Ho Ho Ho, it’s the festive season again. Peace on Earth (unless you happen to live in somewhere like Syria), and Goodwill to all Men (unless you want to travel by rail). It’s the ideal time to strike, as it will cause the most misery to the most people at a time of year when the weather is at its worst. I wrote an article on transport in February 2014, and this is an update of the proposals I made then.
Southern Rail have embarked on a series of strikes that will continue into the New Year and cause massive disruption for people trying to get to work, just when they need full wages to recover from the overspend at Christmas. The postmen have also decided to jump on the strike bandwagon and strike while the striking is good. Something needs to be done about the situation that allows this to happen.
In this day and age, transport is an essential service and needs to be protected. However, workers rights and the right to take industrial action also need to be protected, so how can these two be reconciled? In theory, the current dispute boils down to who presses a button. However, if anyone believes this, they will probably hang up their stockings on Christmas Eve and expect Santa Claus to fill them with presents. To most non-railway people this will be considered a trivial matter that is not worth striking over, especially as nobody is going to lose their jobs and nobody’s wages are going to be reduced. We have all seen the news reports of the union leaders saying that they intend to “smash the capitalist system” and install “international socialism” in its place, and other such rhetoric. That they are using their members as cannon-fodder in the struggle to impose Marxism on us all may well be the case, but the passive majority of union members that sit back and allow this to happen must bear some responsibility for this, and so cannot be immune from the consequences.
What I would suggest is that the management and unions each be given a list of professional arbiters, probably connected to ACAS, and they indicate which ones are acceptable to them to rule on disputes. When industrial action is proposed, and the required ballot is held and won, then three arbiters from the list that have been found acceptable to both sides will form a tribunal to hear both sides of the dispute and make a ruling on it, which will be binding to both sides. There will need to be some sort of way of enforcing that decision, and it should be done with the lightest touch possible.
Enforcing it on the management is relatively easy. If management don’t accept the tribunal ruling then the government strips them of the franchise and assumes direct control of the running of the franchise themselves. They should then be able to sue the directors of the company for any expenses incurred. Enforcing the ruling on the unions should be done by a similar process. The law needs to be changed so that defiance of a tribunal ruling removes the union immunity from civil prosecution. That way, if unions don’t accept the tribunal ruling, and go on strike, they leave themselves open to legal action by the general public who suffer at their hands. There are enough transport users associations that could organise the travelling public and promote class actions in the courts, which will mean that the actions of the strikers are effectively being judged, not by the government, but by fellow workers.
If such a situation arises, then a court should take immediate steps, not to totally freeze union assets, but to prevent them from moving them overseas whilst allowing day-to-day routine union business to continue. I’m not sure exactly how trade unions are constructed, but, any damages awarded that exceed the sum of all the unions assets may very well become the responsibility of the individual union members who are involved in the dispute. If this is the case, then perhaps it will encourage more trade union members to get involved in the activities of the union, and hold their leaders answerable at the ballot box. Not every trade unionist is a Marxist revolutionary that worships at the shrines of Lenin and Chairman Mao.
Such a solution to the problem of transport strikes will require minimal legislative action and will not damage a union’s legitimate activity. Trade unions are needed as an integral part of the balance of our society, but they have to serve the interests of the wider working class as well as the supposed interests of their members.