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Latest News - August 2015

August 24, 2015
Transport Strikes Are Inconvenient But Unions Must Be Defended

Rail passengers in the West Country have been suffering weekend disruption because of a rare strike over job security and conditions by union staff on First Great Western. I’m sure it’s very annoying and inconvenient, as it will be in London if transport unions again disrupt the Tube system over the promised 24/7 all-night service.

Are these strikes justified either in the public interest (staffing levels and safety?) or because intransigent and inept management have left the workers with no choice but a show of muscle? It’s never easy to say from the outside, but right is rarely the monopoly of either side.

Nor is it easy to defend unions when they are denying the public a service that voters pay for both as customers and, via transport subsidies, as taxpayers. In the post-Thatcher world, unions are mostly public sector now. But unions must be defended because we risk forgetting what ought to be blindingly obvious: that they are among the many important intermediate institutions in our complex society that stand between the individual and the state.

Countless voluntary bodies, pressure groups, campaigns, churches, clubs and societies, universities and businesses great and small, local authorities, all are part of the same densely textured face of Britain, though businesses are a special case in respect of unions. As employers, they sometimes (only sometimes) have diametrically opposing interests which lead to the kind of conflict we are seeing this week.

It’s important to make the case now for several very current reasons. One is that “blue collar Dave” Cameron is pressing his plans to restrict further unions’ right to strike – here is Patrick Wintour’s summary of the bill. I provided some context when Cameron first made his threat in 2008. By way of an update, the number of days lost in 2014 was 788,000, sharply up on 2013, but not much above the 90s average. These things fluctuate. Pay has again become the principal cause.

Given that the Cameron government’s own 7 May mandate rests on 39% of the votes cast (25% of all voters?), the 40% strike ballot threshold required by the bill is an outrageous piece of cheek. The business secretary, Sajid Javid, whose father was a bus driver, should know better, but obviously doesn’t. That’s an investment banker for you.

If the fairness argument doesn’t sway you in abstract, how about a topical controversy; scandal I think we might reasonably say. A string of articles this summer (led by the Observer) has exposed how well-known chains of restaurants – including Pizza Express and Côte – have assorted ingenious methods for trousering all or part of their staff’s tips. Even sheltered Tory ministers use restaurants, so they can share the sense of unfairness that staff feel. I always feel the kitchen staff should get a cut too: they work very hard at peak hours and are vital to the enjoyment. Ministers plan to protect tips, but their plans don’t go far enough, as you can see here.

As with those tax-dodging coffee chains, I will never feel as warmly as I did and be even more careful about cash-only tips. Unions are fighting to protect staff.

Did I say tax-dodging? On Sunday, Will Hutton contrasted the benevolent paternalism expressed in the Cadbury family’s Bourneville village in south Birmingham with the dog-eat-dog rapacity of Jeff Bezos’s Amazon. Major British employers weren’t like that in the good old days, Hutton says. They were not laid low by union power, but by a failure to adjust to post-imperial conditions.

That analysis is very Huttonian and may sentimentalise the postwar era a little. Certainly the unions’ response to tougher pressures of globalisation in the late 60s and 70s was often aggressive and shortsighted. It contributed to the Thatcherite reaction and the Tebbit era.

Javid is much more sophisticated than Lord Tebbit; just look at this Guardian profile. But note in passing that Javid’s CV includes some sort of brush with the bonds market in the shape of collateralised debt obligations, or CDOs.

CDOs are the major symbol of the bankers’ crash of 2008, which has caused us all much more trouble than bolshie unions, so it may be little wonder that Javid is happy to lead us down a diversionary path at Dave’s behest. Cameron is simply too young to understand or even remember either the good or not-so-good side of unions.

The not-so-good side currently includes the drive by major unions like Unite to secure the election of Jeremy Corbyn as heart-over-head Labour leader after doing the same (didn’t that work out well!) for Ed Miliband last time round. This is not the occasion to discuss that drama and I realise the unions mean well. But their campaign smacks of heroic defeatism, a preference for the comfort zone of impotent purity mitigated by strikes that rarely deliver.

In the harsh, real world, Unite may be doing itself more harm in the long run by getting tough (as are the North Sea helicopter pilots) over retrenchment by oil companies facing falling world prices ($40 a barrel, anyone?) and cutting back investment or closing marginal wells. It’s brutally set out (paywall) here in the Sunday Times.

The unions did well for their members in the boom years, but they can’t fight US shale oil or the Chinese economic slowdown. We’re not talking minimum-wage waiters here, and an orderly retreat may serve their interests better and that of the wider Scottish/UK economy, which needs maximum oil extraction.

Remember (I’m sure they do) what happened to Unite in its showdown with hard-nosed Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos at the Grangemouth oil refinery and chemicals plant. Heroic resistance and defeat have their place in life’s dramas, but battles should be carefully chosen; ask Arthur Scargill.

As for the public – travelling or otherwise – in a complex, inter-connected society like ours it suffers inconvenience of one kind or another every day – from roadworks to floods via a lack of broadband width in rural areas. Some are acts of God, others acts of government or of Unite’s Len McCluskey. I’d still prefer him as a neighbour to Jeff Bezos.



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