There was a bit of fuss last Friday when the CIPD seemed to be suggesting that the government should consider banning strikes in essential services. The row rumbled on all day. By the afternoon, union leaders were up in arms accusing the CIPD of currying favour with government ministers.
I couldn’t comment at the time as I was otherwise engaged but the arguments have continued online and Michael Carty pitched in with this piece earlier today, which gives me an excuse to throw my thoughts into the pot.
The background to all this is a series of papers the CIPD is producing on the challenges facing the public sector. Part Three is a report on the state of employee relations in public sector organisations which, it concludes, is pretty dire. Levels of trust between managers and employees are worse than those in the private sector and are likely to deteriorate sharply once the public spending cuts start to bite. There will be job losses, re-structures, redeployments and the removal of long-cherished terms and conditions. Making such sweeping changes in a high-trust environment would be difficult enough. With employee relations already at a low ebb, industrial action in the public sector is almost inevitable.
Which is why the CIPD’s paper presented a series of options which the government might adopt to deal with the fallout from its spending squeeze. These included all the good HR stuff about communication, collaboration and winning hearts and minds but the CIPD acknowledged that even these measures would not completely remove the threat of serious and disruptive industrial action. Therefore, it concluded, the government should consider legislation to change strike ballot requirements, to introduce compulsory arbitration and, as a last resort, to make strikes in essential services illegal.
The report’s tone is calm and measured with no trace of hysteria. Its suggestions sound like the sort of measures any reasonable government should consider when faced with such a challenge. Until, that is, you remember that no peacetime government in modern times has banned strike action.
Apart from Order 1305 which banned industrial action during the Second World War and during the postwar reconstruction, finally being repealed in 1951, no government has considered industrial action enough of a threat that it should be banned. Even in the troubled inter-war years, the government stopped short of an outright ban on strikes in essential services.
Industrial disputes are now at a historically low level. We have been through periods of much worse industrial and economic turmoil than this, yet still no government saw fit to ban industrial action.
Let’s get something clear. This country is not in the middle of a major war. It is not even facing the threat of serious social breakdown. Along with every other developed economy, we have a severe public debt, which must be dealt with in the medium term, and we must come to terms with a longer-term decline in the state’s ability to deliver the sort of public services we have become accustomed to. As I have said before, this is a cause for alarm but not for panic. We are facing a major re-adjustment to our economy and a painful few years of austerity. We are not facing the threat of extinction from an external invasion or from the imminent collapse of our society.
The CIPD has justified its stance arguing that it was simply covering all the options that the government might want to consider. It didn’t do that, though, because it forgot to mention the option of emergency legislation allowing the government to call in the army and shoot pickets dead in the streets. OK, I’m being facetious but do you see what I’m getting at? Why raise the prospect of the sort of draconian measures that no peacetime government has ever used? It just adds to the sense that the country is facing some sort of existential crisis, which it isn’t.
Banning strikes is for when we are faced with mad dictators who want to reduce our country to slavery or when, as may someday happen, climate change makes large parts of the world uninhabitable. We ban strikes when we are dealing with serious threats to our very existence, not when we just have to get public spending down and pay off a huge debt.
So no, CIPD, the government should not even consider banning strikes. We are not at war and we are not dealing with a major emergency. We’re just facing some large debts and severe spending cuts. We’ve dealt with them before without needing to ban strikes or curtail any other civil liberties and we shall do so again.