CLASH OF COMMENT: Should we support the right of workers to strike?

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Yes – Rory Kelly

Arguments against striking tend to be made one-size -fits-all. Strikers are primarily denigrated because of the adverse affects that their inaction has on the people who depend on their services. Students will be left out of school, the sick will want medical care, and hoards of passengers who normally use Southern Rail Services will be stranded at one end of their commute. The problem with this argument is that in trying to be so all-encompassing, it splits at the seams and becomes totally useless.

Of course a strike will have adverse effects on the wider populus. The industry would hardly be providing much of a service if it didn’t. But then the question becomes, what if the workers are paid a penny an hour, 12 hours a day, seven days a week? Would they have the right to strike then? Such a strike would doubtlessly hurt just as many people as Southern Rail’s January strikes that left platforms in and around our capital looking like bread queues in Soviet Russia.

The plain reality is that the argument for the right to strike is as convincing as it is known to us all: those who have nothing but their labour can best protest the injustices of their workplace by withdrawing it, and by holding the faces of their employers up to the naked reality of what life would be like without them. The criticisms of the most recent strikes in our country are all obfuscations of this central point. When discussing the Southern Rail strikes, a crucial objection raised is the service that Southern have been running all summer which, plagued by delays and cancellations, has rightly provoked outrage. But these actions, whether accidental or deliberate, do not fall under the prevue of legal industrial action, the only thing under discussion when debating the right to strike.

Under British law the government grants immunity to strikers, provided the proper balloting of the union has been conducted. Tube strikes in 2014 were met with virulent criticism from the Conservative government for their use of a simple majority vote, with a remarkably low turnout. However, this criticism cannot be applied to the strikes of junior doctors, Southern Rail, the Post Office, or the Tube workers in 2017, all of which romped home with turnouts and approving votes of over 70 per cent. It is a non-sequitur to lump criticism of incompetence and sabotage in with democratically organised industrial action.

Southern Rail workers were primarily protesting the introduction of technology that automates the opening and closing of train doors, a job currently preformed by conductors. Loath as I am to mention it so late in this piece, I agree that the strikers are bound on a fool’s errand. The small-a automation of train doors is only a glimpse of the inevitable capital-A Automation that will see technology replace human beings on a massive scale. No amount of strikes will stop that. But the right to participate in industrial action is not mitigated by the foolhardiness of the cause, and as we slowly slide towards this economic revolution, any discussion of how to prosper from it will require unions capable of protecting the workers whose jobs will fall to machines.

 

NO – Georgie Moffat

I am by no means proposing a blanket ban on striking; it is an essential way for workers to unite and deliver genuine reform. Striking was designed to provide a last resort for when all other methods of negotiation have been exhausted.

However, a disturbing trend has arisen in the past year, whereby strikes in public infrastructure have become seemingly in vogue. Being from the south, I admit that I have been inundated with such news, with the latest Southern Rail development becoming a regular local news feature. What was designed to provide a relatively swift means to an end, has now morphed into long, hard-fought ‘disputes’. These disputes, of which I cite the junior doctors and Southern rail crises, have become what can only be described as trench-warfare, where neither side can afford to back down, for fear of appearing the ‘loser’ in the public eye.

The media response to strike action is often linked to its level of public support. This is undoubtedly a fragile relationship, and whilst in most cases, the general public may agree in principle with the strike, prolonged strike action risks turning public opinion in the opposite direction. Such has been the case with the Southern Rail dispute; its relentless, ongoing nature has caused widespread economic and social disruption for one of the UK’s prime economic and commuter regions. The most recent estimates place the cost of the damage at approximately £300m, a figure continually increasing. Socially, these strikes have caused unprecedented damage to personal lives; reports of people being laid off from work, denied jobs, or even forced to move house are now commonplace in local media.

The RMT claims that it’s striking in the interests of “passenger safety”, with regard to driverless doors, yet such a system has already been put in place on Thames Link trains with little dispute. This dubious justification, as well as there being no clear end in sight, has undoubtedly severed the remainder of the strike’s public support. Southern Rail possesses the luxury of a trapped customer market; there simply will always be commuters to London no matter how poor the service. Furthermore, this rail link provides an essential lifeline between the region and London; it holds the fate of thousands of workers and businesses. How such a lengthy dispute on such a crucial rail network has been allowed to fester and linger on at the expense of trapped customers is quite simply shocking.

However, what underpins all strikes is the power of the unions behind them. Even Sadiq Khan, who promised “zero days of strikes” in his campaign for London Mayor, found himself unable to prevent recent strike action on the tube. Nick Herbert MP called the unions “selfish, unjustifiable and nakedly political”. Many have criticised the lack of strong government action against such strikes, others have proposed ideas of independent third party negotiating teams. What is clear, is that governing bodies must be resolute to stand up to such unions in order that such ongoing disputes, at the expense of livelihoods and businesses, are prevented in the future and brought to a swift conclusion.

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