Monday, 28 November 2011

Strikes and November 30th

I don't have a good and generous feeling towards strike action, I have generally agreed with politicians like Cable that have suggested the action of striking needs reform. I'm staunchly pro-worker rights, I think it's disgusting that there have been moves to remove the ability for people to claim unfair dismissal until after 2 years of employment, I don't understand why anonymous applications for jobs haven't become law, and on the issue of pay I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of the minimum wage in an organisation being no worse than a set fraction of the top paid position (for example, a CEO wishing to pay themselves £100k a year would have to ensure the lowest paid workers got no less than £15k).

But strike action just feels to me to be an archaic and blunt weapon used by workers to get/keep their rights, almost exclusively used in an inappropriate manner these days, that fills a void that better legislation towards resolution of conflict could achieve so much better.

Those that strike on Wednesday will be doing so off the back of an endorsement carried by a small percentage of their population. I know..I know...I've heard the arguments about a Tory government being elected on the same percentage, and of the "overwhelming" support by those that turned out. I also think those arguments are disingenuous.

It may well be the case that the vast majority of workers that had the right to vote in the strike ballot, but didn't, do indeed support going on strike. It may also be that they don't. The lower the turn out, the lower the chance of the verdict being 'correct'. Combine this with the fact that those that wish to turn out to these kinds of events are those that are predisposed to striking at the drop of a hat, or feel for the first time that they need to go out and support strike action, as well as the varying shades in between...the "sample" of voters is unweighted and completely biased.

The taking of a strike ballot is akin to YouGov going out with a loaded question such as "The Tories want to give you lots of free money, while Labour are trying to take away your hard earned cash...who will you vote for in the next election", and asking only those in the heart of Witney.

We don't take abstentions during General Elections to mean support for any one party, indeed abstention is a mark of "don't care", or of actually voting against the process in general. Yet the union leaders will put a completely different spin on abstention during strike ballots, I saw one article or blog in passing (didn't keep the link, sorry) that suggested that not voting wasn't a vote for the status quo. How they worked that out I will never know.

And so people will strike, assuming that no deal is reached between the government and unions...in reality there is little reason for either to give much way outside of trying to build a narrative of "being reasonable" with their respective friendly media outlets. The Unions want to show the Government up as not being in control, of the people being more powerful than the government is (quite rightly so in that respect alone). Meanwhile the Government wants to show the opposite, and that the unions themselves are unreasonable and selfish. With a single strike on the cards both parties can play this card effortlessly, and nothing will change. The die will have been cast before the day's strike action starts, with only a violent clash or two likely to sway public opinion (and then only towards to the government, in net effect).

Strike action is neither effective, nor reasonable...it hits this middle ground of posturing for the sake of it. If the proposed strike action was to go on for days...weeks...as it has done in the past with the firefighter strikes (which I have always, and will always, be morally against) and postal strikes...maybe it would be a different story. The government wouldn't be able to just "write off" a day's worth of economic productivity as they would do with a special bank holiday, and the unions wouldn't be able to meander in to the action without a much stronger and publicly acknowledged stance.

But then, as said above, I don't like strike action. I believe it needs to be a final option for workers, you can't take away their ability to simply protest...but if there are avenues of actual prosecution/fine by tribunal for unfair employment practice the chances of anything getting to that stage would be greatly reduced. Right now we'd be seeing the government having to seriously justify the option they have taken, to have gone through much greater consultation with all of the workers that are affected rather than just putting some sums together and deciding "here's where we save the cash".

In the end I find the prospect of Wednesday's strikes a little "meh", I strongly believe that the workers have a case, Labour already mucked with their pensions and there are significant amounts of public sector workers, especially those who have given service to this country for decades, that are going to be significantly out of pocket. That said, the government has been fair in negotiation to ring-fence those very workers that are set to lose out the most. To me it seems like the two sides could negotiate for much longer before having to break out in to an all out fight, but the environment of how we deal with these disputes in this country aren't conducive to taking this more mature and less disruptive/futile path.