Adrian Hamilton: Self-defeating, but not irrational

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The Independent Online

It's a fair bet that the public will have little sympathy for the rail union over the post-Easter strike, any more than they have for the strike by BA cabin crew this weekend or this week's day of action by civil servants.

When so many are suffering the pains of recession, of threatened (and actual) job losses and pay curbs, if not cuts, the sight of workers kicking against the pricks and causing serious inconvenience to the travelling public is hardly likely to arouse understanding, let alone support.

The strikes may be ultimately self-defeating, but not irrational. Spring is always a time of labour unrest as contracts come up for renewal. But what has given it particular edge this time is a general election in the offing. To some commentators this may make the strikes all the madder. They can only harm the Labour Government which the unions support.

But it is precisely because they could harm the Government that the unions are embarking on a round of confrontation. If you are going to strike – most especially in the public sector – do it now when ministers may intervene to pressure both sides for a settlement, rather than after the election when the public expenditure cuts will bite. Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson or Lord Adonis may see the need politically to condemn the strikers, but they are also working the phones begging the employers, as much as the employees, to come to terms.

Nor are the employers immune from pursuing their own interests by ramping up the confrontation. At this time they know they can count on public support, so now is the moment to take the initiative and unilaterally force change. It's not for nothing that strike ballots have been carried by substantial majorities of the work force.

Wrong-headed the disputes may be. Self-destructive they may turn out. But they are not irrational nor without cause.