The right to strike, the need for a less nuclear option

By Chris Fielding.

As I am sure that everyone in the party believes, the right to strike is an important part of our system of government, but with the majority of strikes seemly affecting the day to day lives of the general public as well as the company in question. It does seem like an alternative is needed which will not affect the public as much as it currently does.

The RMT Union has called numerous strikes in the last month and with many more to come. This  can come across to the public, as the RMT is trying to further their own gains, and not caring one iota about their daily lives. Action’s like this is what allows a Conservative Government to pass measures such as the Trade Union Act, to make it harder for unions to strike.

There must be better ways for a union to withdraw its member’s contribution to improving a company’s profits or to improving a service, that would not majorly negatively affect the general public, as any action that negatively affects the public, with no easily visible way how it will improve their lives in the long run, will of course mean that it will give the transport industry, or any industry, an easy way to demonise the whole union movement, and by association, the Labour Party. In short, in the eyes of some members of the public, a strike, in the case of the transport industry, is just something that will mean that they will get home later and be frustrated at the end of the working day, and they are not overly bothered by the reasons for the strike.

In my opinion, the best way to do this would be to have an alternative to the right to strike which would not affect negatively affect the general public, but would only negatively affect the company in question. A potentially extreme example of this would to allow free transport on the networks that would be going out on strike. So, as we are discussing the RMT here, imagine if instead of London Underground trains not running and the public not being able to get to work, and being frustrated with the union. Instead the ticket barriers were open and everyone could travel for free to work. In this case, the only people that would be affected in this case would be the company in question and its profit margin, and not the public, who have nothing to do with the issues in question.

Or another example would be, in the case of a bus driver strike, the bus driver would still come into work and be paid their usual wages by the company, but all members of the general public on that day would not pay for their travel, so the company would not be making any money from fares on that particular day.

An action like this should hopefully not damage the public perception of unions and the Labour Party. Of course, before such an action is carried out, the union would need to let the public know that it is them and not the transport company that is allowing transport to be free for the day, otherwise this would undo the whole idea of the action. I also believe that it would make the period of industrial action longer, there would not be just one strike, but the union could call its members to take action for maybe a week or more, as the union would not be paying strike pay. The company in question would need to carry on paying their workers their normal salaries for the hours worked, but the company would not receive any profit during the days of action.

Of course, the example that I have given may not be practical in all cases, but I do believe that an alternative is needed to the right to strike that will only affect the company in question, and its finance’s and not the general public, of course this would only work in certain industries and in certain situations.

Otherwise, continuous strikes involving industries which directly affect the public will only serve to further demonise the union movement and by association the Labour Party, this in my opinion will only make it easier for the current government to put through any anti-strike law that they want, as long as they are able to reassure the public that it will improve their daily commute. As shown in the quote from the once and future king Boris Johnson, “…we have seen strikes triggered by a tiny minority that have caused far worse disruption and have caused inconvenience and misery for millions.”

Chris works as On-boarding Consultant – get in touch with him via twitter: @chris_CJF or email

2 thoughts on “The right to strike, the need for a less nuclear option

  1. Peter Goble says:

    I do like this sort of thing, getting a debate going.. As Chris says, some of his suggestions could need refinement, but the ideas put forward make sense. It’s important to acknowledge the real risk that strike action that inconveniences the public will provoke a backlash against organised labour and the Party. Especially when the strikers’ case for action isn’t always given fair exposure by the mainstream media.

    Transport workers are in my opinion hugely undervalued by the travelling public, although individuals such as bus drivers usually get the respect they deserve in my experience. Most other transport employees don’t have time to strike up meaningful relationships with the travelling public, but are the only visible face of the organisation so attract any ill-will towards the company when they don’t deserve it. The stresses and complexities of running the railways safely and as efficiently as possible are surely grossly underestimated by most of us.

    We ought to be thinking more seriously about how to restore the real social value of public service workers in the eyes of the public. I spend a lot of time in France, and pubic service workers here are much better respected and valued in France than in UK. I’ve come to believe that repubicanism is probably the best solution to this quandary. Monarchy distorts the concept of respect with its class hierarchy. and its perversion of honour through the award of titles etc.

    Perhaps the end of Elizabeth’s reign will provide an opportunity for change. I do hope so.

    • chris fielding says:

      Thanks for the positive feedback on the article, I do admit this was written as more of a debate piece, and that the alternative suggestions are slightly weak, and maybe idealistic, but I think the debate is worth having. I agree with the majority of your points.

      One of the best ways to ensure that a public backlash does not occur, is I think to let the public know, through any means that are needed, that all negotiation options have been exhausted. This would probably have to be done outside of a reliance on the media, and news reporting. Maybe taking out adverts to convey the union side of the story, to combat the adverts that train companies take out to tell their side of the story. As is the same with most disputes and elections, it nearly always comes down to PR.

      It is worth remembering that in the UK, train companies do not actually own the tracks that they run on. The train company is a private entity that just rents the tracks from the government, and then runs their service on that, they are not responsible for the maintenance of the railway. That is Network Rail. The only real time that Network Rail is reported in the news is when there seems to be delays or investigations into delays. It would be good if the public were made aware of the day to day activities that mean that they can get to work by 9am everyday.

      The same could be said for restoring the social value of public service workers, the vast majority of whom, it seems to me, do their jobs away from public eye. Public workers only seem to be given attention when there is a problem or an emergency, and so maybe increasing the visibility of the day to day work of the public sector will mean that there is more percieved respect and social value in public work?

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