Boris and the ghost of militancy past

In what some are seeing as a veiled challenge to David Cameron, Boris Johnson has attacked the trade unions. He is demanding a 50 percent threshold for strike ballots, further restrictions on picketing and, effectively, the banning of all-out strikes in ‘essential’ public services.

To support his arguments, he draws on the myth of the militant trade union leaders forcing people to go on strike.

What we don’t want to see as unions start to flex their muscles in the autumn is a return to the unfair and unnecessary strikes and ballots that put a terrific psychological  burden on people who don’t want to take strike action.

Rrright… So simply having to vote in a ballot puts people under pressure does it? Surely the strike ballot is the chance for the people who don’t want to strike to say so.

He goes on:

There are hard-working people on London’s transport system who are unnerved by what is going on. There are intimidating people who stop them getting to work, or a strike is called on the basis of a very small proportion of the relevant workforce.

There are already criminal laws against intimidatory picketing, so if Boris has any evidence of this, he should be encouraging people to take their cases to court.

Then there’s this:

People have a human right to withdraw their labour. But we have to think very carefully about how it is done and the effect on people who aren’t in the ballot and suddenly find they’re co-opted into a strike they don’t support.

This is utter rot! Nobody can be forced to go on strike. Furthermore, if you haven’t been balloted you can’t go on strike, or, at least, not on a legally protected strike. To go on strike, workers must have been balloted. Even then, if your union wins its strike ballot, you are still not obliged to go on strike. Your union is forbidden from taking any action against you for not going on strike.

The suggestion that people can be excluded from a ballot and ‘co-opted’ into a strike against their will is, therefore, no more than a fairy story.

Such things might have happened in the 1970s but, as Boris of all people should know, the  Thatcher and Major governments put a stop to all that.

Nowadays trade union ballots, both for industrial action and leadership elections, must be carried out by an independent body, usually the Electoral Reform Society. Members vote in secret, at home. The processes are at least as democratic as those we use to elect politicians.

If people go on strike they do so because they want to. If unions have militant leaders like Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, it is because their members want them there or, at least, don’t feel strongly enough to vote against them.

As for the proposal to ban strikes, this is just alarmist nonsense. Britain has never banned strikes in peacetime. Industrial action was outlawed during the Second World War but even during the troubled inter-war period, the government stopped short of an outright strike ban. If, during previous periods of economic turmoil and industrial unrest, governments have never banned strike action, why, when strikes are at an all-time low, does it need to do so now?

Even John Redwood, the Pol Pot of Thatcherism, has said there is no need for an anti-union vendetta, as has Norman Tebbit, the author of many of the laws which make Boris’s stories of forced strike action so implausible.

Boris’s attempt to look like a hard man is actually rather pathetic. He has picked on a very small problem and tried to blow it up into a massive issue – a straw dragon that he can then claim only he has the will to vanquish.

That said, if he were to implement his anti-union programme, he might be surprised by the results. There is nothing like an assault on union rights for stirring the apathetic members into action. Anti-union rhetoric always assumes that the people who don’t vote in strike ballots are against taking action. It may be that the need to get a 50 percent vote focuses people’s minds. The threat of legal restrictions might focus their minds even further. There is a lot of anger against the government’s austerity measures at the moment. Disproportionate and unnecessary trade union legislation might well lead to more militancy, not less.

Drawing on stories from the 1970s to create a myth of union barons forcing reluctant members to strike, is a cheap trick. Boris should beware of summoning up the monster of militancy past. It might just turn round and bite him.

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5 Responses to Boris and the ghost of militancy past

  1. Pingback: Boris and the ghost of militancy past - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Boris has long modelled himself on that other great opportunist, Churchill: the self-aggrandising journalism and cavalier attitude to the truth (e.g. Hillsborough); the media-whore compulsions (Boris coat-tailing drug busts is just the modern version of Churchill turning up at the siege of Sidney Street); the grandiose and irresponsible schemes (from the Dardanelles campaign to Boris Island); the over-rehearsed schoolboy wit (which usually serves to distract from his policy incoherence); the economic pliability (Boris is the City’s man, as Churchill was – disastrously – over the gold standard) etc.

    As he prepares his inevitable bid for leadership of the Tory party, Boris is now keen to position himself marginally to the right of Cameron and press a few hot buttons among the faithful. Having a pop at the unions, and specifically demonising Bob Crow, has clear echoes of Churchill’s belligerence in relation to the Tonypandy riots and later the General Strike. The irony is that Churchill advanced the cause of trade unionism with his support for the Trade Disputes Act 1906, and later through his support for war socialism. He was also notoriously amenable to settling union demands in his final stint as PM in ’51-55, just as Boris was happy to buy off the RMT for the Olympics.

    The first time as tragedy (a lot of people died as a result of Churchill’s mistakes), the second time as farce.

  3. VS says:

    Indeed. I can’t understand why Tories think abstaining in a strike ballot means a trade union member is against a strike. Do they think that all the people who abstained in the general election (or the London Mayoral one) are against the Tory government or Boris’ mayoralty? If so, then Boris doesn’t have a mandate and only the handful of MPs who got a majority of the whole electorate to vote for them have a mandate!

    Also, for all this talk about “psychological” pressure on people to go on strike – there is also psychological pressure from managers and the press (esp in transport disputes) on workers to go into work!

    Given that a strike is about workers fighting together for better terms & conditions, it is right that the workers in the sector involved _do_ strike if a strike is called, since they will benefit if the strike is successful. To not strike and then benefit from the better terms & conditions that strikers have fought for is free-loading off their effort and sneakily taking advantage of your colleagues who lost pay striking. The Tories are bothered by the (mythical?) cases of the voluntarily unemployed who free load off the taxpaying working public, but not by the fact that non-union members (and union members who cross picket lines) benefit from the struggles of strikers. Highly inconsistent!

  4. “To support his arguments, he draws on the myth of the militant trade union leaders forcing people to go on strike.”

    This is no myth- have you forgotten the 1970’s??? Militant trade union leaders were close to bringing Britain to it’s knees then.

    But the real union we need to fight is not the trade union, no the real problem is the European Union!

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