Why more people should go on strike Strikes are a measure of our freedom

Bankers, miners, nurses ... British workers still want the right to say `no', says Paul Routledge

Share
Related Topics
STRIKES are a good thing. They are an index of freedom in advanced industrial societies. Strikes can shake the world, or nations at any rate, and often for the better.

This is not a fashionable view of the world, certainly not nowadays, and probably only rarely in the past. Because it is also true that strikes can be divisive, humiliating and, in material terms, extremely damaging to those who take part in them.

But people still want to do it, or at least want to have the right to do it. Half a million nurses and midwives are busily divesting themselves of their archaic restrictions on industrial action. The train drivers and railwaymen are about to ballot on a strike, along with London Underground drivers. Staff at Barclays Bank have just held a one-day stoppage. And the government-appointed Certification Officer last week reported that applications for state-funded trade union ballots had increased by 385 per cent in a single year, from 380 to 1,469 in 1994. This sharp rise was "mainly in respect of small industrial action ballots".

Is this the reversal, or a slowing down of recent trends? Is Fred Kite, the shop steward hero of I'm All Right Jack, about to be reincarnated? The UK strike rate used to be well ahead of the average for industrialised nations, but in the last decade it has fallen sharply so that in 1993 we were 10th in a league of 17 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, well behind Canada, Australia, Spain, and Denmark. Our strike rate has been consistently below the European Union average for 10 years. In some years, even the Germans strike more often. The Austrians, the Japanese and the sensible Dutch are consistently more disciplined. The Greeks are the most strike-happy.

But the facts reported by the Certification Officer and the anecdotal evidence of reported strikes suggests that something has not been legislated out of the British psyche. Under successive Conservative Employment Secretaries, there have been no fewer than eight trade union acts since 1980, each narrowing further the scope of trade union powers and making it harder and harder to mount a lawful industrial stoppage. Union officials privately admit that it is "virtually impossible" to call a strike, as strike-prone Arthur Scargill discovered last week when the Court of Appeal banned a series of one-day walkouts by members of the National Union of Mineworkers employed by RJB Mining, owners of the newly privatised coal industry.

It mattered not that the miners had voted overwhelmingly for a strike in a secret postal ballot, had given the required seven days' notice to their employer and had been officially warned by their union that they could be fairly sacked without compensation for going on strike. RJB Mining was granted an injunction halting the industrial action because the NUM had called the stoppages to begin at midnight on 12 June, which was held by the court to be one minute outside the four-week period in which the strike authority had to be put into effect before, in law, it lapsed. If they want to revive their strike plans, the miners must now ballot again.

Jack Jones, the Transport Union leader and post-war colossus of the labour movement, once warned that Edward Heath's ill-fated 1971 Industrial Relations Act would "bring a swarm of black-coated lawyers into industrial relations". Only now is his prediction coming true. "It only takes one member not to get a ballot paper, or one non-member to get a ballot paper, and the employer can get an injunction," grumbled one union official. Other hurdles are only just coming to light. If the NHS workers wish to strike, who is their employer? The NHS or the hospital trust? If they get that wrong, or the courts say they have got it wrong, the health unions, or their members, will find themselves outside the law. A strike in such conditions would put the unions in imminent danger of sequestration and financial ruin. By a thousand and one such Lilliputian legal strands is the strength of organised labour held down.

From the Government's point of view, this is unadulterated good news. Conservative Central Office boasts that in 1993 there were only 187 stoppages due to labour disputes, the lowest number since records began. The party's handbook gloats: "Since 1979, industrial relations in Britain have been totally transformed. Gone are the days when trade union activists would wreak economic havoc with almost contemptuous ease. In the 1970s, other countries looked at British industrial relations and either despaired or cackled. Now they regard them with envy ... Britain has become, in the words of Jacques Delors, `a paradise for inward investment'."

Some may find this picture of paradise in the workplace a little difficult to recognise. As Labour's Economic Commission has just pointed out, "an epidemic of insecurity" is sweeping both private and public sector workplaces. The fortunate who have a job are scared witless of losing it, particularly since unemployment is now so often a prelude to losing one's home.

Yet people are still willing to walk out and risk everything, if they can find a path through the legal labyrinth to do it. Why? It cannot be the money. For a low-paid hospital worker, the difference between a 1 per cent rise and 3 per cent may be worth having, but it is surely not enough to put your job at hazard and lose a good deal more income while doing it.

"Strikes today are never really about pay," said an official of the general union GMB. "That may be the issue that tips it over. But it is really about bad industrial relations or bloody-minded management or generally low morale. In the NHS, the pay offer is seen as an insult, but nobody goes on strike over 2 per cent. What the health workers are saying is that the NHS is being run down and they are being kicked. People just get fed up."

Perhaps I should declare an interest, or what the police would call "form". During 30 years as a journalist, I have been on strike twice, both at the Times. The first, in 1980, was over management's refusal to honour an arbitration award. It lasted five sunny August days and we "won", though the stoppage was later cited as the reason the Thomson Organisation sold the paper to Rupert Murdoch, a theory I have never bought. The second time was in 1986, when I joined the Wapping dispute. This lasted five months; we were comprehensively thrashed and I was dismissed.

In neither case was it a fun experience, more to be endured than enjoyed. But I do not regret it, and I have never yet found a miner who regrets taking part in the Great Strike of 1984-85. This is not a fake stoicism, still less an alibi for doing something silly that later you are rather shamefaced about. It is more the shaving-mirror argument: if you don't do it, what will you think of yourself?

So I understand why people are still willing to take that risk. The freedom to say "no" is still a fundamental human right.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee