make them an authority on politics.

As I mentioned on twitter the other day, the core competence of a writer is command over language and power of communication, and so whatever statements they might make they make powerfully. Yet, the fact that they communicate their stand well doesn’t necessarily mean that their stand is right, and give us any reason for trusting them more than we might trust a layperson with their political views.

And in this case, they are not even communicating in the means they have established competence in – what you might have expected from a writer when they are concerned about the social situation around them is to have written about it, and used their usual powers of verbal persuasion to make their case for spreading their agenda. Instead, what we have is a blatantly political message in terms of returning their awards.

I’m not saying they’re wrong to return their awards – they’re well within their rights to do so, and maybe they think it will have an impact. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t read much into this, and not given them credit for their political views.

Putting it another way, understanding of politics is uncorrelated with literary ability, so the latter should not be conflated with the former. I’m not denying that there are authors who have excellent political insight – all I’m saying is that the probability of an author having excellent political insight is no different from the probability of a non-author having such insight.

So for the purpose of crafting government policy in response to these protests, they should be given no greater weight than similar protests by the same number of laypeople. And looking at Arun Jaitley’s response, it seems like the government has internalised this, and it is a good thing.

Criminals in politics

During the Anna Hazare show, skeptics said people shouldn’t randomly protest, they should come out and vote (for the record, people have voted in really large numbers in the recently concluded assembly elections). Hazaarists replied saying that there’s no point voting because every candidate is a crook, and they are all corrupt, or something to that effect. Then someone else popped up and said that criminals should not be allowed to contest for elections.

Now, there exists a law barring criminals from contesting elections. However, only people convicted of a criminal case can’t contest, not those who are under trial. The justification of this is that activities such as “riots”, “protests”, “dharnas”, etc. come under the criminal law and you can’t “obviously” bar people who take part in such “noble activities” from contesting. So you have people who have led noble dharnas contesting, as those who have been accused of committing rape or murder. Inclusive democracy, as they say.

What I don’t understand is what is so noble about holding protests, blocking roads and railways and holding entire population to ransom. I don’t understand why perpetrators of such crimes need protection, and are allowed to contest elections.

So I think one step in decriminalizing politics would be to bar people with a criminal case against them (not necessarily convicted) from contesting for polls. Of course we won’t put this law with retrospective effect, but it’ll apply to only new cases that might be filed against potential candidates from the date on which the law is notified. It would have welcome side effect that politicians would now think thrice before they decide to hold rallies that stop road and rail traffic and hold the mango man to ransom. And apart from potentially decreasing corruption, it would make our cities a much more peaceful place to stay in.

But I’m being impractical here. Who will bell the cat? Why would any politicians “act against themselves” and bring in such a law? Can some Hazaarists please stand up, or rather sit down in fast, for this, please?

The problem with “civil society” people

is that they can’t work with people with whom they have minor differences – which is where politicians easily trump them. Politicians are expert in the art of working out compromises and working with people with whom they have divergent beliefs. Of course, it creates “unholy coalitions” but you have to give it to the enterprise of the politicians (let’s not question their motivation here) to come together as a group and get stuff done.

With civil society types, however, as soon as they discover that there is something disagreeable about the other party, they’ll cry hoarse and refuse to work with them. So for example, if for some reason I come together with these “civil society” worthies for some cause, I’m sure they’ll all ditch me as soon as they come to know that I was a member of the RSS when I was eight years old.

Because of this, it is rare that civil society types come together for a cause, which is what makes people believe that the Anna Hazare-led protests of two weeks back were such a significant success. That this magnificent coalition hasn’t really lasted, and cracks are already coming up in the “civil society” half of the draft committee just goes to illustrate my point.

There can be exceptions to this of course – civil society people drawn from an extremely homogeneous distribution ARE capable of “getting things done”. Think National Advisory Council!