Saturday, October 23, 2010

Banning Strikes

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.


Paul Halsall said...

I hope British Unionists get the cajones of the French Unions and unleash hell on the government.

There is a word for those who are forced to work: it is "slaves".

Jock Coats said...

Interesting stuff here (pdf).

The whole debate is of course complicated by those who think that any of these "essential" services should be coercively funded and not open to free competition. If you have no choice but to pay through the national protection gang, you have no alternative but to rely on their mediocre services.

Lossie Beachcomber said...

The problem is that if you reduce the firefighters 15 hour night shift they will not get enough rest to allow them to work their day jobs.

Shibley Rahman said...

Excellent blog post

Dr Shibley Rahman
Labour member

Edward Bond said...

Compulsory arbitration maybe?

Anonymous said...


I think you are missing the essential part of the LFB strike, which is the way that the LFB management have gone about enforcing the change in shift patterns - ie: redundancy notices for all and then rehiring on the new contract. No union with any pretence of seriously representing its members could allow this to happen unopposed, and so we now have these strikes. It is also somewhat perplexing that the LFB have decided to fight to this extent on this particular issue, which is both utterly meaningless (as you point out), not supported by their claims (that there would be more time for training and less disruption around shift changeover) as well as being somewhat behind the times (the Met is for instance abandoning 12 hours shifts almost entirely).

Finally, I would hazard a guess that, as we saw in London at least during the last fire brigade strike, strikers would leave their pickets for serious incidents.

bewick said...

I know you had a short time dealing with dockers.
I spent half a lifetime dealing with Unison and its predecessors. Dirty players. At the time the teaching unions were a joy and perfectly reasonable. Probably no longer the case.
In the Unison, NUPE, GMB etc hierarchy the one thing that was consistent was that the local reps were people who hadn't the ability (in the main) to progress in their chosen careers.
They chose "union rep" as an alternative route to fame and power and wow did they wreak havoc.
One I remember was vehemently against the Boy Scouts as a "military organisation" (I don't remember it that way) and promoted something called Woodland xxxx which appeared to be communist inspired.
Whatever. In the 80s in particular they caused serious problems.
The membership of the union in the main took NO PART. With perhaps 5000 LOCAL members there were rarely more than 200 in attendance at essential meetings.
Might that have been because such meetings were conducted in a way where PROCEDURE occupied most of the time so the meetings were incredibly boring?
I always attended, and made my points, but the other 199 members were anti-establishment and voted for the strike or whatever. The other 4800? Well in general they went along with what they were told. I doubt that many understood.

And so it is with Crow and Simpson I think. Idiots with big mouths who spotted riches by becoming union people. I have a cousin who did the same. Irks me that he gets a big salary from Unite when he really has no skill and not much of a brain.
Whatever.Some of the full time officers of unions that I encountered were both bright and sensible. One such was Tom Sawyer, now Lord Sawyer. Would that all union reps were like him (or like he was).
The strikes? Well what exactly do they think they'll achieve? Reduced income for one.
I once asked a group of workers where they would buy potatoes if in one shop they were 10p a pound and in another shop nearby they were 15p a pound. Guess. The point wasn't taken and within a year those workers were out of a job.
ALL they had to do was agree to some changes which wouldn't affect their pay. They chose to become unemployed instead.
What can you do? The population seems just as thick as the BA workers

Roger Thornhill said...

No strike rule with binding arbitration.

And if we are going to talk about freedom of association, then that means employers should be free to sack strikers, for what is association wirthout disassociation?

Andy said...

Written like the true closet fascist that you are.

See how quickly Tories return to their true nature when they get hold of some power, if you don't like something, make it illegal. And you had the nerve to have a go at Labour for threatening civil liberties.

Of course I might be underestimating the tory party at large, perhaps it's views like this that stopped you getting nominated as a PPC.

Anonymous said...

@Halsall. Gordon already unleashed a debt hell on this country. Yhis is a foolish post. A Labour debt denier indeed.

Dave said...

What's wrong with working 2 jobs? And what is the benefit of changing the shifts to 12 hours? If there is no real benefit of changing the shift patterns then I'm on the firefighters side.

As regards curbing union's rights, give the authorities an inch and they'll take a mile. At times like these, with such hostility being thrown in the unions' faces, you just can't trust them to be fair.

Don said...

Strikes are quite simply, a form of bullying, which is totally outdated in the 21st century.
All employers and unions should be forced by law to accept compulsory arbitration for those matters which cannot be resolved by negotiation.

Fenrir said...

No strike should go ahead without 100% of the affected workforce being balloted and a minimum of 51% of those approving of the strike call. If less than 100% cast their vote then the strike cannot go ahead. I would also like to see trade unions and the officers of those unions be legally liable for any losses or damages caused by strike action to any third party.

Guido Fawkes said...

The right to strike is a fundamental human right, to force people to work is to enslave them.

Doesn't mean employers shouldn't be able to fire strikers for breach of contract.

Michael Heaver said...

Interesting Iain, would like to see more of these "proper" opinion pieces from you.

Span Ows said...

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.

If this is true what say those saying peopel have "a right to strike"? Shouldn't that "right" come with some sort of fail-safe tied in with responsibility and common sense? It seems some are saying that if a member breaks a toenail they could all go out on strike.

Mostly Ordinary said...

Seems counter-productive where you're trying to get more people engaged in politics to gimp the Unions. Banning strikes is regressive, Bob Crowe may be a tit but his members should be allowed to take the ultimate sanction.

JudyK said...

The surest way to solve this problem is not blanket bans on strikes, except where ILO regulations allow.
It is to legislate for 100% democracy in our society and in our unions. Thus, legislating for compulsory voting in Euro, national and local elections would see off the BNP and other fringe parties (including the Greens) for good.

Compulsory voting by union memberships for their executives etc, plus compulsory voting for ballots on strike action, with no strike legal unless at least 51% of the eligible membership vote in favour would wipe out the huge majority of strikes.

Most strikes take place after ballots actually voted on by a small fraction of the membership.

Compulsory voting for the executives etc would wipe out the SWP and other Trots and far left groups who have come to take over and dominate the unions which are responsible for the majority of strikes.

Eddie 180 said...

I agree that it is time to implement a ban on striking by essential workers.
I also believe it is time that action was taken against some of the more militant Unions, and the intimidation of Union Members into voting in favour of strikes, as well as the intimidation of working employees that choose to cross picket lines.
If an employer intimidated their employees in the way some picket lines, with Union backing, intimidate continuing workers, the Unions would be up in arms, and rightly so.
They would be taking cases to Employment Tribunals, claiming compensation on behalf of intimidated and bullied staff.
It is time employment law was added to to recognise the part Unions play in the workplace, and the damage they can similarly inflict on employees.
Laws should be introduced that ensure that the Union is responsible for the actions of any person acting on behalf of a union, or during Union sponsored industrial action.
Where there is bullying of employees, both the employee and the employer (where they have suffered damage), should be able to claim compensation from the Union.
Cases could be heard at an Employment Tribunal, as they are for employer / employee disputes.
An employer could take a case against a Union, or could support an employee who has suffered intimidation into voting a certain way, or into not crossing a picket line.
It cannot be right in todays society that a willing worker is subjected to name calling, and worse, for crossing a picket line.
The Unions must be held accountable for this intimidation, just as they insist an employer should be for bullying in the workplace.

Rich Johnston said...

How about any voting rules enforced on unions also be enforced on politicians and the electorate as a whole? What if you couldn't form a government if you didn't have the majorty support of the entire country, not just the ones who voted?

Norton Folgate said...

You can't ban strikes when even the government cannot be trusted to uphold its end of an arbitrated binding agreement let alone any other unscrupuolous employer.

Put a 50 - 75% of workforce vote ruling on it but banning strikes just gives dodgy managers and companies licence to take the piss.

AndrewSouthLondon said...

It's time strikers were on the receiving end of their own action. How about shopkeepers, publicans, indeed anyone providing and kind of service to refuse to serve tube train drivers on strike days? Onviously impossible to enforce but a little sign in the window of every establishment "No service for Tube Drivers today" might get the message across to Bob Crow's sheep.

(Paul Halsall: how come you have internet access living in the Nineteenth Century? Remarkable)

bewick said...

@ mostly ordinary

A tit has a use. Bob Crowe doesn't

To others. Unless the law has changed and I missed it then an employer can indeed sack strikers but has to sack them all and not take a few back.
Now it may be self-defeating to sack all striking firemen since there would not, as there seemed to be for BA, a supply of people who could be quickly trained.
So the firemen are blackmailing the employers. And so is it true in most strikes.
How many employers say accept our terms or you're sacked? Pretty well none So the blackmail is one way only Guido! That is no worker has to be a slave. They can just leave.

Jimmy said...

Some people seem to be under the impression that workers in the UK have the right to strike without fear of dismissal. Although this right exists in almost every other European country, it has never existed in UK law.

Grunwick ring any bells? Wapping?

Of course some won't be satisfied until it's made a capital offence.

Jimmy said...

Some people seem to be under the impression that workers in the UK have the right to strike without fear of dismissal. Although this right exists in almost every other European country, it has never existed in UK law.

Grunwick ring any bells? Wapping?

Of course some won't be satisfied until it's made a capital offence.

Andy said...

"Doesn't mean employers shouldn't be able to fire strikers for breach of contract."

Well, in some circumstances they still can.

But the small amount of protection strikers get is in return for the onerous requirements on unions and members to give notice of the strike thus undermining its effect.

And the only other sanction an employee has against an unreasonable employer is to leave their job which somewhat skews the negotiating relationship.

Banning strikes = fascism, end of.

King Athelstan said...

Your right bewick, our GMB convenor is an out and out cock, they wont even have the "cajones" (sic) to ask. (But if they do they should include "Kiss my swingers" as an alternative response.)

Unknown said...

I am no lover of Unions because they are perceived as dinosaurs. Some are run by communists - or at least by people who give evry impression of being communists.
We live in a democracy so these people are "outsiders". So is the "governemnt" oddly enough. The "government" - political party irrelevant - has for 50+ years treated workers in "essential" services like shit. "Government" has assumed that such people have a vocation - in this "government" is mostly right - and will never strike so as not to harm their fellow citizens.
"Government" has used this fact to suppress salaries and impose employment conditions which the private sector would think long and hard before introducing. The effect is that this particular group of public sector workers does not have vast pensions (my own is barely into 5 figures) and ends up paying for the "fat cats" of the sector.
What is needed is for some decent human beings to become politicians, recognise the contribution this group of people make to society, pay them properly in the first place and curb the pay and benefits of bureaucrats who contribute nothing to their fellows.
Continued exploitation by the "government" is no longer an option.

Roger Thornhill said...

"And the only other sanction an employee has against an unreasonable employer is to leave their job which somewhat skews the negotiating relationship."

Yes, skews it back. If I buy my potatoes from a shop and the shop puts up the price or demands I do X or Y to get my potatoes, I need to be able to change shop and stop paying them if I so choose, otherwise it is extortion, theft, breach of contract. If I demand the shop lower prices or serve me on bended knee, the shop, in turn, has the right to show me the door.

A worker is selling not potatoes, but renting their labour, experience. If one demands what the other will not accept, both need to be able to walk away from the deal.

If this is not possible, then one is enslaved.

Curbishly said...

Imagine what would happen if, God forbid, there was a major terror incident on a strike day.

Did you read about one persons experience at the 7/7 bombing at Aldgate?

Where groups of brave firefighters refused to go down to the platform before a risk assessment was made?

Or how survivors pushed past them begging them to go down to the platforms and help people who were dying?

The main purveyors of Health and safety in the Fire Brigade are the Unions and there will be stories coming out of the ongoing inquest of our brave firemen.

The King of Wrong said...

@Paul Halsall:
Yeah, but nobody's forcing them to work - they can always quit.

This is something I've personally done on multiple occasions when I've been in conflict with an employer.

Seems to me like unions and their employers are in bitter and abusive co-dependent relationships and lack the "cojones" to do anything about it other than whine, strike, and indulge in passive-aggressive points scoring. Either split up and move on, or get to marriage counselling (i.e. binding arbitration), but stop trying to get the kids to say they love you more...

Anonymous said...

We can see the way the 'Far Left' responds to the Law on Industrial Strike action by attempting to strip that same law of any teeth whatsoever. As I posted upon my own little site, John Mcdonnell tried and failed with his 'Minor Errors' farce, not because the Bill ran out of time, but because the majority of Labour M.P.s want nowt to do with the wild-eyed bunch he leads.

O'bhoughty said...

phenomenon not phenomena

Jon Gaunt said...

Absolute garbage Iain. It is every working man and woman's right to withdraw their labour.

I'm not one normally to agree with Bob Crow but he is right when he says that it is not his members who got us into this mess but it is them who will pay the highest price.

Cameron and Osborne and the muppets who cheered and applauded them after the announcement of the cuts should hang their heads in shame and so should you for the tone of this article. I thought that we were all in this together,clearly not!