Thursday, June 16, 2011

Strike Law: Is freedom only appropriate for people you approve of?

Having been critical of Liberal Vision's approach towards the Party it claims to support yesterday, I have been challenged to debate with them, rather than 'griping' as one of their Deputy Director puts it.

So, I had a look at their latest posting, and was interested to see that it addressed industrial relations. Given that I'm a fairly cynical member of a public sector union, PCS, what did Liberal Vision's contributor, Leslie Clark, have to say?

"Despite the recent results of Mugabesque proportions that were widely interpreted as an endorsement of anger against the Coalition..."

The use of ‘Mugabesque’, redolent as it is of individuals coerced into voting through fear, hardly reflects the reality of those pesky Trade Union ballots. As a public sector union member, that’s an image that is rather unfamiliar to me. Union ballots are run by the Electoral Reform Society’s ballot services arm, and I vote secretly in the comfort of my own home.

And yes, there is anger about pay and conditions. Three years of pay freezes have reduced living standards amongst civil servants, all of whom are doing jobs required by the Government, and most of whom are earning less than £25,000 per annum. Yes, argue about whether there should be as many of them as there are, or whether their tasks are really necessary, but his callous sarcasm directed at individuals struggling to raise their families and keep a roof over their heads indicates where his motives actually point towards. It should be unsurprising at a time when inflation is running at 4.5% and real incomes are falling by almost as much in the public sector that militancy is on the increase.

Add to that the proposal that civil servants make bigger contributions towards their pension - which implies another cut in real terms income, despite the fact that the value of the pension was taken into account when deciding pay scales and pay increases, the cynicism of his attitude knows no bounds.

"It goes without saying that introducing a minimum turnout wouldn’t drastically curb the fundamental right to withdraw one’s labour."

Of course it does, he wouldn't recommend it otherwise. The use of the warm and fuzzy word 'modernise' is a tactic beloved of all weasels in a tight corner. So, why not be honest here, public sector strikes are bad because they make the lives of people like Leslie Clark slightly less inconvenient.

His proposal to require minimum turnouts for strike ballots does two things – it incentives opponents of any proposal to simply stay at home, rather than engage, an action likely to entrench the sort of one-sided outcomes that so upset him, and it reduces the freedom of the individual union member to choose whether or not to participate as, under his proposals, union officials would need to actively drive up turnout by pressurising members to vote, creating the very scenario he appears to imagine exists now.

And he assumes that union members act like sheep, unable to think or act for themselves. Just because unions representing 750,000 public sector workers have voted for strike action doesn’t mean that 750,000 public sector workers will be missing on 30 June. I for one am expecting to turn up to do a day’s work as usual, and I’m guessing that I won’t be alone.

Strike action in the public sector is surprisingly rare. Giving up a day’s pay, plus a day of pension entitlement, is not done lightly, especially when most of those doing so earn less than the average wage.

His inconsistent approach to democratic legitimacy merely serves to infer that freedom, in his view, only applies to those of whom he approves, and that is no freedom at all. But, of course, he is writing on the blog of an organisation which has no internal democracy, is criticial of the internal democracy of the political party it claims to support and sees no paradox in being a collective endeavour whilst seeking to place limits on the freedoms of other collective endeavours.


Anonymous said...

A very good post. I fully agree with your criticism of minimum turnout requirements - they give perverse incentives to opponents (as we saw when there was an attempt to introduce them for the AV referendum).

In fact the Berlusconi media line on the recent Italian referendum was to try to get people to stay at home. That backfired: on 57% turnout, 95% of voters voted against the government line:

I would quibble slightly on the pay freeze though - for those earning less than £21,000 it doesn't apply, which does protect the worst off. But there are plenty of people above that line with very little spare money.

Mark Valladares said...


Thank you for those kind words.

However, in HM Revenue & Customs, staff earning below £21,000 will get just £250, hardly generous, so they'll still be significantly worse off in real terms.

Tom Papworth said...

I have to take issue with a couple of the points you make in this article, Mark.

“public sector strikes are bad because they make the lives of people like Leslie Clark slightly less inconvenient”

That’s a very silly comment, and quite hypocritical. Whenever public sector unionists defend their jobs, they point out that they do important work and focus on all the people in real need that they help. Why is it that your response when somebody suggests that they should continue to do that work, instead of not doing it (which is, in its simplest form, the definition of a strike) is to suggest that it’s only “people like Leslie Clark” that suffer?

If it’s only “people like Leslie Clark” who are going to suffer, it’s going to be a pretty ineffective strike as “people like Leslie Clark” may be happy to sit it out.

“His inconsistent approach to democratic legitimacy merely serves to infer that freedom, in his view, only applies to those of whom he approves, and that is no freedom at all”

I don’t think that Leslie has an “inconsistent approach to democratic legitimacy”: there is a perfectly reasonable argument to make that all elections/referendums should have a minimum turnout. Just how low does the turnout have to be before the outcome is illegitimate?

As for suggesting that “freedom, in his view, only applies to those of whom he approves”, you’ve not only created a straw man; you’ve not even tried to make it look recognisable.

Freedom is the right of any worker – unionised or not – to withdraw his labour, or not, as they see fit. The point that Leslie makes (and which you go on to deride) is that “introducing a minimum turnout wouldn’t drastically curb the fundamental right to withdraw one’s labour”.

Of course, there are those, Mark, who really do think that “freedom ... only applies to those of whom [they] approve”, which is why they have simultaneously made it legal for the employee to break his half of the contract, but have made it illegal for the employer to break her half of the contract.

If you’re looking for a double standard, you may want to start looking closer to home.

Mark Valladares said...


In the nicest possible way, you do talk utter rubbish sometimes.

I am not saying that public sectors workers should strike - having voted against myself, it would be ludicrous to do so. However, there are rules which restrict the right to strike, quite legitimate ones. Those rules have been adhered to, and the unions therefore have the right to call out their members. Not make them strike, because they can't do that. And you know something, I tend to respect the law, as it provides a decent enough framework to live by.

And your young friend isn't suggesting to them that they shouldn't strike, he is suggesting that they shouldn't have the right to do so unless they obtain some level of democratic legitimacy that suits him. Now you rightly make the point that there is a debate to be had about the notion that all elections and referendums should have a minimum turnout. However, Leslie has not suggested that, you have, and until he does, his approach is inconsistent.

I therefore stand by my statement that he supports differential levels of freedom, until he demonstrates otherwise. Unless, of course, you are Leslie Clark, which would indicate that the Liberal Vision contributor list is a fraud (and it isn't, is it).

His understanding of modern trade unions (modern in relation to their 1970's predecessors, at least) and the way in which they work appears fundamentally flawed, a point which he hasn't denied. And I find myself wondering how much you actually know, rather than believe, about them yourself.

And as for your last sentence, I wasn't aware that I had made law of the sort that you describe. I'm sure that I would remember if I had. Oh yes, I forget, I'm a member of the public, not an elected politician with powers of law-making.

So, don't accuse me of double standards, as it merely indicates to me that someone who was first elected with the support of less than 12.5% of their electorate needs to be wary of doing so.