Andrew Allison is Head of Campaigns at The Freedom Association.
In August 1981, a little over six months into his presidency, Ronald Reagan told 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Pacto) that unless they call off their strike and return to work within 48 hours, they would be fired.
He also placed a lifetime ban on recruiting those who ignored his warning. He meant business – and 11,000 controllers were fired on 5 August. It was a brave move, and many of his closest advisers feared the policy would be a disaster, not least because they feared an air disaster because of a lack of air traffic controllers.
But the mass firings did not cripple the airline industry in the way the strikers thought it would. Some 2000 supervisors joined the 2000 controllers who returned to work, and they in turn were joined by 900 military personnel. Matters returned to normal very quickly. The President stuck to his guns and, as a result, the power of trade unions in the United States to hold the country to ransom again was severely diminished. Reagan showed leadership – and went on to secure a second term in the White House.
That was over 35 years ago, during a time when Britain was also undergoing major changes under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. The Freedom Association played a leading role in reducing the power of the trade unions. “Closed shops” and “flying picket”s were phrases used in newspapers, and on radio and television, every day. The sheer unbridled power of the trade unions working together wrought chaos, and helped make us the sick man of Europe. They tried to destroy Grunwick, a photo processing company, in a bitter dispute that lasted two years from 1976, but failed – even when Labour cabinet ministers at the time went on the picket line.
So trade union intransigence can be broken. And it needs breaking now in the dispute between Southern Railway on the one side, and Aslef and the RMT on the other. Sadly, as rail commuters know to their cost, the bad old days have returned. Strike action by Aslef and the RMT is making life a living hell for customers of Southern Railway. A series of strikes have crippled services for the best part of a year. The unions claim that driver-only operated trains are dangerous, despite the Rail Safety & Standards Board stating that driver-only-operation (DOO) offers “no increased risk” compared to train operation with a conductor closing the doors. It went on to say that DOO could, in fact, “potentially deliver some safety benefits”, due to the removal of the risk of miscommunication between driver and guard
Guards are not necessary to open and close doors. The driver can do that perfectly well. Indeed, in the old days of manual doors, it was the passengers and not guards who closed them. The guards, or rather their union officials, are trying to cling on to practices which are outdated and fly in the face of advances in technology. As history shows us, the Luddites always fail in the end, because they blindly resist the inevitable.
Enough is enough – or at least it should be. Grayling needs to find his inner Reagan, and have the support of all his colleagues from the Prime Minister down. The only way to deal with the intransigence of these unions is to tackle them head-on. Southern has already threatened striking guards that, if they do not sign new contracts, they will be shown the door.
Yet nothing has happened. Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, has spoken recently about a constituent who had a vital job offer withdrawn when her potential employer realised she would be using Southern to get to work. This is not an isolated example. Many people are having their livelihoods threatened as a result of this sick joke of a rail operator and the bloody-mindedness of trade union barons who regard picking fights and winning more important than the misery they cause to the travelling public.
We now need some political leadership and Grayling is the man who must show it. Just like Ronald Reagan 35 years ago, he should instruct the bosses at Southern to issue an ultimatum that is meaningful. There have already been enough empty threats, and it is commuters who are paying the price. If those striking drivers and guards don’t want to sign new contracts, that is their decision, and if they don’t, they must be shown the door.
Anything less will not do. And they must not be hired again by Southern. To allow that would play into their hands. This approach has the risk of creating short-term chaos. But – and it’s a very important but – it will settle the issue once and for all. Unless Southern knows it has the support of the Government, it is not going to play hardball. So come on, Grayling. Show your inner Reagan and lance this boil. If you do, you will have the unqualified thanks of Southern customers who had enough of this strike action months ago.