The government plans to prohibit strikes. Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary told the Sunday TelegraphThe government plans to outlaw all industrial action unless there is a minimum staffing level necessary to run different services. This is in response to pressure from the Prime Minister over Partygate. Workers join immigrants and join the EU in the latest culture conflict. adversaire du jour used to distract from the executive’s political travails. But this is more than the political cycles: it is an attack against an essential pillar to democracy.
This is not the first time that the executive has turned its coercive eye on organised labour. Like any large and influential organisation in the world, unions must be treated with healthy scepticism. Organized labour in the UK has faced decades-long persecution. Margaret Thatcher mobilized the state against miners in a way rarely seen outside of wartime in the 1980s. The Mitting Inquiry revealedPolice and security personnel spent enormous resources infiltrating unions. Infiltrating lawful labor organisations (which were not considered to be a threat to violence) was far more difficult than attempting to identify genuine threats like those of the far right. Cameron government imposedSome of the most coercive anti strike legislation in Europe.
International law protects the right to strike in a democracy. Strikers are protected by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, International Covenants on Civil and Political and Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the International Labour Organisation conventions. As a union leader put it, “the difference between a slave and a worker is the latter’s ability to withdraw their labour”. Unions are crucial in securing democratic freedoms. They were instrumental in securing voting rights for working-class people in the UK and protecting civil liberties. The Chartists, the predecessors of the modern union movement, were arguably the UK’s first true democrats. One American politician put it this way: put it, unions:
“…represent a key institution to sustaining democratic gains. Trade unions’ large membership and geographical reach can often help to deepen and broaden support of democratic principles and practices in a country. It is no coincidence that in countries in which there is a free and active trade union movement the movement towards more democratic, more transparent, and more representative governance is more rapid.”
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These are the words of Lorne W. Craner, an assistant secretary of state under George W Bush, and not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
Hence, why do unions cause such an intense animosity?
The answer is power. Unions empower workers and are a threat to the state as well as employers. The UK has a political system where those with influence and money dominate. Big companies, particularly those supported by state subsidy, can dictate the terms and conditions of their workers’ pay. Unions can make their members more equal with their employers by facilitating collective bargaining. Although some unions are more democratically managed than others, they are generally democratically controlled. Ballots for strike action represent a union-wide up-or-down referendum. This democratic legitimacy gives unions the ability to speak with authority on a national stage and gives their members a collective voice they wouldn’t have as individuals. Unions give ordinary citizens a voice in a national discourse that is dominated by the powerful and wealthy.
Striking allows workers to counter the coercive power of the state and employers over them. Threatens of collective labour withdrawal balance the threat of redundancy. When companies and investors threaten to withdraw their money or jobs from the UK if the government pursues policies they don’t like, working people have their own bargaining chip. The right to strike is thus neutralized, thereby reducing the political power of working people.
Because power is essential for a functioning democracy, unions (and strikes!) are important. People with power don’t like to share it and are often more willing to use it to increase their power. When Lord Acton said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, he was referring to the danger of too much power being gathered in the hands of one person or group.
Misrepresentation is one the most powerful tools against strikes. Strikes are often seen as attacks on ordinary people. However, they are one way that ordinary citizens can speak up in a democracy that is increasingly corrupt. Strikes are often covered in media, but they are rarely acknowledged as a last resort when both sides fail to reach an agreement. The employers/government bear the same responsibility for strikes as the strikers. There is an inherent virtue to strikers, particularly those who are willing to sacrifice their own pay (strikers forfeit their wages for days they miss) in order support their colleagues.
The executive has chosen the perfect time to launch its latest attack. With the rail strikes planned to the jubilee the government can label citizens engaging in collective action as unpatriotic. There is a certain irony in television punditscondemningstrikers as for seeking a few more pence on the pound while simultaneously veneratinga family that takes billions from the national purse by dint of birth. We may find that our country is less democratic once we get out of our collective red, blue, and blue fugue.
Sam Fowles is a lawyer and lecturer in law at St Edmund Hall University of Oxford. His book is Overruled: Confronting our Vanishing Democracy in 8 CasesYou can pre-order it. He tweets @SamFowles