After Vince Cable’s warning today that the coalition would be prepared to introduce new anti-strike legislation if faced with widespread industrial action, Sarah Veale from the TUC said: “Restricting the right to withhold labour would be completely at odds with the coalition’s commitment to civil liberties.” But what if the right to withhold labour comes at the expense of someone else’s liberty?
First of all, I have never heard of anyone supporting an absolute right to strike. It would plainly be ridiculous. You couldn’t, for example, just ‘go on strike’ because you don’t fancy going into work, could you? So we already accept, as a society, that we have to impose some restrictions on the right to strike. Similarly, I don’t think there are many people who would advocate removing the right to strike entirely. That would also be ridiculous. So how do these two fundamental liberties – the right to determine the makeup of your own workforce and set the conditions upon which you will give people a share of money in exchange for doing something you want them to do, and the right to set, or at least have some genuine say in, the value of your own labour – both exist, in a free society, without contradicting each other?
An awful lot of people claiming to be libertarians seem to instinctively give automatic priority of the employer’s right to determine the makeup of their own workforce. That’s an uncomfortable conclusion to reach so fast: is it not odd how many so-called libertarians appear to have no real regard for liberty as a philosophical concept whatsoever, and care only for the liberties of those already in a societal position where they can already exercise those liberties to begin with?
Strikes are an essential weapon against worker exploitation, and worker exploitation is one of the most alarming threats to personal liberty, some would say throughout all of history (the culmination of it being, obviously, things like the slave trade). Of course workers need to be allowed to withdraw their labour if they are, say, forced to work in unsafe, inhumane conditions, or if they are forced or coerced into working for free. And anyone who works for a living, no matter what they earn, should be closing their eyes in a silent blessing to the unions for the fact that working for a living does not make you an inferior citizen these days.
But what strikes should not be, in a democratic society, is a tool to ‘bring down’ the democratically-elected government. They should not be used to obstruct government policy in general. They should not be used as a partisan tool. And they should never, ever put lives at risk. I doubt that I will never be convinced that, for example, fire-fighters striking on bonfire night (as they threatened to do last year) is an ethical thing to do. If they care more about money than they do about people’s lives… well, they should be in the private sector.
And yes, I’m aware of the irony here: when an employer profits from their greed it is taken as a sign of hard work and success on the part of the employer, but when a worker tries to profit from greed in the same way it becomes a sign of laziness or selfishness.
Except the line between who is a ‘worker’ and who is an ‘employer’ is nowhere near as black-and-white as a lot of the hard left would like us to imagine. If you’re a junior or middle manager earning somewhere between £21k and £40k a year, for example, are you a ‘worker’ or an ‘employer’? If you run your own business, employing just a handful of other workers, what then? What about if you’re Bob Crow, or a public sector manager on £100k or so a year? The truth is that CEOs and bankers and the Prime Minister and David Beckham all work, too. And, with the exception of the Prime Minister, the market – which is made up of other ordinary working people, choosing what to buy – has valued the labour of each high-earning individual at a higher price than they do their own.
So can we trust the market entirely to set the value of everyone’s labour? Well, perhaps, in theory, we could, actually: it’s not an inherent set-in-stone given of the free market that we have to let the people who profit most from the business, rather than those who work for it, have total control over where the profits go. Is it not possible to have shared ownership of a private business, with shared profits? Aren’t workers just a different kind of shareholder? We already do it to some extent after all: many employers provide health insurance, gym memberships, dental care, pension security, expense accounts, cars, phones – a whole host of things that they are in no way legally obligated to provide – to their employees. Perhaps if there was a little bit more of that kind of thing a bit further down the economic food chain, there’d be a bit less of a need for strikes. Or high business taxes, or laws forcing fixed minimum wages, or such a big public sector, for that matter. And in the same vein, perhaps if the government didn’t use public services as a political punching-bag every time it needs to score a few ‘looking tough’ points, perhaps public sector workers and their union representatives would be less defensive whenever any kind of reform appears on the cards – and perhaps they would be less tempted to stir up politically-motivated strikes, as well.
So yes, a law banning workers from withdrawing their labour altogether would, obviously be a pretty enormous restriction on personal liberty. No-one is seriously likely to pass a law like that. However, just as with other civil liberties, such as the right to free speech, the right to consume alcohol, and (in other countries at least!) the right to bear arms, the fact that you legally have a certain right does not mean you are always well-advised to exercise it. It also doesn’t mean you should necessarily get to exercise it without impunity.
It’s been said that employers get the unions they deserve. Perhaps we would need fewer laws on both sides of the aisle in the first place if the concept of personal and moral responsibility, so beloved by so many conservative and socialist minds alike, was upheld as a matter of course by both workers and employers alike in their dealings with one another. Perhaps the best solution to this whole worker-employer liberty puzzle is for us as individuals to stop this robotic detachment from all commercial and employment operations, where thousands of human beings are suddenly immune from expectations to employ either common sense, ethics, or humility, because they are “just doing their jobs.” And perhaps we should all make sure we deal with people in the workplace – whether they are a customer of ours, or we of theirs; whether we work for them or they work for us – the way we would appreciate being treated ourselves in any other area of our lives.