BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
Whether it’s left-wingers hijacking the Junior Doctor’s strike, guerrilla train strikes or hard socialist agitants arranging bus strikes, strikes are costing You – the UK taxpayers – hundreds of millions of pounds every year. In 2014, the Federation of Small Businesses said the cost of a two-day London Underground strike to the British Economy was around £600m. The ongoing Southern Rail strikes have cost the British economy significantly more. That’s unacceptable. That’s economic sabotage by anyone’s book.
Those who arrange these strikes invent creative reasons (an extra guard on a train, lack of pay, health & safety objections) to strike but there is a common political thread that runs through their desire for strike augmentation – these people want to do the country down and dream of replacing what they call the current system with a system they admire and of which Rosa Luxemburg would approve. For this they need weakened UK institutions, chaos and far left wing political leaders close to power talking of nationalisation. Popularity is irrelevant. Power is key.
There are two faces to trade unions: their collective institutional response face and their monopoly face.
While the former can be attractive – collective bargaining resulting in better employee wages, a sense for workers of union security, pensions, holidays, reasonable hours of employment and an end to discrimination in treatment leading to improved job performance and increased national productivity – the latter is what gives unions their present ugliness.
Unions in monopolies – who by definition face no competition – lose sight of the ball and grow too big for their boots. Unions that have faced a bad press and unrepresentative leaderships have clustered and festered amidst public apathy towards them. While some of their leaders now openly threaten class war, they take home salaries north of £100,000 and sun themselves on the beach while struggling commuters – many of whom are their paying members – face mayhem during the strikes they have organised.
So in what ways have these unions lost sight of the ball?
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (commonly known as the RMT) is a British trade union covering the transport sector. The RMT announced in 2009 that it would be standing a slate of candidates in the 2009 European Parliament elections under the banner of No to EU – Yes to Democracy, a broad left-wing alter-globalisation coalition which aimed to offer an alternative to the “anti-foreigner” and pro-business policies of UKIP. The RMT then became a founding member of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, a left wing political party which has contested the 2010 and 2015 UK general elections. What’s a union doing forming political parties? The RMT is also very keen on making money from its membership (perhaps this is to help pay for its boss – appropriately named – Mick Cash’s £128k salary).
Take ASLEF – Britain’s trade union for train drivers. Its 19,500+ members are employed in the train operating companies, the freight companies, London Underground and some Light Rapid Transport. ASLEF runs its own think tank – a policy and research department within its offices – with an emphasis on International Policy. Instead of focusing on its train drivers, who are in the UK, it has gone and got itself tangled up in the affairs of Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela and into espousing Palestinian solidarity. What on earth has all that got to do with the really rather simple task of driving trains?
This is not the first time a British union has bound itself to foreign influence:
British Government papers – released a few years ago – showed how the security services tried to catch Arthur Scargill’s union officials smuggling suitcases of Soviet-donated cash into Britain during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. This is merely the best documented case of Russian meddling in British union activity and political life. Downing Street suspected that Moscow was involved in the transfer of more than $1 million to an anonymous Swiss bank account set up by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to fund the bitter and drawn-out industrial dispute. British agents were told to “exercise vigilance” for any signs that miners’ union officials might be travelling abroad to pick up consignments of banknotes.
The Unite union has been involved politically in a battle with the “right wing press” and against “Tory scum” for decades, while donating to Labour and, in effect, escorting in the last two Labour leaders. Despite many of its members being Daily Mail readers and Tory voters. While Putin has useful idiots on the right as well as the left, why does Len McCluskey surround himself with Putin apologists and keep heading over to Russia? His challenger for the Unite leadership, Gerard Coyne, argues in the Guardian that the union has lost direction, that “McCluskey is the bad boss who does not have the interests of working people sufficiently at heart. The current Unite leader, he says at the outset, spends far too much time playing power politics and trying to “pull strings” at Westminster and not enough on the vital issues that affect his 1.4 million members.”
So, hang on a minute here. See how unions – many enjoying monopoly – have blatantly outgrown their remit? How they have sought dubious foreign donations. How some are focused on revolution not the success of UK PLC. Time for reform?
While Unions cannot help but be somewhat political, and on occasion show solidarity with foreign worker unions, they are failing to focus on their basic role, which is to support, protect and negotiate collectively for their UK workers.
Which is why politicians, like Boris Johnson, have dismissed strikes as union-clique-inspired political payback in the recent past – as politically motivated by their “pig-headed” leadership.
This video shows union leaders gathered in Durham for a union gala in 2015. Notice Len McCluskey of Unite chortling and clapping in the background as ASLEF’s leader Tosh McDonald rants, “I hated Margaret Thatcher with a passion. I hated her so much when she was alive I set my alarm clock an hour earlier than I needed to so when I woke up I could hate her for an hour longer.” McDonald enjoys “the wonderful sight of Margaret Thatcher in her coffin” (Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage at this Durham gala also.)
With the current wayward Labour leadership recorded openly fanning the flames of industrial action and unions politicised in ways which do not represent the British public, surely there needs to be legislation put in place to counter the threat of economic terrorism and sabotage posed by radical unions.
I propose ETSA, the Economic Terrorism & Sabotage Act, which should impose criminal sentences for two types of conspiracy – conspiracy to strike to cause economic sabotage based on political motivation (3 to 5 years) and conspiracy to strike to cause economic terrorism where direct involvement by a foreign power has been proven (10-20 years). The Act should give investigative powers to the authorities whereby they can investigate for both conspiracies or rely on existing files likely held by British security services. ETSA should also insist on an end to union monopoly – for each union another should be created to compete against the other and a union watchdog be formed to ensure unions stick to their limited remits.
ETSA should in no way curb workers’ ability to legitimately strike where the strike is bona fide. ETSA should clearly define unions’ roles and threaten them with prosecution for overstepping their remits. Brexit will give the UK an opportunity to formulate such legislation in coming years – free of European oversight.