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
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The Independent Online
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.