Friday, April 02, 2010
Unite and RMT are far from experiencing this legal attack for the first time. A couple of years ago, it was bus workers who were slapped down on a technicality - this being that the union had failed to detail the occupational grades of those taking action with sufficient precision. Last year, court decisions in favour of Metrobus further enhanced the employers' massive legal advantage. Keith Ewing of King's College London, writing as the BA strike was unfolding, noted that Britain's laws meant it fell foul of its obligations under international human rights legislation. The ILO Committee, reviewing the laws, have once more called for the government to consider abolishing them. That isn't going to happen, but nevertheless, the trade unions have consistently relied on New Labour, even where the chances were roughly on a par with those of a hell-bound snowball, to repeal Britain's atrocious anti-trade union laws. But Blair had pledged in opposition that his government would not only keep the laws in place, but would be the "most restrictive government against the unions in Europe". Gordon Brown has made clear his fidelity to this stance. It has to be such. New Labour's model of growth, which is its only means of delivering some modest reforms, depends on keeping labour markets flexible, with weak bargaining power. Meanwhile, the Tories and Lib Dems have made it clear that they are opposed to the "militant unions" and consider the government far too soft.
This is going to become an ever sharper issue as all major parties press for deeper cuts than Thatcher. Let me remind you of what's ahead of us, via John Lanchester of the LRB:
The reality is that the budget, and the explicit promises of both parties, imply a commitment to cuts of about 11 per cent across the board. Both parties, however, have said that they will ring-fence spending on health, education and overseas development. Plug in those numbers and we are looking at cuts everywhere else of 16 per cent. (By the way, a two-year freeze in NHS spending – which is what Labour have talked about – would be its sharpest contraction in 60 years.)
Cuts of that magnitude have never been achieved in this country. Mrs Thatcher managed to cut some areas of public spending to zero growth; the difference between that and a contraction of 16 per cent is unimaginable. The Institute for Fiscal Studies – which admittedly specialises in bad news of this kind – thinks the numbers are, even in this dire prognosis, too optimistic. It makes less optimistic assumptions about the growth of the economy, preferring not to accept the Treasury’s rose-coloured figure of 2.75 per cent. Plugging these less cheerful growth estimates into its fiscal model, the guesstimate for the cuts, if the ring-fencing is enforced, is from 18 to 24 per cent. What does that mean? According to Rowena Crawford, an IFS economist, quoted in the FT: ‘For the Ministry of Defence an 18 per cent cut means something on the scale of no longer employing the army.’ The FT then extrapolates:
At the transport ministry, an 18 per cent reduction would take out more than a third of the department’s grant to Network Rail; a 24 per cent reduction is about equivalent to ending all current and capital expenditure on roads. At the Ministry of Justice an 18 per cent reduction broadly equates to closing all the courts, a 24 per cent cut to shutting two-thirds of all prisons.
It's impossible to imagine all of this being accomplished. It's equally impossible to imagine the bosses, and the bankers in particular, relenting until the massive transfer of public assets to the banks has been paid for by the working class. Unless the economy magically grows at such a rate that deep cuts can be avoided, there is likely to be years of bitter conflict, not to mention a complementary dash of pandemonium in the streets. The major resistance to these cuts is going to come via the public sector trade unions. And while the courts will certainly not be the major venue in which such disputes are settled, it is hard to see the government relinquishing the tools that BA and Network Rail - to select just the most recent examples - have availed themselves of. It has previously made use of such legislation when dealing with prison officers, for instance. A campaign to repeal the anti-union laws would appear to be the appropriate solution to all of this, except that the government have given us every indication that they wouldn't listen to any campaign without a proportionate bite. In reality, only if workers acquire the confidence to break the union laws and strike anyway, as postal workers did with wildcat action at the start of the millenium - and won some surprising victories against management - will there be any chance of seeing an end to the laws. Now, I want John Humpheys to say that on air.