Wednesday, December 21, 2005

How to Prolong a Strike

New York is experiencing its first transport employees’ strike since 1980. Without wishing to interfere in a dispute, of which I know nothing, I want to comment on the predictable reactions of the authorities to what is a thoroughly unpleasant experience for many tens of thousands of people affected by the strike.

The purpose of any strike is to cause maximum disruption to an employer and in transport that means causing maximum disruption to citizens caught up in the effects of the strike. That is why strikes are called close to major holiday periods , or, in this case, during winter weather, or in other cases, when a construction deadline is looming (building an Olympic stadium or constructing a stage set close to opening night).

Nothing encourages the solidarity of the strike among the strikers more than visible evidence that the strike is having maximum effect. TV pictures of long queues (‘lines’ in New York), cameo tales of extreme discomfort to families, disappointed commuters, theatre goers and unfinished sites, may horrify public onlookers, but they boost the determination of the strikers. Business spokespeople claiming the strike is costing billions, politicians expressing sound-bite rage and crying babies do much the same thing.

The intention of these public statements and images are to ‘shame’ the strikers back to work. The unintentional outcome is always to boost the strikers’ morale. Those militantly supporting the strike action receive comfort from the success of their strike action (its immediate impact not the eventual outcome) and those strikers less convinced that the strike is appropriate are encouraged to hold the line a little while longer because 'the employer is bound to cave in with the evidence before them that stubborn resistance is pointless' (or words oin unions peeches to that effect).

Of course, it does not always work out like this. The conduct of the employers, politicians and authorities is scrutinized by the media and assailed by supporters of the strike and the usual sympathizers of the strikers ‘driven to strike by obstinate bosses’.

Take this report from CNN today:

State Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones found the union in contempt of court for ignoring two injunctions barring its workers from striking. New York's Taylor Law forbids transit workers from striking, and the city and state had pressed the judge to impose a hefty fine.

"There are no winners in the strike," Bloomberg said Tuesday. "Everyone is a loser here."
He lambasted union leaders, saying they had "walked out on New York City," and adding there will be no negotiations with the union until workers return to their jobs

The union is already appealing against the fine and, no doubt, adding the fine to its terms for settlement should it be imposed (a regular occurrence in Australia where included among the settlement terms there is usually 'payment to the strikers for their lost pay'). But, note the last sentence attributed to Mayor Bloomberg: ‘adding there will be no negotiations with the union until workers return to their jobs.’ It sounds great; it is no doubt sincerely meant, but is it a good move?

To the original grievances of the union, this adds a new grievance: the merits of their right to take strike action. Be sure this is not a moot debating point carefully considered by a panel of sensible onlookers. If it is calculated to weaken the strikers’ solidarity it may do anything but weaken it. Union leaders addressing the strikers can work up a lot of rhetorical mileage out of the ‘right to strike’ against ‘injustice’, and so on. Wavering strikers can quickly be brought back into line in emotional appeals to vague notions of justice.

Remember, in such conflict the object of the employers (and those opposed ton the strike) is to weaken union solidarity, not strengthen it, and this is done best by focussing on the merits of the strikers’ case and not by allowing a non-issue to bolster doubts about whether the strike will achieve their case.

Adam Smith commented on the way the 18th-century law in Britain worked against individual labourers in matters of resisting wage cuts or raising wages, but not against masters who combined together to enforce wages cuts or resist wage rises. He did not take sides specifically in any particular dispute, but neither did he hide the brutal facts. My comments do not take sides in the New York transport dispute. They comment on the public reactions by people from whom we expect a constructive response to such difficulties, but, as is usual everywhere, we get actions that are more likely to worsen or prolong the situation.

Just as it is a fundamental right in a democracy for workers to have the ‘right to strike’ it is also a fundamental right of employers to seek to prevent strike action and, in ultimo extremis, the right to seek to ‘break’ strikes that occur, provided both actions are within the law. One of the main weapons in breaking strikes is to undermine the morale of the strikers. Forgetting this usually leads to policies and behaviours that bolster the strike when different policies would unsettle the solidarity of a large group of employees whose ‘solidarity’ is thinly and unevenly spread.


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