Striking a balance: The right to withdraw one’s labour is fundamental - but too often it is exercised undemocratically


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“Strikes? What strikes?” is probably the most rational reaction to the Government’s plans to tighten still further Britain’s labour laws – virtually unchanged from the Thatcher-Major era of reform, and famously described by Tony Blair as the toughest in Europe.

Industrial relations in Britain really are a tale of “two nations”. Across the private sector these days, trade unionism is mostly irrelevant, and strikes are rare. Newer recruits to the workforce, born long after the heyday of Arthur Scargill, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, have little idea of what trade unions are, and possess none of the “class consciousness” that might have driven their parents and grandparents to join one. During the Great Recession, unions in manufacturing co-operated very effectively with their bosses to limit job losses through pay restraint; their efforts made that recession less painful in terms of the rise in unemployment than all of its predecessors. They did not go on strike.

By contrast, in the public sector – and in particular the Royal Mail, schools, local authorities, the railways and London Underground – the unions seem as mighty as ever.

And as maladroit in their tactics. With impeccably bad timing, the RMT-led strike on the Tube last week probably turned much of the London media and the chattering classes in favour of restricting industrial action in “essential services”, which was the main thrust of the Conservative proposals.

For a change, the Tube strike was remarkably solid: with tactical sense like that, the unions really don’t need enemies. The truth about strikes in the public sector is that they very often hit the poorest hardest. In the case of the London transport dispute, those in middle-class professions were much more likely to have been able to work at home or pay for a taxi than those in low-paid jobs.

In the country more widely, it seems axiomatic that the most vulnerable people in care and hospital and children most in need of educational opportunity do worst when their carers, nurses and teachers go out on strike.

An adjustment to the margin required for strike action in some of these services seems a sensible way to take account of the disproportionate power trade unions can wield.

It is also worth recognising that some trade unions can be unduly influenced by political groups who have their own agendas to serve. A clear majority on a clearly healthy turnout obtained through a secret ballot is much the best mandate for effective industrial action in any event. 

The right to withdraw one’s labour is a fundamental human right. Yet it is a complicated business to apply that right in the real world and in some absolute sense. Few, for example, would argue the armed forces should have a right to strike, and not many would agree that it is sensible for the police and fire service to be able to take industrial action, because of the threat to other human rights – the right to life and protection of property (just imagine if the police had been on strike in the riots of 2011).

Preserving the right of a workforce to take industrial action, while making that step a necessarily difficult and properly considered one, would seem to answer the question of how much power the unions should have.