If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Right To Strike

No such thing.

Everyone has a right to 'withdraw their labour', meaning that if they do not like the way they are treated or the amount they are paid at work, no-one can force them to work against their will. To do otherwise would be barbaric. Slavery, even.

'Striking' is not quite the same thing. To 'strike' is to stop working as a way of coercing your employer in to improving your conditions, hours or pay, after which you will return to your job as if nothing has happened.

Now, I support anyone's right to withdraw their labour. It is a fundamental human right. If you think your pay is too low, or your boss wants too much from you, or the conditions are poor, then leave. Hand in your cards, tell your boss what you think of him, and go. But don't expect your job still to be there tomorrow or next week, if you change your mind.

It all comes down to the law of contract. If I come to work for you, then we will sign a contract of employment. I will agree to work so many hours for you, doing certain activities, and you will pay me a certain amount of money in exchange. The law is already biased in favour of the worker here, as the worker may renounce the contract at any time and leave, whereas the employer must have certain grounds, and have been through certain procedures, before he or she can renounce the employer's side of the contract.

If, however, you breach your side of the bargain - by walking out and refusing to work - then the contract is terminated. That's how contract law works. If I don't fulfil my side of the bargain, then you are under no obligation to fulfil yours. If the employee stops working without good reason, then the employment contract is ended, and the employer is under no obligation to the employee from that moment on.

If I enter an agreement with a car company to lease one of their cars, the contract would state that I agree to pay them (say) £100 a month, and in return they will allow me the use of a car under certain agreed conditons. If I then stop paying the £100, the company has every right to call on me and take the car back. If I said that the car wasn't big enough, or fast enough, or that £100 was too much, and that I demanded the right to have a car at a lower rate or I wouldn't pay anything at all, I would be laughed out of court. That's a contract - an agreement, freely entered into by two parties. If you don't like the car, or the size of the repayments, then don't sign the contract. If you decide later that you don't like the contract, hand the car back and look for something else.

Some of you may remember the 1970s, if you are old and doddery enough. In the 70s, workers could go on strike, and demand full pay for the period of the strike as part of their conditions for returning to work. In the print industry, some compositors demanded (and got) payment for work they didn't do: the company had brought in new technology which made their roles redundant, but the workers felt that, as this was not their fault, they should not be made to suffer. They stayed on the payroll, on full pay, playing poker and reading the racing pages. Thanks to two people named Shah and Murdoch, this cosy and immoral game was ended, and it is to the great credit of Mrs Thatcher that she created the climate where such actions could be taken.

Essentially, what the postal workers are demanding is:
  • the right not to work (which, as I have said above, is a fundamental human right)
  • the right for the employer not to do anything to make their action less effective (which is the subject of the astonishing quotation below)
  • the right to return to work afterwards without any consequences.
Employing extra people to do the work of staff who are on strike is illegal under employment law.

The right not to work needs a little clarification. Everyone has a right to withdraw their labour. They do not have the right to expect me to support them if they are not earning anything as a consequence. In other words, if they have paid into their union fund and can receive union strike pay, that's fine. If they expect to sign on to the dole because they are not working, that's not fine. If they expect their employer to welcome them back with open arms as if nothing has happened, that's not fine either. If someone is dishonest enough wilfully to break a written contract in the expectation that the other party can be coerced thereby into changing the contract conditions, then I wouldn't want to employ them anyway - and the law should not force me to.

I have never gone on strike. If I feel that I am not being paid enough (or rather that I am not being paid what I am worth), then I have always felt free to leave my job and look for one that will reward my talents better. If my employer asks me to do something in my work that I am not comfortable with, then I feel free to leave and find a job that sits easily with my conscience.

We are all, at the end of the day, sellers of our own talents. The market for this should be as free as possible. Anything else, as history has shown time and again, leads to injustice, inefficiency and - as always under a Labour government - economic disaster.

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