Monday, March 29, 2010

The right to strike

I was genuinely shocked when attending Radio Four’s Any Questions in Camden on Friday night when Vince Cable, the cuddly face of liberalism, came out in favour of banning strike action - gaining the honour of getting the first boos of the night.

Specifically he said that workers in "essential public services" should not be allowed to strike. He was pressed on it and was adamant that this was what he believed. He seemed to think this meant both rail workers and BA cabin staff, both of whom work for private companies, so it seems they are essential enough to take away thier basic human rights, but not essential enough to take the industries into public hands.

While he doesn't seem to have said this in print (although I haven't scoured the entire internet), writing in the Daily Mail Cable says that "We are back to old-fashioned industrial conflict of a kind that we thought, and hoped, had gone." He compares the strikes to "union militants who once ruled the roost in Britain’s strike-prone industries and helped to wreck them."

I think Cable is making two mistakes here. The first one is that he is simply wrong to say the industrial disputes of 2010 are in any way comparable to the disputes of the 70's or 80's. The scale and quality of the strikes are quite different and since the mid-90's we have seen a dramatic decline in industrial disputes.

The number of strikes days the year before Labour came to power was 1.3 million while in 2009 there were less than half a million strike days. Union membership today is dwarfed by the size of the unions three decades ago. Personally I think we strike far too little and far too few of us are members of trade unions, but that's by the by.

His other mistake though is this fake even-handedness where he says both sides have a case and both sides are at fault - so let's outlaw strikes. This would put the employer in a position where they can run riot over their workforce who would have been completely disarmed, so not quite as neutral as we first thought.

It may have escaped Vince's attention but slave labour was abolished a little while ago and it is a human right to choose not to work. To tell people that they must work, no matter what the provocation, no matter what the justice of your case, is to encourage employers to be intransigent and arrogant beyond anything we normally see in the 21st century.

Industrial action, up to and including strike action is the only bulwark working people have against a dictatorship in the workplace. Employees have to be able to take *collective* action because the employer can take *collective* liberties with the workforce each and every day.

Whilst it's to be regreted that people wont be able to travel by train on the day of the rail strike, if we make strikes illegal we are effectively chaining people to their desks and work stations for the sake of our own convenience. That's a narrow vision because today it's them, tomorrow it's you.

The rail workers and BA staff took a clear democratic decision that it was necessary to withdraw their labour. We should support their right to take that decision even if we don't think they're right on this occasion. However, it seems to me that they are right to strike and I'd recommend reading up on their cases at the RMT and UNITE websites.


Matt said...

A sound argument save for the last step, that it is effectively 'chaining people to their desks'. People have a right to not work, but they have also signed contracts willingly showing whether they will work. If the conditions they face are truly so awful, they should indeed not work any more and leave their job (and thus terminate their contract). People leaving their jobs for good reason is the lifeblood of any competitive labour market. Strikes are not, because they effectively mean nothing - no one worker takes individual responsibility for the havoc they cause. The incentives are perverse and hurt the people who do want to work more than those who don't.

Joe Otten said...

Nope, he didn't say that.

Indeed he was pressed by the chair on whether he meant banning, and he said no. Curbing. I.e. additional hurdles.

Also as far as I can tell he was talking about rail, not air. BA is only one airline among many after all - a private company not a public service.

So you've got a bit carried away here.

FWIW There are no rights and wrongs in the BA dispute. Both sides are fighting over economic rents accruing from BA's prime takeoff slots, that neither side earns or deserves. So it is just a question of strength.

The rail dispute is quite different, in that there is a public interest in both the safety and the efficiency (including cost-efficiency) of the railways. There is a dispute of fact over the effects of the proposed changes. There should be (but isn't) a due process for testing the facts, and the strength of either side should be irrelevant.

ModernityBlog said...

Scratch a liberal find a Tory.

ModernityBlog said...

Also, if you wish to read some anti-Green rhetoric from the liberals you could do worse than scan this little post:

"...Yes, the Greens would be the biggest public service cutters of all."

Joe Otten said...

Er Mod, hello, he didn't actually say that. Jim is wishful thinking.

Or is this just cheap name calling? Scratch a green, find a fascist... or a communist... or most likely someone with no coherent political philosophy whatever.

Joe Otten said...

Oh thanks for the link.

If anyone has an answer to that post, by all means comment there.

ModernityBlog said...

No problem Joe,

If you wish to defend the Liberals to the hilt that's fine, you are partisan activist why would we expect different?

If you wish to put the boot into the Greens, that's fine too, but don't try to suggest that you are anything other than a party hack or that your post on the Greens is excessively crude.

This is an old form of politics and we are all too familiar with it.

Aaron said...

Lol.. indeed, I used to be in the Liberal Democrats and looking back and watching the party now I do think they are just the fluffier wing of the Tories.

Joe Otten said...

If my post is excessively crude, then it should be excessively simple to refute. So why hasn't it happened?

And calling me a Tory is just infantile. What is there in the post on my blog that a left-of-Labour person wouldn't condemn the Greens for?

ModernityBlog said...

Indeed, anyone reading Joe Otten's comments on the Green Party will see they are rather low level sniping.

The posts are rather predictable in content and written in the tone of a political hack, not terribly informative or worthwhile reading, IMHO [and I am not even a Green:) ]

Joe Otten said...


I really don't see why questions such as "how will you pay for public services?" are beneath contempt. Other parties get asked it too, but their answers involve the economy growing. Greens being lukewarm on economic growth need to have a good answer to this.

But instead of answers, all I hear are criticisms of style and tone and ad hominem attacks ("Tory"). So I suspect there isn't an answer and the Greens don't have a coherent understanding of their own policy. But I'm willing to be proved wrong.

Jim, I'm disgusted that you have now posted this to LibCon, knowing it to be untrue. You've always seemed more reasonable than that.

ModernityBlog said...

Geez, if you're going to be in politics you might have least learn the basics, it is not always what you say but how you say it that is the issue.

Your criticism of the Greens comes over as sneering, and not much more.

Conceivably you do have some political points to make, but they are lost in the tone and manner of your criticisms.

Jim Jepps said...

Hello, I've not had time to deal with this sooner, apologies.

Firstly I didn't post it to LibCon, Sunny did. I've previously given him permission to post anything he liked to the site and didn't even know it was there until earlier, just as I was leaving the house.

To be clear, if it had been me posting I would have waited until I'd a chance to check it from the radio first to reassure myself of my memory of events.

I've now had time to listen again and have a few new points to make.

Firstly I was disappointed you can't hear the booing very well - the acoustics in the hall were rubbish - but just to say in the flesh Cable looked pretty perturbed by the response but ploughed on like a trooper.

Secondly I need to correct that he actually was clearly talking about the rail specifically not rail and airlines.

Thirdly he talks about curtailing the ability to take strike action (ie new, stronger anti-union laws). I just went to check the definition of curtail - not because I don't use the word but because I wanted to be precise about it's use.

The first online dictionary I happened to use says this "curtail - terminate or abbreviate before its intended or proper end or its full extent; "My speech was cut short"; "Personal freedom is curtailed in many countries"."

Which means that curtail is ambiguous as to whether it means restrictions or bans. If Joe wants me to give Vince the benefit of the doubt (oh, Nicholas Parsons eat your heart out) then I'm happy to say this means he's just a populist anti-union politician advocating illiberal legislation to curtail basic civil rights rather than a populist anti-union politician advocating illiberal legislation to curtail basic human rights.

I hope everyone is satisfied with that. (Now I better go and post this at Lib Con)

Joe Otten said...

The word is curb, not curtail.

But I'll forgive you the booing thing. The audience has to be very loud ever to be picked up on AQ.