This week, Sajid Javid announced the reforms he plans to make to strike ballots in the public sector that would affect ‘essential public services’ though bizarrely it would make no difference to the result of the strike ballot recently held by the RMT so the question might well be has he gone far enough?
I’m not sure the debate on this issue has even begun to address all the issues.
Public v private
I think one has to recognise the many factors in play around trade unions and their relevance, industrial action, the protection of the public and the bizarre yet significant effect trade union militancy has on the structure of public services and the integral and increasing role of the private sector in contributing to the provision of same.
There is a hidden factor which is never spoken about yet needs to form part of the argument. It is a factor that is impeded directly because of trade union militancy and makes public provision of services much less likely to be seen as attractive so they actively discourage a process that in principle they would like to see extended. Outsourcing of services, public private partnerships, or any description one can give to the commissioning of private businesses to undertake public sector works, has as one of its driving forces the elimination of militant trade unionism. Everyone knows that private businesses, small and large, do not represent the bottomless pit of money that the public sector appears to do and such evident limitation of funds constrains militancy very effectively.
The RMT is a classic example. Already an overpaid group of workers, they seek to extract even more from their publicly funded employers whom, it has to be said, have buckled before from public pressure and the real need to keep the trains running. This simple exertion of muscle from a self interested group has created misery for commuters time and time again, yet it is set to continue and one has to consider the likelihood that, were it to be financed privately, strikes would become a less easy option. I should point out that any cohesive band of workers who can cause massive disruption for very little personal sacrifice will usually see such an option as attractive and, of course, it is always easy to convince people that they deserve more.
The point behind this is that private provision isn’t always the best way to run a public service but in the absence of effective restraint upon trade unions desperately seeking some sort of relevance, it often isn’t worth the hassle. Simply outsource the cleaning contract, surgical operations, or emptying bins, or any manner of public works now undertaken by private businesses, makes strike action much less likely. There may often be the option of a good publicly-run operation that would be better and cheaper with better conditions and pay for its employees yet it may not be worth the risk when at the drop of a hat industrial action is threatened and taken every time a dispute arises.
It is perfectly possible to run and manage a whole range of public services, within the state structure equally as effectively as private companies and where that is allowed to happen it can be a better and more cost effective mechanism.
Eliminating public sector strikes would do much to discourage outsourcing and strengthen the hand of public sector provision so in a delightful twist of irony; that which most trade unions would prefer is made much less likely by their disruptive potential and adherence to strike action as an appropriate and proper tool.
A duty of government
Public sector strikes are of themselves counter-productive. The only people hurt by such stoppages are the parents, the travellers, the residents or the patients and ancillary businesses that need the services to operate all the time. It is a duty of government to make sure they do.
Political strikes should not be permitted. All public sector strikes are political in nature because the public sector does not operate as a business model so the inherent profitability factor so necessary in a private business doesn’t exist in state-funded operations, so in this scenario strikes do not threaten commercial activity. The original and whole point of a strike is an economic one. Pay the workers more or allow better conditions as opposed to losing income and clients by resisting the demands. Strikes work in this commercial environment because sometimes it is simply cheaper for the company to agree the costs demanded by their workers. In the public sector, though, this balance isn’t there. The state is seen as an unlimited source of funding so the public suffers when resource allocation has already been made with social and pragmatic intent, and that shouldn’t be usurped by a handful of dissidents.
As well as being arguable that the industrial relations act 1971 and multiple amendments since have removed completely the original relevance of trade unions, it is also arguable that they now exist only as mutual clubs with services one can get anywhere else, and that as a direct result of this they consistently need to fabricate relevance to keep members and sustain their existence. Militancy is one way of doing this because without that exposure stimulation they may simply sink into irrelevance as an organ of the past for which society has no further use.
The government is moving in the right direction, but for the life of me I cannot see why a small section of any publicly funded organisation should be able to bring it to a standstill even if every member of that section wants to. It seems much fairer that a majority of all the people who work in that organisation, those who would be affected by a strike, should also have a say and if that majority isn’t achieved then a strike cannot go ahead. It shouldn’t matter if they are members of a particular union, or any union; if they are to be affected they must be consulted.
A strike may be a valid response to an intransigent employer but if it is justifiable then a majority of support throughout the affected section of the organisation should be possible. Representation, however is different and one of the roles currently undertaken by unions, so if they are effective in this respect then perhaps there is some relevance, but bashing the public for the benefit of the few is an argument being lost amongst the populace as a whole and the strike weapon should be eliminated in state funded enterprises as soon as possible.