Unrest among civil service employees has broken out in both Ladakh and in Tahiti, where government employees are striking to improve their retirement pay scales. While these two developments are purely coincidental, they suggest an important question: do strikes and other forceful activities, which try to compel others into taking a desired course of action, diminish peacefulness?
In Northern India, leaders of 500,000 civil service employees of the state of Jammu and Kashmir decided to go on a one-day strike last Thursday to protest discriminatory practices by the state government. The public employees are particularly incensed about disparities in the retirement pay among different classifications of workers. The Joint Consultative Committee (JCC), an association of the different public employee unions in the state, organized the strike. All public workers except for vital hospital employees were included in the one-day work stoppage.
The strike was honored by nearly 100 percent of the state’s public employees, including the ones in the Ladakh region, except for Ladakh’s predominantly Muslim district of Kargil, where none of the civil servants participated. A JCC leader, Muhammad Khursheed Alam, blamed the state government for the failures of negotiations. The JCC has met with the governor of the state, N.N. Vohra, who has accepted their demands on principle, but nothing had happened by Thursday.
In French Polynesia, public workers are disturbed by the prospect of their pensions being cut in the future; a vote by the French Parliament in Paris removed some of the benefits in the pension system for overseas civil service employees. The legislation will scale back, over the next 20 years, an earlier provision that guarantees a retiree will have a wage scale that is 75 percent of top pay.
The Tahitian civil service employees announced last Thursday that they intended to continue their nine-day old strike despite the fact that the government in Paris is starting to make concessions. The 6,900 government employees, which include school teachers and customs workers, are considering their response to the government’s offers so far.
At the international airport near Papeete, customs officials are not working, so travelers are bringing anything they want into the islands in their suitcases. Containers at the port are not being unloaded. While many of the containers are empty, or contain non-perishable goods, the striking workers are allowing some recipients to gain access to containers with perishable supplies and medicines. Talks between the French Overseas State Secretary, Yves Jégo, and representatives from the employees in French Polynesia are continuing, with concessions being announced as the discussions progress.
The circumstance of striking public employees in societies that are, or used to be, quite peaceful is not really as important as the question of whether or not strikes can diminish the peacefulness of a society. A review of some literature about strikes and nonresistance in nonviolent societies might help sort out the ramifications of this issue.
Over the past year, the Lepchas have engaged in hunger strikes, an aggressive form of nonviolent action, in protest against power dams that threatened lands that are sacred to them. Hunger strikes are based, in principle, on Gandhi’s satyagraha, a strategy for nonviolently combating the hegemony of the British Empire. The Lepchas achieved most of their goals in June: their hunger strikes prompted the Sikkim state government to cancel most of the dams.
For many of the small-scale, peaceful societies, labor strikes would not be possible. It is hard to conceive of a strike, much less a labor union, in a small village such as a Semai, Kadar, Buid, or Piaroa community. Some larger-scale, relatively harmonious, societies also appear to discourage strikes and similar forceful actions. Douglas Fry, in his speech at a peace conference in Denmark this summer, noted that the Norwegians, who rarely experience incidents of violence, have a low rate of strikes.
In a 1939 paper on Mennonite nonresistance, Guy F. Hershberger (1) analyzed the changes that were occurring to peaceful, rural, Mennonite congregations as people moved into larger towns and took jobs in industry. The labor union movement, which involves strategies for forcing management to accept worker demands, he argued, directly contradicts the biblical ideal of nonresistance, the Mennonite understanding of the ways of the meek, humble Jesus.
According to Hershberger, strikes and boycotts can theoretically be peaceful, but they are coercive nonetheless. They challenge the principle of nonresistance, a value, incidentally, that many of the non-Christian peaceful societies also practice, though they may not use that term. Hershberger maintains that the nonviolent actions used by both sides of a labor dispute can lead, when they fail, to violence.
A more recent analysis of Mennonite thinking on this issue by Driedger and Kraybill (2) also confronts the changes in Mennonite life during the 20th century and their reactions to the forceful processes of modern societies. As the urban Mennonites made accommodations to the larger mainstream society, many accepted more aggressive types of social interactions, such as strikes. They also became more proactive in their peacemaking as they gave up their nonresistant peacefulness. But are they just as peaceful? Those authors conclude that Mennonites have tended to give up their peaceful nonresistance in order to become good citizens and fit in with the contemporary world.
The Amish and Hutterites, traditional Anabaptist societies that have not changed as much as the Mennonites, tend to take their nonresistance quite literally. As Christ commanded, they do not resist evil. Donald Kraybill writes in his outstanding book The Riddle of Amish Culture, “The nonresistant stance of Gelassenheit [yielding] forbids the use of force in human relations. Thus the Amish avoid serving in the military, holding political offices, using courts, filing lawsuits, serving on juries, working as police officers, and engaging in ruthless competition (p.26-27).”
Clearly, each society that seeks to build harmony and nonviolence must decide whether to resist domination by power groups, to nonviolently fight for rights, or to renounce all resistance as an integral aspect of building a culture of peace. The choice of resistance or nonresistance can be a crucial aspect of that balance. The presence of public employee unions in Tahiti and Ladakh does not necessarily mean that they are violent places, but it does suggest that peacefulness may be harder for them to maintain.
(1) Hershberger, Guy Franklin. 1939. “Nonresistance and Industrial Conflict.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 13(2): 135-154
(2) Driedger, Leo and Donald B. Kraybill. 1994. Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press