Strike it Stupid


This call has gone out, and it seems Len McCluskey is finally ready to admit to wanting the revolution he has secretly coveted; but in the name of democracy, I seriously doubt it.

The proposed changes to the industrial relations and strike laws are of course bound to provoke a strong backlash from the left and unions, who will want to protect methods of industrial action and the power that they wield as a result of them; this is uncontroversial, understandable and even if you are someone who bares no love for the Trade Union movement, completely forgivable.

However to claim as McCluskey does, that one of his priorities is democracy is a deliberate attempt to obstacate the argument and make strikers feel better bringing our capital to a grinding halt and inconveniencing decent people in the process. Not only are the proposed changes reasonable, but striking itself is an undemocratic act.

At its heart, the act of striking is one group of people attempting to impose it’s will on another group of people; however valiant and noble the cause, however much of a ‘David and Goliath’ story it might be, that is still the intention. Now, I am not saying that trade movements are unnecessary, governments will of course try and impose their will to (it’s sort of their job); but of course they enjoy a greater degree of success because of their ability to legislate.

Thus, it stands to reason that some sort of body like trade unions need to exist to keep the government and its decisions in check. In fact, that is the point. The power of government in institutionalised, there is due process, a democratically elected parliament holds them to account and after all, the government itself has to seek a mandate to govern in the first place. It seems to me that these reforms are simply intending to apply the same principle of checks and balances to Trade Unions, in order to make them a more ‘tailored fit’ to the democratic process.

Now many of you would say that’s the point, striking only happens when democracy fails. Fair point, and I concede that perhaps it is the one McCluskey is making. However, if McCluskey insists on equating an attack on the unions as an attack on democracy, then shouldn’t he be a bastion for democratic principles? While I do not wish to straw-man this argument entirely, lets look at the democratic credentials of the man who wants to launch this apparent ‘crusade’:

  • Re-elected as General Secretary of UNITE by ‘Two-Thirds‘ of the vote, but only on a 15.2% turnout. His mandate extends only to 9.5% of his 1.4million members he claims to represent.
  • By putting pictures and letters of support for Ed Miliband in many of UNITE’s ballot papers it is universally accepted even by Labour itself, that UNITE played a crucial role in swinging the Labour leadership away from the PLP and the party membership’s decision, who both voted by a majority for David Miliband; and it is almost exclusively why Labour was forced to change their leadership election process to a one-member one-vote system.
  • Although unconfirmed, it is still alleged that McCluskey tried to influence the selection of the Labour candidate in Falkirk; and at the very least has been obstructive in the process of moving forward an investigation into such goings on.
  • Jim Murphy, as part of his resignation speech as Scottish Labour Leader drew attention to the disproportionate effect Len McCluskey is personally having on the Labour party and the Labour movement more widely, over and above the concerns of individual members of UNITE.

As you can see, a man like Len McCluskey claiming to be a champion for democracy should be treated with some suspicion; and of course a degree of amusement. However, the more important question is, how can UNITE criticise the principles of these reforms themselves, if they claim to be interested in democracy:

1.) “Under the Trade Union Bill, a turnout of at least 50% of members will be needed to authorise industrial action.”

It is obvious why anybody who respected the value of democracy would welcome such a reform. Remember the protests in London recently about the incoming Tory government? Many of the placards handed out by socialist groups, ones who I’m sure UNITE would be keen to support if asked, were quick to point out that the Tory government only has 25% of the public mandate. Well,  of course this is a shame and many want to close the democratic deficit so that mandates are clearer, but at least the turnout was two thirds of the electorate. For UNITE to join in the admonishment of what they see as an illegitimate government, while in the same breath arguing against the a reform that would clearly require them to reduce their own democratic deficit, is transparently hypocritical.

2.) “But in key public services the bar is higher – with 40% of those entitled to vote having to support a strike.”

While rules differ across different democracies, it is a pretty universal principle that for anything to pass in a legislature it needs at least a simple majority of 51%; on many important decisions, such as constitutional changes, there is often a requirement that at least 66% of members need to agree. So why then should Len McCluskey, self-proclaimed defender of the faith, have a problem with being held to a much lower 40% threshold; surely, these thresholds are an important part of a fair democratic process?

Well of course he doesn’t agree, because it would expose a key weakness of the modern trade union movement, their artificially inflated memberships. Unions offer a great deal of legal and financial protection for their members and as a result, many join unions to gain these benefits, without necessarily knowing or even supporting the overall views of the organisation. Teaching is a perfect example of this; as a paid up member of the NUT, I can assure you that I do not subscribe or partake in their programme of strikes and Gove-hate, yet I hold my nose and sign up because it is necessity of the job.

There is absolutely no doubt, both anecdotally and given the extremely low turnout during McCluskey’s re-election, that many of UNITE’s 1.4 million members are in this exact position; non-active members who unwittingly lend their tacit support to UNITE and its socialist policies, without necessarily allying themselves with them directly. If anything, this reform will force unions to be much more inclusive and democratic, now that they will have to seek, consult and convince a greater degree of their base.

3.) “It would force unions to give employers 14 days notice of strike action and allow them to bring in agency staff to cover for striking workers.”

It is easy to see why the unions are aghast at this particular proposal. The ability for businesses to bring in agency staff would severely reduce the impact of the disruption that strike action causes, and thus reduce the power of the unions to bring whole industries to a grinding halt and hold people to ransom; I suppose that in the main, this is the entire point of the proposal. However, I do not see this as the killing blow to unions that they obviously do, because in reality I think that striking does far more harm to industrial relations with the public than good.

Most groups that strike, do so because they feel they undervalued, underpaid or overworked. If there is a point to striking, surely it is in drawing attention to these issues and in doing so gain public support  for the cause. However in my experience, it only serves to make the problem worse than it already is:

I’ll start with underpaid. It doesn’t make sense to me that if you are worried about being underpaid, your solution is to take another unpaid day off work. Many will argue that this is just another tool of big interests to control their workforce, but this is at worst conspiratorial and most innocently, ignorant to the fact that their bosses are people too with their own concerns. People open businesses to make money, the profit motive is a fact of life and if it is a fact of life you reject, then I suppose we are just operating on different planes of existence. They give out jobs because there is a job that needs doing and if you don’t do it its completely unreasonable to expect to be paid.

If they aren’t paid for striking, and they are striking because of low pay, they are compounding their own problem, the job still needs doing, and if we are ever going to close our productivity gap in the UK of course we should allow firms to fill those jobs through temporary agency work. I have yet to be convinced why the right of a worker to strike is any more sacred than the right for a businessman to keep his business running.

You will ask, “well, what are people supposed to do about low pay then?”. I shall always refer to an anecdote from my father on this. Back in 1973 he was working on the floor of a rubber factory, unionised, but ignored the strike ballot when called and was the only remaining worker on the floor. While you can imagine this made him very unpopular with his fellow workers, he received a pay rise as a result. Business people are not all in a conspiracy to subjugate the working classes, they just want somebody who is willing and able to complete the job they need doing. Focusing more on that and less on striking would be a much greater route to improved industrial relations and good pay for good work.

Secondly, if the objective of a strike is to win ‘hearts and minds of the public’ and make the profession more valued, then I would suggest that striking is the worst possible way to do this. To again use the example of teaching, inconveniencing your student’s parents by closing down a school may be a great way to draw attention to the crippling workload and pension changes, but for every person it helps convert to the cause it also alienates another because you have ruined their day. Now, I would suggest that this agency worker reform is actually a great thing for those who feel undervalued and they should welcome it with open arms; I can promise you that after a few days of cover-teachers in a school, it would be clear to senior management, parents and the wider public how valuable qualified teaching staff are; expand the analogy to any industry you like.

Lastly, overworked, its an issue that I am well aware of. However, I can tell you the hardest week I’ve had in my job is the week after I came back from being written off work. The work that I had to do when I was off still had to be done when I got back, I just had less time to get it done than before. At least with allowing agency cover, you will in theory come back to less of a disaster. Cutting your nose off to spite your face and striking for striking sake is no good for anybody; if you are worried about agency workers breaking your strike and doing your job, then I’m afraid you obviously aren’t as valuable a worker as you think you are.

So where does this leave us? Well for me, I’m left confused as to all the noise around these changes. Either McCluskey is not a lover of democracy after all, in which case we should be weary and want to restrict his and other’s power further in the ways outlined by the government. That, or he does value it, and he should have much less of a problem with them than he is claiming. Yes, the democratic rights of unionised workers needs to be recognised, but it’s the government’s responsibility to protect the rights of millions of people to send their children to school, get on public transport or turn on the lights in their homes; if these are their proposals, I can’t see what is unreasonable about them.