James Moore: If the CBI wants a union crackdown, firefighters may provoke one


Outlook You may not have heard of AssetCo, a small, but growing British company that specialises in fighting fires. That may quickly change if you have the misfortune to find yourself among the thousands of Londoners who get into a spot of bother on Bonfire Night. Not only does AssetCo provide equipment to the London fire brigade, it also supplies firefighters in the event that the regular ones are unable to perform their duties, perhaps because of a major catastrophe, perhaps because of something else... such as a strike.

Hence the Bonfire Night problem. With 5 November being the brigade's busiest night (and this year there is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, to contend with, too), most people have some sympathy with the men and women who fight fires, which is a dangerous job and a very real life-saver. But in holding a strike on Bonfire Night, their union is playing a dangerous game because that sympathy is likely to be stretched, possibly to breaking point. The Bonfire Night action is using the Bob Crow technique: that is, carefully timing your strike to cause the maximum disruption, discomfort or, in this case, fear to the public, most of whom probably haven't heard about AssetCo and, being unlikely to have experienced its services, will probably be a mite nervous about calling upon its people, however good AssetCo happens to be at the job.

The problem with the firemen's use of the Crow tactic is that it is the sort of thing that could easily backfire, prodding the Government into picking a fight with unions generally. What better way to divert attention from the pain of the Chancellor's cuts than getting into a war with those nasty union barons. That sort of war that could lead to a company such as AssetCo filling its order book rather quickly. It won't have escaped anyone's attention that assorted Conservative ministers have been busy hobnobbing with the CBI, which has been calling loudly for a string of stringent new restrictions on unions and their ability to strike.

Now, I happen to believe that unions play an important role in society and their work is particularly important during times of economic stress (such as now) when employers do not always behave very well. But that role could very easily be undermined by plunging ahead with an ill-conceived and potentially unpopular strike on Bonfire Night. It might also give their enemies some rather dangerous ideas, particularly if AssetCo does its job well. If there is to be a strike, it would be far better to play the magnanimous card by backing down and holding it a couple of days after the date of Guy Fawkes's little party.

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