Friday, June 13, 2003

Precautionary strikes

It isn't just in the fields of science and health that an outlook obsessed with safety comes to the fore, these days. The end of the firemen's strike is a good time to note how strikes can be subverted by an overriding concern with safety.

The firemen demanded a wage of 30,000 a year, citing the fact that they had fallen behind the old wage levels from 10 years ago in real terms. When the employers were only prepared to offer an increase far below that, and with many strings attached, they voted overwhelmingly for strike action. In fact, they were probably more united behind action than any major union has been for years.

However, there were just 15 days of strikes in 10 months. Why? Their case was that they took terrible risks all the time, and therefore deserved more money. But by emphasising safety and risk in their arguments, they were then effectively saying 'loads of people could die if we go on strike'. This was unacceptable to them, and to the public. So, at every possible opportunity - a new turn in negotiations or the war with Iraq - they cancelled the strikes. Effectively, this made it impossible for them to apply any pressure on the employers. It would have been better for them to argue that ensuring safety was the government's responsibility, which they were employed to carry out. If the government could not offer them proper payment for doing so, they would withdraw their labour. Ultimately, the success of a fire strike is built on the number of buildings that burn down - unpalatable when stated like that, but basically true.

As it happens, probably fewer fires took place during the strikes because people were doubly careful.

Firefighters end dispute, Guardian, 13 June 2003


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