Saturday, 30 October 2010

A response to Jack of Kent on the Bonfire Night Strike

I admire David Allen Green, better known as Jack of Kent, for a number of reasons. His often pro bono defence for victims of spurious libel claims, and his campaigning against the UK's libel laws in particular. However, he falls drastically short on his understanding of labour relations.

Earlier in the week, he wrote a blog for the New Statesman, asking "are public service strikes ever an abuse of power?" A provocative question, and one that provoked a strong reaction from a lot of people.

The key point, in my opinion, was this from Latte Labour;
Don't get me wrong, by the way, I am not accusing Green of betraying anyone. He is consistently doing what liberals do, using appeals to disinterested reason, fairness, balance, and public-spiritedness to support the status quo whilst appearing progressive.
Which, of course, is the main issue at hand. Many bloggers and political commentators vociferously hate trade unions and strikes, and can often be quite articulate in their objections. But they are also honest in their biases. Nobody could accuse the Devil's Knife, for example, of disguising his opinions on the matter.

But Green is. His blog ends on a question, apparently leaving the matter unresolved. But reading through the whole thing, it is apparent that the question was answered before it was asked.

He thinks the Fire Brigade Union calling a strike on Bonfire Night is "shocking." He believes that "public-service unions seem to get away with it again and again." And he is of the opinion that "any strike by public-service workers can arguably be worse for certain vulnerable and impoverished members of society than any George Osborne Budget." But he offers the question as though still awaiting the answer.

As if to back up this pretext, he today gives us a follow up post which addresses both sides of the argument by asking direct questions of the respective press offices. It is worthwhile reading, and it aims at objectivity. Indeed, the conclusion that "it is rather hard to see which side is abusing their power more" suggests that it has been reached.

But the neutral conclusion is only there if we ignore the economics of labour relations and the one simple fact behind them: the employer and the employees do not start from a level footing.
As the owner of capital, the employer has the upper hand, and this is precisely why employees must combine to assert their interests. This is no radical Marxist doctrine. You can discover the fact easy enough in the work of Adam Smith, that hero of classical liberalism - Green's professed ideology.

From which point, we get the reason for strikes in the first place. Since it is our labour power which drives production, with the bosses merely parasiting off it through illegitimate property rights, it is the withdrawal of that labour which is our greatest leverage when taking them on. If we rely only on the kindness of our employers, we are simply welcoming that race to the bottom.

All of which is lost on Green, who is baffled that the FBU would call a strike on Bonfire Night "of all days." This is, after all, "the busiest time of the year for firefighters." So why on earth would they choose that date?

Applying common sense, I made this point in a tweet (as yet unreplied to);
Striking at a time of no critical impact to the employer is like building a bonfire with damp wood.
And the idea of the effective use of labour power in industrial relations being an "abuse" of that same power, almost by default, is exactly the same covert support for established power that Latte Labour spoke of. Indeed, it is the central plank of the propaganda model analysis of the media put forward by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman.

If Green wants to have an objective debate on this question, that is fine. But for that he has to have the debate without the framework which answers the question in favour of established power before it is even asked.