Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Oh No! Not Again

In The Guardian, 19 September 2005, Roy Hattersley, former senior Labour Minister in the ‘Old Labour’ governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s and 1980s, writes an article “In sympathy with strikers”.

His theme is “bring back the right to secondary picketing” and he denies the charge that those who advocate legislation to legalise secondary picketing are “clinically insane.” Indeed, he says, “Secondary picketing” and “secondary action in general - is, on any rational analysis, often justified and frequently laudable.”

“The real complaint against secondary action is easily explained. It is hated because it works."

Hattersley helps his case by a little re-writing:

“Remember Rupert Murdoch's destruction of the print unions. His transport fleet was the most vulnerable part of his operation. It was made a separate company, so strike action by the drivers and attempts to persuade them to strike were illegal. While secondary action is unlawful, big companies enjoy immunity from the consequences of action they initiated.”

The print unions were hardly the sons of toil. They were highly-paid, over-manned and a law unto themselves, holding back technological developments in the newspaper industry for years. They were so arrogant about their strengths they did not need secondary picketing from outside their fiefdoms in the printing industry – internal secondary picketing was sufficient, even the threat of it. If one newspaper was hit by a strike, the employers tried for some years to bring all newspapers to s stop to prevent competitive destruction of the employers’ resistance to strike action.

When Murdoch warned the print unions in The Times that their strike action would result in his moving the printing of the newspaper to a new site a few miles away (he even gave the union leaders an invitation to visit it). The print unions scoffed at his threat and called all the unions at the Times out on strike. Hence, Murdoch closed the site and moved the operation with those employees willing to work with the new technology and new workers recruited on the quiet. The result was a prolonged, often violent, but in the end sad end to the power of the print unions.

Murdoch did not destroy the print unions; they committed suicide themselves. As the strike became desperate, they turned to outside help, particularly on the nationalised state railways to ‘black’ Times papers and prevent them travelling on trains for distribution around the country. (The notion of low paid, state employees striking in favour of high-paid print unions is a testament to the power of union bosses in those days, not the natural solidarity of train drives and porters.) It was a then that the print unions realised they had been out-manoeuvred by Murdoch. He had outsourced the distribution of his papers to TNT – the courier company. When the strike ended in total victory to Murdoch, he did not place distribution with the railways; he kept dealing with TNT (to the delight of the drivers and loaders).

Next, Hattersley turns to Adam Smith for support for secondary picketing:

“More than 200 years ago Adam Smith, examining strike action, concluded: "The master can hold out much longer than the men ... In the long run, the workmen may be as necessary to the master as the master is to him. But the necessity is not so imminent." Trade unions were created to redress the balance. They cannot do that if they are prohibited from confronting the big companies that manipulate the small.”

To compare labour relations in the mid-18th century with the 21st century is a leap of faith in loose analogy and slick rhetoric. Smith’s observations of how wage earners and profit makers conducted themselves are a biting comment on the disproportionate imbalance of power. ‘Combinations’ were illegal; local magistrates were totally unsympathetic to people brought before them on charges of combination; public whipping through the streets, while not common, it was certainly the fate of some leaders of strikes, in Smith’s time.

Today? Unions are legal; the right to strike is enshrined in law; true, unions can no longer force employees to join them – the right to join or not to join is also enshrined in law; true, unions must be operated democratically, with regular elections by secret ballot (something Hattersley when in government did not enforce); there is legislation against unfair dismissal, against discrimination and there is legislation in favour of redundancy pay; the right to holidays (not a common experience in the 18th century); the right to sick pay and provision for pensions. All this before we could list the benefits available to working men and women under the Welfare State, which Hattersley did so much to create (he seems to have forgotten the many differences between 18th century and 21st century Britain).

Instead, he wants to return Britain to the appalling misuses of union power from which his government and, more importantly, the electorate suffered in the 1970s ands 80s. He considers such a society ‘decent’ – to whom? The thousands of people whose holidays, compassionate visits to family, and taste of exciting adventures abroad, are ruined by secondary picketing in support of employees in a trade dispute that has nothing to do with them, or the victims of the strike? What kind of decency are the victims learning about as they are dumped, cruelly and without compassion, onto the floor of Heathrow by the strike action of porters, baggage handlers and drivers whose concerns for others takes second place to an outbreak of excellent sunny summer weather for themselves and a day in the garden for themselves? (Mr Hattersley, himself, always has been a decent, if misguided, person.)

Hattersley concludes:

“It all comes down to the most important political question: whose side are you on? Adam Smith was right again: "We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of wages but many against combining to heighten it." The odds have always been stacked against low-paid workers.”

Excuse me, but the print unions Hattersley started with were never low paid; the Heathrow baggage workers are not low paid. Secondary picketing is a weapon of enforcement used by high and low paid, if given the right to do so. It is a blanket weapon of intimidation that is useable in all manner of circumstances, including by high-paid BBC employees, pilots and such like. His reading of Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” is highly selective, as is the reading by those quoting Smith to laud the so-called “invisible hand” and laissez faire.


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