Strikes: Good or Bad?
ON THE 30th November over two million public sector workers are expected to walk out over the proposed cuts to public pensions. As a result there is expected to be delays across Englands airports, delays in NHS operations, and ineffective border controls. This isn’t the first strike of the year, but it is potentially the lagerst and most damaging. The government have accused the Unions of picking a fight for the sake of it, while the Unions have accused the government of breaking promises to its workers. The economy is in a mess, Europe is faltering, and strike action is crippling our neighbours across the Channel. Is all this strike action bad for Britain? Is it damaging our economy further? Or is this legitimate ’last chance’ action that must be taken to protect workers rights? >>
1. Britain’s laws make it far too easy to strike
THE laws governing industrial relations are skewed in favour of union bosses. As things currently stand, the technicalities mean that only 50% of those voting, rather than 50% of those in total, have to decide to go on strike. This means that even if only 1% of workers polled respond, they can take industrial action. Also, a provision in the The Trade Union Labour Relations Act (1992) allows a single ballot of union members to strike against any number of employers around the country. Today, social networking allows dissenting workers to coordinate wildcat strikes against individual grievances more easily. This shouldn’t be the way things work, and we should support Boris Johnson and the CBI who are seeking to change the law.
2. There there are better ways of resolving conflict
WORK is an input to the productive process just like any other. So going on strike is an abuse of market power by an insider group. As things stand, employers can’t sack someone if they go on strike. But if a telephone company suddenly decided to stop the lines for 24 hours, customers are free to voice their displeasure by simply claiming breach of contract and choosing another provider. Worse, if a telephone company deliberately refuses to supply a particular customer, then it is probably in breach of competition legislation under prohibitions covering “limitation in access to an essential facility or a network”. Of course, there are always going to be frictions between bosses and their workers. But going on strike is the wrong way to resolve them.
3. Workers have it good
SINCE the industrial revolution, British workers have won entitlements on the minimum wage, maximum working hours, flexible working hours, safety requirements, sickness and statutory holidays. So it’s not as if we’re talking about the 19th century working class being flogged to within an inch of their life in the workhouse by aggressive industrialists any more. Advances in labour legislation, which is largely designed to keep workers in their jobs, has served insiders better than outsiders. You no longer have to be a blacksmith if your father was a blacksmith. People now have savings and are free to move. And Britain is one of the most flexible countries in the world when it comes to changing careers. It’s good for the economy to make this fluidity easier, and the threat of strikes just adds grit to the smooth-running mechanism of a modern economy.
4. Strikes are divisive and bad for the nation
STRIKES pit workmates against workmates, top brass against staff. This has been the bane of British manufacturing to this day, which continues to be less productive in terms of output per worker than almost any other in the rich world. The inability of a whole company – workers and managers – to join together behind a common enterprise harms the whole economy and the nation. The British workplace is full of divisions between “them” and “us”, and the threat of strikes keeps that division alive. It sometimes seems as if both workers and managers periodically relish a good bit of blood-letting through industrial action: it comforts the two sides in their view of the other. But Britain will not become a sane, modern economy with this sort of attitude, and “disarmament” by both sides is necessary. Workers need to give up the easy right to strike.
5. Strikes bring countries to a halt
WHEN members of Bob Crow’s RMT whimsically decide they’d rather like a lie-in and London grinds to a halt, suburban commuters have to get up before dawn and take three crammed buses in order to make their morning meetings. When the rubbish collectors of Naples went on strike in 2008, the city was left knee deep in garbage and stinking. But the effects of strikes go deeper than merely inconveniencing individuals; they’re detrimental to society as a whole. Countries where workers are continually downing their tools are bad places to live; very few people remember the 1970s with any degree of fondness, and Scargill’s belligerence in the 1980s both divided the country along class lines, and ultimately did a lot of damage to working class Britain. Look also at France, where striking is a deeply-embedded cultural habit, and to which many now view it as a national malaise.
1. Workers need strikes to get a fair deal
What would the world be like without unions to stand up for their members? A sweatshop. You just need to look at the appaling conditions of workers in countries like China or Bangladesh to see what happens when workers don’t have mature labour legislation. We’re giving in to a toxic individualistic viewpoint if we equate the public good with what benefits company bosses and shareholders, simply because we’re annoyed that the Tube isn’t running for a day. Power isn’t naturally shared between owners and workers, it has to be negotiated, and when negotiations break down, strikes are an effective way, more so than petitions or placards, of reminding the bosses not to take their workforce for granted.
2. Workers can’t just choose another job
Supplying your labour isn’t like any other business, and labour markets don’t allow people to simply pick and choose what they do for a living. Workers have specific skills and relationships formed over the course of their careers to carry out what they do, and they can’t just get identical jobs elsewhere at the drop of a hat. So both in Britain and around the world, industry holds all the trump cards: the employer is usually the one with a degree of monopoly power. That’s why strikes – the threat of not carrying out your workplace ‘function’ – are a valid last resort for conflict resolution. Used sparingly and effectively, they act as a crucial countervailing power to the dominance of big business owners.
3. It’s even harder in the public sector
Even if the myth of a fluid jobs market without employer dominance were right in some parts of the economy, that is not where a lot of the strikes we’ll be seeing are coming from. Unions are especially important in the public sector, which is essentially just one single big employer which doesn’t have to respond to the demands of competing in a market. Therefore, the government will always be in a position of power when it comes to estimating what the correct wages should be. So unions need to act as a countervailing power and when negotiations fail, strikes are a useful last resort.
4. Strikes are useful in combating injustice
Throughout history, strikes have proved an effective method of protest for the weak joined together against the strong. The first recorded example of industrial action took place in ancient Egypt under Ramses III, when artisans working on a royal Necropolis downed tools and the Pharaoh felt threatened enough to raise their wages. In 1968, as recounted in the film Made in Dagenham, a strike of women workers at the Ford plant led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Another more recent triumph was in Poland, when Lech Walesa and Solidarity organised a revolt in the Gdansk shipyards which many credit with playing a significant role in the eventual defeat of Communism. Strikes can still play a hugely important role today: in China, where workers have very few rights, a series of strikes at Japanese factories that supply parts to carmaking companies like Toyota and Honda have forced bosses to respond to workers’ wage demands.
5. Workers can be exploited in countries with weak unions
British workers have much stronger labour rights than their counterparts in the US. Robert Reich, Labor Secretary under Clinton, in his analysis of the US economy since World War II, has described how while economic activity always creates a surplus, since 1970, the share of this pie has been distributed so that workers receive less and less. That’s what happens in a country where the power of unions has been eroded, and it’s unfair. On the other hand, the example of Germany, where unions, though their grip on power has weakened over the last decade, have historically been very strong, shows that this pressure can lead to a strong economy. There, the Federation of German Trade Unions (DGB) represents some 6.25 million people, encompassing metal workers, leather workers, white-collar types and many government employees. They have been able to use multi-employer collective bargaining – where wages are set for the whole industry, leaving firms to compete for workers by offering superior working conditions, or safety guarantees – to consistently get a good deal.
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