Banning strikes. Again.

Two months ago, Dominic Raab accused judges of “ivory tower logic” after they ruled that the decision to leave the European Union, based on the votes of 37 percent of the electorate, needed the approval of parliament.

He seems to have changed his opinion now though. On Sunday, he and 49 like-minded Tory MPs called for judges to overrule strike ballots if they deemed the proposed action not to be “reasonable and proportionate”.  Judges, it seems, are not so ivory towered that they cannot rule on industrial disputes.

The government’s Trade Union Act, which was supposed to be the answer to all this industrial militancy, has not yet been implemented but already there are signs that it might not have much impact. The various forms of industrial action called by a number of unions just before Christmas were supported by majorities that would be within the proposed new law. Increasing the ballot threshold to 40% will not necessarily reduce the number of strikes. It might even raise turnouts, thereby strengthening the union negotiators’ hands.

The anti-union MPs have therefore moved on. If workers still insist on taking industrial action, the only thing to be done is to stop pussyfooting around and ban it altogether.

The trouble with strike bans, though, is that, quite often, they don’t work. And the trouble with giving judges the power to rule on industrial relations is that they don’t always see things the employers’ way.

The often cited ban on transport strikes in New York is an interesting example. The quid pro quo of the employees not being able to take industrial action is that the law makes it very difficult for employers to change anything without union agreement. This has led to fossilised terms and conditions. Even with industrial action outlawed, New York has struggled to introduce driver only trains. Most still operate with a conductor.

Where strikes are banned, workers often come up with more ingenious ways of protesting, such as refusing to collect fares, forgetting their driving licences on the same day or flash mobbing shops. Social media makes such things easier to organise. This sort of action is much more difficult to control. With a balloted strike at least there is some warning, allowing employers and passengers to make contingency plans. With something like a sick-out, you wouldn’t know anything about it until you turned up at the station on a cold Monday morning to find that no trains were running.

Perhaps this is why, since the 19th century, no British government has ever banned strikes in peacetime. You can’t legislate against industrial conflict. Industrial action provides a safety valve in the absence of which, the conflict will simply manifest itself in other less manageable and often more disruptive forms.

As it will have enough on its plate with Brexit, the government is unlikely to have the resources available to draft pointless legislation and it will not want to pick a fight with the trade unions at such a critical time. The proposal by Mr Raab and friends probably won’t get much further than a letter to the Telegraph. None of which means we won’t see similar rants in future though. There is a long running tradition of right-wing MPs trying to fight the day before yesterday’s battles. If you have nothing new to say, you can always get some cheap publicity by attacking the unions.

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16 Responses to Banning strikes. Again.

  1. John says:

    These disputes reveal a government which is even more extreme than the one led by Thatcher.
    The rail disputes are being orchestrated by the Department of Transport.
    The NHS disputes are being orchestrated by the Secretary of State for Health.
    This all ties in with Tory ideological diehards who want to see the state diminished.
    Many back bench Tory MPs have substantial investments in private healthcare companies.
    Richard Branson now has more than 200 healthcare contracts at public expense.
    Privatisation is being promoted wherever and whenever it can be by this Tory government.
    Even if it turns out to be very poor value for money and is less efficient and less economic.
    Leaving the EU provides them with the “freedom” to ransack the public sector to the benefit of themselves and all their tax-dodging friends, who are grateful donors to the Tory party.
    If you want to see real corruption, look no further than this current Tory government.

  2. Jim says:

    Union members in monopoly public services should have the right to strike when I as a taxpayer (funding them) have an equal right to take my money away from funding them. Until then as I’m forced to pay, they should be forced to work.

    • John says:

      There are alternative modes of transport available, as many real commuters can tell you.
      It is not the rail unions or rail workers who are forcing this situation on to the public.
      It is the rail company employers and the Department of Transport who are doing that.
      if you are unhappy about this situation, stop supporting this rubbish government.
      As for you funding unions, most of your money is going to foreign transport companies.
      They then use your money to subsidise rail and bus fares in their own countries.
      In Poland – for example – travel costs are one-tenth what they are in the UK.
      See what privatisation leads to?

      • Jim says:

        I wasn’t so much thinking about Southern Rail, they’re sort of private sector, in that there are as you rightly point out, other ways of travelling.

        I was thinking more of people like doctors, nurses, teachers, firemen, police, local government etc etc. I can’t stop funding their salaries by withdrawing my taxes, so why should they be able to take my money but refuse to work? I can withdraw my money from Southern Rail and spend it on busses, taxis, buying a car etc. I can’t do that if my GP goes on strike.

        • John says:

          Strikes by workers in the public sector are usually in response to measures adopted by central government, which is elected into office by taxpayers.
          They adopt policies – they claim – on behalf of taxpayers.
          The previous Cameron government opted to pursue a policy of austerity and cuts.
          The current May government seems to be going out of its way to run down public services to undermine public confidence in them so that it will be easier to privatise most of them.
          The present dire state of the NHS and social care in this country is a clear case of this.
          Ultimately, industrial disputes are being caused largely by central government actions.
          If you are unhappy about this then you should vote them out and not blame the workers.

          • Jim says:

            What If I want to spent my tax payments in other way, just like I can with Southern Rail (or any other private company where the workers go on strike)? Why are the public sector workers allowed to individually withdraw their labour, but I have to have my tax payments lumped in with the entire rest of the electorate? On that basis we should all get to vote on whether the nurses (for example) could go on strike. How about that? All taxpayers get a vote on a public sector strike, not just the workers? If we can’t withdraw our tax payments we should get a say too.

          • John says:

            Your say is your vote.
            If you vote for governments with the kind of policies outlined above you will end up with them causing industrial disputes.
            If you are unhappy about disrupted public services then don’t vote for governments which pursue policies that promote disruption – like the present one.
            It really is that straightforward.

          • John says:

            You don’t get to choose how your tax payments are spent.
            That decision is made for you by tax-demanding governments and authorities.
            They can compound this by pursuing policies that deny you the very services you want and need.
            That is why everyone – including you – should be very careful about who you vote for.

          • Jim says:

            What if I just want public sector workers to do the job my taxes pay them to, end of story? How do I achieve that? By voting for a government who passes a law saying that they can’t strike perhaps?

            If my only outlet to control how public sector workers behave is via the ballot box rather than via my spending power, then I am entitled to vote for (and get) political control of the public sector.

            You can’t have it both ways – either I can withdraw my control of the public sector personally via my individual tax funding, or I can only control the public sector via my vote (with others of course), and those voters can legitimately collectively vote for a government that bans strikes. And you don’t have a democratic leg to stand on.

          • John says:

            Your taxes are not allocated to anything specific; they simply go into one big “pot” to meet all general government expenditure.
            You have no power whatsoever to decide how the money you have paid in taxes is spent.
            You should stop deluding yourself that you have any choice at all as to how your taxes are spent.
            In theory, you already have the political power to determine who forms the government, based upon the policies enumerated in the election manifesto.
            You – that is – along with all the other millions of voters.
            That’s it. That is all you can do. No more than that.
            You just have to face up to your essential powerlessness.

          • Jim says:

            Well perhaps if I as a provider of tax revenue am utterly at the mercy of the State who taxes me, then those who are the recipients of those taxes are equally at the mercy of the State who employs them, and as such if the State decides they cannot strike, then thats all OK then?
            And you haven’t answered my question – if the only control the taxpayer has over the public sector is via the voting booth, presumably you agree that its perfectly OK for the taxpayers en masse to vote for a government who will ban strikes in the public sector?

          • John says:

            Are you really so incapable of understanding reality?
            In the same way you are, governments are legally bound by laws.
            The law – at present – provides public sector workers with the legal right to withdraw their labour.
            You – on the other hand – do not have a legal right to withdraw your taxes from government.
            Are you sure you understand the distinctions between the two situations?
            To ban public sector strikes would require full electoral support for an election manifesto pledge.
            How many public sector workers are there?
            How many of them would vote for such measures?
            Any political party running on such policies would risk total elimination.
            Do you understand that?
            Ultimately, you – as just one individual – count for virtually nothing in any of this.
            You are just going to have to lump it.
            End of.

  3. P Hearn says:

    The irony with the Southern strike is the management is taking the door button away from the guards who are likely still to be on trains in 20 years, and giving the job to the drivers who will doubtless soon be automated away by Google, Siemens et. al.

    Computers can and do fly 747s from London to New York (admittedly minus take-off) – they can run the 7:23 from Warblington to Waterloo (change at Havant). Can’t wait to see what the dispute will look like when that comes to pass. The unions will doubtless claim guards “are being forced to take on additional door opening and closing responsibilities that have traditionally been carried out by drivers”.

    Southern needs to be disbanded forthwith, and the franchise handed to someone else who can start again with a fresh management and workforce. It’s not working, and given that the safety regulator has approved the routes for driver-only operation, (and others already operate the same trains on the same lines in this manner), the only problem is Southern itself. Any other business would cease to exist if it gave such poor service – so should Southern.

    • David says:

      Precisely !
      Anyone who believes the union rhetoric it’s about safety is just being naive ,at best .
      The notion that ‘industrial action’ is justified just because it is , as this blog seems to suggest , is just being obtuse.

  4. Andrew Mayer says:

    I’m guessing you’re not a Southern Rail commuter. In order to get to work, and get my child to school on ASLEF strike days I’m currently getting up at 05:00 and have been either forking out for a hotel or sleeping on friends floors. And I’m lucky, I can do that. It’s not though I think good for my child’s wellbeing or education.

    Others are not so lucky. Some people can’t, are losing pay, or their jobs entirely. And it’s mostly people who are paid considerably less than train drivers. This is in relation to a dispute where no jobs are under threat and no public safety question arises that survives even cursory logic or scrutiny. The only real safety concern in this dispute is the increased risk to passengers crammed onto platforms, freezing, or pushed onto the roads, which are substantially less safe than rail.

    If a definition of ‘disproportionate action’ were possible, multi-day shut downs of train services for 300,000 people over who gets to push a button to open doors would surely qualify.

    In respect of the disreputable role of the DFT, GTR and Southern in this dispute. One is an arm of the elected Government, I don’t recall voting for the RMT to decide on rail policy. The other two have done commuters few favours, but it is entirely unclear how changing them addresses this dispute. Either there needs to be binding arbitration to resolve issues like DOO or the Government will have to change strike laws in other ways.

    You attempt to make a case that such things don’t work. Well I guess when facing a militant Union hell bent on playing syndicalist power games with their members and the public, that’s probably true. Quite why the Government should give such organisations privileged protection in law from the consequences of their own militancy is less clear.

  5. Pingback: Trouble is brewing… | daryanblog

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