Ban strikes? Are we facing invasion or something?

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1305 which banned industrial action during the Second World War and during the postwar reconstruction, finally being repealed in 1951, no government has considered industrial action enough of a threat that it should be banned.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.

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6 Responses to Ban strikes? Are we facing invasion or something?

  1. Pingback: Ban strikes? What, are we at war or something? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Elaine Young says:

    I agree absolutely with the argument outlined. I work with a number of public sector organisations and the problems within the sector could be resolved completely simply by improving communication between managers, employees and trade unions. However, there seems to be little or no will to do this leaving the prospect of a continuing downward spiral in Employee Relations.

  3. I suggest the basic moral or philosophical basis for the right to strike is much weaker than Rick suggests. The fact that this right is now well established or entrenched in 2010 U.K. proves nothing. The right to feed Christians to hungry lions in Ancient Rome was well established at one point, but I’m not in favour of lions eating Christians.

    Trade unions will of course try to portray the right to strike as means whereby downtrodden exploited public sector workers defend their standard of living, or some such clap trap. This is laugh given that public sector workers get 30% more than private sector workers according to a recent study by Policy Exchange. And this pay differential is not explained by superior qualifications of public sector staff.

    But if you’re keen on trade union type rights, do you think that self employed plumbers in any city you care to mention are entitled to up their charges by 50% and stop “scab” plumbers coming in to undercut them (including Polish plumbers)? And if not, why not?

  4. Rick says:

    Ralph, thanks for your comment, even though all your points are completely irrelevant to what was in the post.

    I don’t know what you were trying to demontrate with the analogy between the right to strike and the right to feed Christians to lions but it was lost on me.

    Public sector salaries are irrelevant too. Strikes occur in both public and private sectors and essential services, by any definition, covers workers in both sectors.

    As for plumbers, they are self-employed so its more difficult for them to organise, though there have been examples of self-employed groups organising to protect their pay and conditions, just as campanies organise to form cartels.

    But none of this is really relevant to the issue under discussion – the suggestion that the government should ban strikes using the sort of legislation usually reserved for wartime. I see no justification for a ban. Lions, public sector salaries and plumbers might be subjects that interest you but they haven’t done anything to convince me that the government should consider banning strikes.

  5. Pingback: How to ruin staff side relationships « Karen Wise's HR Blog

  6. Pingback: How to ruin staff side relationships « Karen wise

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