By Iain Dale and Nicholas Finney
The Government's dire cuts to the public sector, coupled with the actions of the irrepressible trade union leaders like Bob Crow, have suddenly reactivated interest in strikes and perhaps more importantly whether they should be made unlawful in essential services.
It seems a long time since strikes were something we all had to worry about and even those strikes that have taken place have been organised on a more sophisticated basis to those grim days of the 1970s and 1980s when parts of the national economy were regularly threatened by long and fierce "withdrawals of labour" . More a French phenomena than a British malaise.
But such are the potential threats to the jobs and living standards of thousands of public sector workers that the strike banner is being raised again by militant public sector unions as a means of focusing the public's attention more generally to their members’ treatment.
All this has given rise to discussion about the legality of certain strikes. Boris Johnson is known to be publically concerned about the impunity with which Bob Crow manages to bring out members in London Transport Services , and other mutterings have been heard about , for example, whether London firefighters should be taking strike action as threatened.
Indeed, today London firefighters embark on two one day strikes. Why? Because, despite five years of negotiation with the Fire Brigades Union, employers have been unable to get agreement to new shift patterns. They want to have two 12 hours shifts, reducing the current night shift by three hours and increasing the day shift by the same amount. So, no increase in hours, no job cuts, no closure of fire stations, no change in rest periods, no reduction in pay. Yet the FBU sees this minor tinkering with shift patterns as a reason to bring its members out on strike and put the public at risk. Imagine what would happen if, God forbid, there was a major terror incident on a strike day.
Various ideas have been aired, some suggesting tougher balloting rules to secure an absolute majority of trade union members voting in favour of strike action.
But there is actually a lot more information available to guide the Government than so far seems to have been recognised. The United Kingdom is party to a number of International Labour Organisation's Conventions (ILO). These are binding agreements on member states to regularise their labour relations in a civilised manner .
Fundamental to the aspirations of the eight core ILO conventions are the freedom to organise and the right to collective bargaining. To citizens of the UK, these might appear to be rather outdated. They are the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour and the abolition of child labour. Anti discrimination conventions complete the primary undertakings.
But a lot of discussion and deliberation has gone into modernising many conventions (there are 180 in all) and one in particular stands out, namely Convention 87 which was revised in 1998 and which establishes that member states "should take all reasonable and appropriate measures to ensure that workers may freely exercise the right to organise". One hundred and twenty two member states have ratified this convention including the United Kingdom.
Inherent in these rights is felt by many trade unionists to be the right to strike but this right has not explicitly been guaranteed under C87. Indeed, there is quite a detailed debate concerning this subject within the ILO . This is because many countries still prevent public sector workers from taking strike action. Penalties range up to one year’s imprisonment. Many countries insist on compulsory arbitration with no strike clauses automatically imposed. The UK is very much in the liberal wing of member states on allowing strikes in essential services.
The tricky part however relates to the definition of essential services. The ILO defines these as "services where the interruption of which would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population."
That would appear to rule out strikes by firefighters. But the ILO's Committee on the freedom of association, whilst allowing essential services to include hospitals, electricity supplies, water supplies, the telephone service and air traffic control, has indicated that a whole range of services which the ordinary citizen might regard as essential, to be outside the scope of Member states to curb threatened strike action.
This "excluded list" includes transport, petroleum, ports, computer services for collection of taxes (nice one), mining, agriculture (has anyone thought how we could turn the cow off milk production if no one picked up milk from the farm?) and the supply and distribution of foodstuffs.
This list gives plenty of cause for debate and concern not least because major disruption to several of these services would quickly lead to serious dangers to health and safety.
It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that there is general unease amongst member states about these definitions and there are many examples of states simply ignoring the guidance issued by the ILO.
It must surely be time to revitalise debate about this important matter. Trade unions have an important part to play in trying to represent their members’ interests and individual rights should not be trampled on by the state. But there has to be some balance. Perhaps in return for those benefits which are decreasingly available to workers in the private sector, some greater measure of discipline and control should be exercised in a wider range of service sectors where the general public are entitled to continue to receive "essential services " however they are finally defined .
Let the debate begin.