John L. Lewis was known as “the world’s greatest oil salesman”. He was neither a salesman in the classical sense nor in the oil business per se. The title was given to him by a professor of economics due to Lewis’s work as president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920-1960. In this role, he fought for pay increases for coal miners and was incredibly successful in doing so.
The result, aside from higher wages, was an increase in the overall coal price as well as numerous disruptions due to repeated industrial action, which caused many people to make the switch from coal to oil. That, of course, spiked a massive wave of unemployment in the mining sector (in addition to technological advancements) and some mining communities became practical ghost towns by the 1960s. An “act of self-harm”, as Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps described strike action, is not too far off reality.
There are many unseen side effects of giving way to organised labour demands. Most of them are simple derivations of economics 101, namely that less is demanded at a higher price than at a lower price, whether that is coal, labour or trains.
With the ongoing rail strikes, this becomes all too relevant again. Only every fifth service will be running as more than 40,000 RMT Union members are set to walk out this month, in strikes starting today. 41 Eurostar trains will also be suspended, resulting in an estimate loss of over £1 billion across the entire economy. Train and signalling operators, rail staff and guards are all partaking in what has been described as the biggest rail strike in modern history.
The cause, according to the RMT Union, is primarily the frozen salary which, in times of 9 per cent inflation, means a reduction in real wages since the purchasing power is decreased. Proposed redundancies also play a major role in the dispute.
But the transport industry is already in a dire situation: after two years of “stay at home, save lives”, people are now getting used to working remotely. Commuting five days a week seems like an ancient ritual of the past, similar to when my parents tell me about going to school on a Saturday. For many, the norm has simply changed. The financial impact this has had on the transport sector has been enormous and demands for pay increases of 11 per cent in times of financial hardship is only rubbing salt into the wound of any organisation, struggling to adapt its business model.
As a consequence, the question of replacement workers has been raised by Grant Shapps, who said he would look into reforming the law that forbids agency workers to stand in for union members on strike across all sectors. This law had been put in place by the Labour government under Tony Blair. Even though any changes would not apply to the planned rail strikes this month, it raises an interesting question: Who actually owns the job?
Forbidding employers to hire replacement workers to come in and do the work necessary to continue production somehow perpetuates the idea that the employee “owns” the job or has a right to the job. But unless stated in the employment contract, at the very basics, a worker only has the right to be paid for work he conducted. It should not be illegal for the employer to do with the job as he pleases, be that hiring a replacement or firing the employee for walking out on him. After all, it is the employer who owns the budget that will be spent on the exchange for promised labour.
Yet employers’ hands have been tied by legislation that directs what they can and cannot do with their own budgets, how they can and cannot spend it, for example by giving it to someone else who is willing to jump in when needed.
In the case of railways, issues of safety have been raised by the RMT Union and Labour MPs alike. It is true that it will be more difficult to find an agency worker qualifying as a signaller than as a shelf stocker at a supermarket. But the fundamental question of ownership and property rights remains. It would then be the responsibility of the train operators to find or train qualified workers to replace those on strike without compromising on passengers’ safety.
No one denies workers their “right to strike”, aside maybe from President Truman, who threatened to draft striking steel workers into the army in a moment of panic. Voluntary association and the right to organise is not the issue, but the special privileges granted to unions by the government are. Every employee can freely make the decision to walk out but must live with the consequences – whether they are pricing themselves out of a job or are replaced by someone else willing to do the work for the money paid.