A strike for Bonfire Night

Are public-service strikes ever an abuse of power?

The liberal-minded usually have no problems in spotting abuses of power. And the liberal-minded can usually see straight through the protestations of the abusers.

They can call out the City bankers who abuse the bonus system, regardless of the bankers' charming assurances about the "free market". They can deride the tabloids for their excesses, even when the tabloids loudly invoke "freedom of the press". They can dismiss those justifying misuses of police power, notwithstanding the often alarming claims for the need for "law and order" and "anti-terrorism".

In each of these cases, and in many more, the liberal can simply say: that is an abuse of power, and it matters not how you try to defend it.

However, there seems to be a blind spot for many liberals: unnecessary strikes by public-service unions.

When workers who provide public services go on strike, it is an exercise of power. Of that, there can be no doubt. The question then becomes: what kind of an exercise of power is it?

Any exercise of power can be an abuse of power in certain circumstances. Some may perhaps say that there are no such circumstances: striking public-service workers are beyond criticism. Their unions never abuse their power.

But surely this cannot be a serious proposition. Bosses abuse power; tabloids abuse power; police abuse power. There is no good reason why unions are not capable of abusing their power, too.

So, when is it an abuse of power for public-service workers to go on strike?

There are perhaps two elements.

First, there must be regard to the motivation of the strikers. They may use the language of "health and safety" and "long-term benefits", but it is possible that their motives are primarily selfish and financial. If so, such a motivation necessarily prioritises their personal interests above those whom they serve.

Second, there must be regard to the effects. The adverse impact of strikes by public-service workers is normally most keenly felt not by the strikers – or by their bosses. Nor is it felt by those with resources to circumvent the strike.

In particular, a strike by transport workers is hardly noticed by those with the luxury of being able to work from home or drive in to work. Instead, the effects hurt those who will not be paid if they do not turn up; those whose bosses will insist the day be taken as holiday; and those who may actually lose their jobs.

The direct and immediate consequence of any strike by public-service workers can arguably be worse for certain vulnerable and impoverished members of society than any George Osborne Budget.

But public-service unions seem to get away with it again and again. And they do so often with the silent complicity of the liberal-minded.

An abuse of power is an abuse of power; and selfish motives are selfish motives.

And so, as the London firefighters' union astonishingly threaten a strike on – of all days – Bonfire Night, the liberal must ask the questions: Is this an abuse of power and, if so, why is it being allowed to happen?

David Allen Green blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.