“You won’t get me I’m part of the union – til the day I die”. The lyrics, from The Strawb’s 1972 hit, were ambiguous – opinion remains divided among left-wing and right-wing folk music fans about whether it was a proud statement of the protective power of trade union collectivism, or a sarcastic skewering of the loony left’s selfish wrecking of the British economy in the 1970s.
By contrast, the language the unions are using now is anything but ambiguous.
Last week’s Unison conference heard more uses of the word “strike” than if the England football team had entered the World Baseball Championship. Blindfolded.
There are three possible reasons why the unions are going to go on strike in the next few months, depending on your viewpoint.
The first is just as their own propaganda would have it – that they will strike if there are unreasonable cuts to frontline services that would unduly harm the public. This implausibly philanthropic explanation conveniently ignores the fact that we live in a democracy, and the public are more than capable of looking after themselves by voting out anyone who they feel harms their interests unnecessarily.
The second is a less gullible but very still charitable view of their motivations: that they will strike against cuts that would beggar their members. When you consider, however, that public sector workers earn more, get better pensions, enjoy more holiday, take more sick leave and have greater job security than their private sector counterparts, this also seems very questionable.
If you also contrast the widespread and unavoidable pay freezes, pay cuts and redundancies the private sector has endured in the last couple of years with the apparent obliviousness and immunity in the public sector, this case looks even more shaky.
The third and, it is now clear, genuine attitude of the union leadership is much less pleasant, much less principled and much less pretty. They will strike against any attempt whatsoever to make the public sector pull its weight on dealing with the deficit at all.
As Harry reported here on Saturday what was it that brought library staff out on strike in Southampton?
It wasn’t redundancies, pay cuts or even pension reforms. It was simply the decision to replace departing staff with volunteers. Not a single union member was being asked to suffer anything, but they still walked.
What was it that Unison’s National Officer for local government, Heather Wakefield, described last week as an “unacceptable” measure that required “the fight of our lives” and merited strike action? The prospect of a pay freeze.
Yes, a freeze – getting just what they get at the minute. Not a cut, as should be introduced, and certainly not the large cuts being implemented in Ireland at the moment – where a mere pay freeze would seem like a free picnic to many public sector workers.
This is clearly ridiculous. As a libertarian, I of course support people’s right to group together and act as a group as much as they like – as long as they do not harm others by doing so. As such, trade unions to provide advice or pool welfare resources like the old Friendly Societies are absolutely fine.
But the institutional mood of many of the unions at the moment is malicious, intimidating and destructive. They want to force a democratically elected Government and equally (or even more, in fact) legitimate councils to change from the path the people have elected them to follow. Worse, they intend to hold the public to ransom in order to bully elected representatives into doing what the unions demand.
For all the talk about “protecting services”, strike action by local government workers would disrupt the very services that a lot of vulnerable people do rely on, and that are not under threat from cuts.
The remarkable thing about the threatening swagger on display from Unison et al is not that they could be so selfish – they have after all shown their capacity for that plenty of times before – but that they could be so tactically foolish as to believe that it will actually work.
Heather Wakefield, fresh from her rant against the prospect of public sector workers sharing any of the pain felt by the private sector, ironically then went on to complain that “the conciliation service Acas…told us last week that the employers didn't think there was any point in talking to us”.
Well there’s a surprise, Heather.
This was always going to be the eventual reward for bullying, strike-threatening behaviour on the part of the unions.
First the employers – councillors and others – realise that they are wasting their time by trying to negotiate with union officials whose only response is to refuse to accept that any reforms or spending cuts
can happen ever.
Next, when strikes do happen, the public will swiftly lose patience with the strikers. Ms Wakefield and her colleagues should, but won’t, realise that this will happen faster and harder the more spurious thereason for their strike action.
You only need to look at the rock bottom levels of public support for the striking BA cabin crew, or the fact that strike-prone London is the least union-sympathising part of the country, to see that when it comes to strikers in the eyes of the public, familiarity breeds contempt.
Finally, politicians looking to make cuts will not only start disregarding the threats of strike action, they will view them as an added motivation to cut hard. After all, if you’re going to face a nationwide local government strike for implementing a pay freeze, you may as well implement a pay cut of 10% – saving a lot more money, for exactly the same hassle.
This should lead union leaders to question the wisdom and effectiveness of their tactics. Sadly, for their long-suffering members and for the members of the public who will be put through the mill, it won’t for the foreseeable future – they have become a self-selecting political class in their own right, wedded to a bully
boy mentality (a senior female Trade Unionist herself confided to me her frustration about this recently).
Eventually, though, either they will have to abandon this approach or their members will abandon them. The fact is, it simply doesn’t work – to get the public on your side, to achieve your aims or even just to make you look good.