They’re funny things strikes. On the one hand the democrat right to withdraw Labour via a vote to strike is the cornerstone of many a democracy (if not all?) but on the other governments of every colour waste no time in denigrating and criticising every single strike that could possibly be made. They do this while using the International Development budget to fund the development of trade unions in foreign countries to help counter abuses of the workforce.
Which leads me to ask, when, and over what issue, is it OK to strike, particularly in the eyes of a government?
The bin strikes in Leeds received support from the public, although there was a sense that the longer they went on the more support was expected to drain away.
The public sector strikes over pensions and cuts also received majority support, but over a prolonged period of striking would be expected to drop.
Ed Miliband is currently getting criticised from the Tories because he is refusing to ‘condemn‘ the proposed fuel strikes, even though he has gone out of his way to say they shouldn’t go ahead.
Of course, this is mud slinging pure and simple from a Tory party desperate to turn attention away from a) a budget that has two headline tax policies, a tax cut for millionaires and a tax hike for low and middle income pensioners, and also the cash for access scandal that should be subject to a full investigation given the intimation that the Tory party was helping foreign donors find ways round the law to donate to them.
Nonetheless a fuel strike is never going to be popular with the country and fuel prices can affect government popularity, so the Tories have sensed their moment to turn the tables on Labour and our funding by the Trade Unions (democratic organisations with millions of members) to shift attention from them and their donors (millionaire businessmen who are offered access to the policy making process inside No. 10 Downing Street).
Leaving aside the issue of popularity though, at what point are the workers behaving acceptably in enacting their democratic right to strike? At what point would, or could a government or politician reasonably say ‘we support this strike’ or even ‘we support their right to strike’, if ever?
The union concerns are ostensibly on healthy and safety issues, though Francis Maude suggests their documents focus more on pay. Naturally both sides will be trying to smear the other so it’s difficult to ascertain the true picture, but let’s say it is wholly about health and safety concerns, aren’t these the sorts of issues we should support strike action on?
If health and safety is poor then an accident can lead to loss of life so surely unions should be standing up for decent health and safety practises?
If it’s about pay and conditions then that’s another matter entirely (though even then that’s not to say a strike would never be reasonable) but at what point would a politician intervene and say;
“You know what, I’d rather these strikes didn’t go ahead, because of the disruption they will cause millions of families across the country. However, the employees of xx are well within their rights to strike, provided it is properly balloted, so while I won’t condemn them enacting their democrat right to strike I would strongly urge all sides to do everything possible to avoid it.”
I know, it’s unlikely to say the least. But the issues over the fuel strike have got me wondering at what point a strike becomes the business of government to interfere with when it’s taking place in the private sector and at what point should a politician say, ‘actually you know what, I might not like it, but they’re well within their rights to do it’.