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Editorial: Solidarity strikes weren't always so unusual

HOW is it that Finnish flights were disrupted today because of a dispute between postal workers and their employers?

The answer to this question would be familiar to British print workers in the 1970s because they came out on strike in support of NHS nurses.

It would be familiar to thousands who returned the favour when print workers went on strike against the forced imposition of job cuts when Rupert Murdoch introduced new technology in newspaper publishing without a negotiated agreement.

It would be familiar to coal miners in that same decade who turned up in impressive numbers to support mainly Asian women strikers at the Grunwick photo processing plant.

It would be familiar to the thousands, including dockers, printers, and workers in construction, car factories and power stations who besieged Pentonville prison where dockers leaders were banged up.

The reason why solidarity action in support of striking workers seems so unusual today is that a succession of Tory anti-union laws have made this basic human instinct — to offer aid to those in struggle against their oppressors — as illegal as robbing a bank.

Nine thousand workers in the Finnish postal workers’ union are in a bitter struggle over a bid by the employer to shift them from one sectoral agreement to another bringing worsened terms and conditions, new shift patterns and pay cuts.

The union asked SAK, the Finnish TUC, to organise solidarity action. 

The union leader Heidi Nieminen said: “Posti and Palta (the employers’ confederation) are seeking such drastic weakening of terms and conditions that there is not really any other option but to answer with industrial action and try to get a reasonable contract on time.”

If this were to happen in Britain the people involved would find themselves in deep legal trouble. The funds of their trade union would be sequestered by the courts.

The downside for employers (and their Conservative and Liberal Democrat political representatives) is that in such an eventuality the naked realities of class bias in the law are exposed and the pretence that the legal system stands above class conflict begins to wear thin.

In opposition New Labour hinted and sometimes even undertook to repeal the Tory anti-working-class laws but, in its years in government, it only tinkered around with them.

A renewed Labour Party can offer electors an opportunity now to restore workplace rights.

This is not only a long-overdue chance to even out the balance of power between employers and workers but would deliver real economic benefits as well as natural justice.

Rebalancing rights at work, especially for low-paid workers in the most exploited sectors of the economy, will, inevitably, drive pay up, take workers out of the poverty gap, diminish the reliance on benefits to top up incomes, increase the tax take and drive up demand in the economy.

Sectoral bargaining, where employers’ federations and unions meet at national level to fix pay and conditions across a whole industry, introduces a level playing field and, providing employers respect workers’ rights, puts some order into capitalist chaos.

Politicians sometimes talk as if industrial conflict is an unfortunate aberration, a disruption of the natural order driven by malign elements.

It isn’t. It is the normal condition in class-divided society and no-one should imagine that even the most radical rebalancing of rights at work will change the nature of the capitalist system.

But it is a measure of just how distorted and unequal the balance of class power is in Britain that even the application of minimum International Labour Organisation standards would mark a real change.


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