“Industrial relations”, as the industrial side of the class struggle is called by mealy-mouthed politicians and journalists, has in recent years become a political issue. Many people, not understanding what causes strikes and why they are sometimes necessary, have become annoyed by the inconvenience they sometimes cause. The government, they moan, should do something about these strikes. The Labour and Conservative parties have vied with each other for the votes of such people. The Conservatives won recently, with their promise to pass legislation making strikes more risky from a legal point of view. The threat of legal sanctions, they implied, would deter would-be strikers.
Would it? There is already special penal legislation against industrial action by gas, water and electricity workers. Section 4 of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act of 1875 (as extended in 1919) makes it a crime, as well as a civil wrong, for such workers to break their contracts of employment when this would cause supplies of gas, water or electricity to be cut. There are two ways, for these workers when they want to take industrial action, round this law. One is to formally terminate the contract; the other is to work strictly to it. Faced with the refusal of their employers to improve their wages offer, electricity workers decided last December to adopt the latter course, “to work to rule”.
The chairman of the CEGB stated publicly that, in his view, some of the workers were not working to his rules but to their own less stringent ones. This was tantamount to saying that they were breaching their contract. It was also suggested that even a proper work-to-rule would be a breach of the agreement between the unions and the employers (Financial Times, 9 December). In other words some at least of the electricity workers by going too slow had committed a crime.
What did the government do? Did they arrest anybody? Were any prosecutions launched? Here surely was a chance for them to prove that they could stop strikes by legislation. In fact not only were the electricity workers not deterred by the law in the first place, but the government and employers did not bother to implement it. They were perhaps deterred by the fiasco when the Labour government tried to prosecute striking dockers in April 1951. The Tories (who ironically are to replace this section of the 1875 Act in their Industrial Relations Bill) stand exposed as loud-mouths, making lying promises in order to win the votes of misguided workers.
What this also shows — and it has some relevance to the extravagant claims made for and against the Tories’ Bill — is that, although there may be anti-strike laws on the statute book, whether or not they are actually applied depends on the political and industrial climate, including the opinion of the voters and the determination of the strikers.
Strikes have their roots in the very basis of present-day society, in the fact that the means of production are owned by a privileged minority and that the wage and salary earners who actually produce the wealth sometimes have to strike in order to protect their living standards and working conditions. No law can effectively stamp out strikes, work-to-rules or go slows. Workers who think they can, and who voted Tory under this illusion, have not only been misled by Tory (and Labour, for that matter) propaganda, but are also ignorant of their own best interests.