A safe bet

Published on February 24, 2017

So ASLEF’s members have rejected the proposal agreed by their representatives and the prospect of peace on Southern Railway has receded beyond the end of Brighton Pier once again. The result is that a significant slice of our economy is beset with uncertainty. And the struggle not only to make ends meet but simply to meet endures for hundreds of thousands.

I wonder if it’s right for such damage to be caused by so few over so little? When the bankers created significant mayhem in order to preserve so much for an enchanted few, the concept of moral hazard was brought forth – those that did wrong should take responsibility and face the consequences. Striking is, prima facie, a wrong, a breach of contract. It is a specific law which exempts Trades Unions from the effects of a strike and I wonder if it, as well as the transport that some of them operate, is due for an overhaul?

The essence of Trades Unions is to protect workers, to ensure that they are not exploited and, in that mission, they have done a good job. When it comes to protecting jobs and raising wages then their success is dependent on their ability to cause disruption which is only possible in industries where there are very few suppliers. Nowadays the only areas this happens are Government services (NHS, emergency services) and transport. In this situation it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t strike. You forego a day’s pay and get an increase in either pay or conditions, or both. Train drivers are not on the breadline and if you know that an extra day’s holiday produces a permanent increase in your income you are highly likely to do that. Even if every day off requires a 0.5% rise to be recovered in one year (of say 200 working days), if your remaining working life is say 20 years you can take 20 days off and be no worse off with such a rise. So long as you have a legitimate trade dispute the only issue is how long you can survive without income. I’m not saying that the right to strike, which has been recognised as a fundamental human right, should be removed. I am suggesting that it should be used when there is evidence of exploitation.

In less monopolistic sectors there is some evidence: some employers who hold the whip hand have maximised their power with zero hours’ contracts. Isn’t this the area that Trades Unions should be focussing on? Simply banning these contracts isn’t that straightforward because it would affect freelancers, and others who choose to work flexibly (including FDs!). But denying unemployment benefit to someone who has left a zero hours contract is just the sort of exploitation that could be stopped, perhaps by showing that earnings from the contract have been less than, say, £1,000 in the last month (as can now instantly be verified from the HMRC on-line PAYE system?).

I’ve held back from writing this blog because the criticism that as an employer “I would say that wouldn’t I” is inescapable. But it doesn’t render what I’ve said untrue. If there are good reasons to continue with the current universal immunity from the consequences of asking for more and more (under the highly specious pretence that it’s about safety when the doctrine of vicarious liability means that it is always the employer not the employee that is liable for someone who fails to mind the doors) then please let me know.

Every job faces change, and sometimes redundancy, as a result of technology. Even accountants, chartered, certified and turf have been affected. It’s why we, collectively, are materially better off. Are safety and technology legitimate grounds for withholding labour or is this too much of a safe bet?

  • Jeremy

    Brilliant post Malcolm.

    It’s about time we had a grown up debate about striking in this country.

  • David

    That was a nicely worded and well put argument. I’m a great believer of the TU movement to prevent dodgy employer abuse but it really bothers me that they can hold the South of England and so many people’s travel to work to ransom.