Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Smith on Strikes

Following on from the previous comments on the New York transport strike, the Fund for Economics Education (FEE: reports from the Washington Post reports on the recent ‘disturbances’ in China where a village in Dongzhou mounted protests (a ‘strike’?) against their various grievances. The communist authorities reacted in the usual robust manner against dissent, i.e., a few degrees further along than the rhetoric exhibited by the New York authorities. Now the communist authorities appear to have gone much further from their initial denunciations of the protesters to outright repression:

Chinese Repressed Again in Dongzhou” ((
Washington Post, Wednesday 21 December)

Two weeks after a protest that culminated in gunfire and bloodshed, the rebellious farmers and fishermen of Dongzhou have been reduced to submission. Authorities have sealed off the seaside village and flooded its streets and lanes with police patrols, residents said, and an unknown number of men have been summoned by a knock on the door and hauled away for interrogation.”

Lest readers dismiss as total exaggeration the parallels I suggest between the reaction of the authorities in their rhetoric to events in New York and that of the communist state functionaries in Dongshou, they should consider how Smith wrote about the incidence of strikes in 18th-century Scotland:

Such combinations (of masters), however, are frequently resisted by a contrary defensive combination of the workmen, who sometimes too, who sometimes too, without any provocation of this kind, combine of their own accord to raise the price of their labour. Their usual pretences are, sometimes the high price of provisions; sometimes the great profit which their masters made of their work. But whether their combinations be defensive or offensive, they are always abundantly heard of. In order to bring the point to a speedy decision, they always have recourse to the loudest clamour, and sometimes to the most shocking violence and outrage. They are desperate, and act with the folly and extravagance of desperate men, who either starve, or frighten their masters into an immediate compliance with their demands. The masters upon these occasions are just as clamorous upon the other side, and never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combinations of servants, labourers, and journeymen. The workmen, accordingly, very seldom derive any advantage from the violence of those tumultuous combinations, which, partly from the interposition of the civil magistrate, partly from the superior steadiness of the masters, partly from the necessity which the greater part of the workmen are under of submitting for the sake of present subsistence, generally end in nothing, but the punishment of the ringleaders” (“Wealth of Nations”, I.viii.13: page 84-85).

The resort to the courts and the immediate imposition of $1 million per day fines on the union, the refusal to negotiate the demands of the union until its members return to work and the media pressure brought by the Mayor and others on the strikers (creating an atmosphere of vilification, justified or not) are reminiscent of the fate of strikers in Smith’s day.

Ringleaders were not just imprisoned; they could be whipped through the streets of Edinburgh and transported, up to 1783 to the American colonies and Australia thereafter, or if found guilty of violent acts (arson or murder), they could be hanged.

Hence, when we condemn the Chinese communist authorities let us spare a thought for the emotional reaction of politicians when something goes wrong with the negotiating process in New York, and let’s endeavour to keep a sense of historical perspective while we celebrate our liberties.


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