Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Monday, February 03, 2014

I don’t begrudge Boris Johnson his newspaper column but I do mind his ill-considered, hypocritical anti-union tirade

London Mayor, Boris Johnson has taken time off from his busy schedule to share with readers of the Daily Torygraph his views on this week's tube strike.

Predictably he returns to his favourite demand - that strike ballots should be subject to a 50% turnout threshold in order to provide unions with civil immunity (he doesn't explain his demand that way but that's what he means).

The Colonel Bufton-Tuftons reading this out in the stockbroker belt are probably now harrumphing their agreement over the marmalade, but Boris Johnson clearly cannot be defeated by simple mockery (indeed it created him).

Given the superficially "democratic" appearance of this fundamentally anti-democratic proposal it is worth reminding ourselves of the arguments - in practice and in principle - against this proposal.

There are a large number of factors which depress turnouts in strike ballots which, by law, have to be conducted by post to home addresses. Low paid workers, perhaps living in houses in multiple occupation, moving frequently as their tenure is insecure may never even see their ballot paper.

Others still, juggling bills and trying to avoid turning to a legal loan shark at the end of each pay month, may not open all official correspondence promptly. In other cases, well, all sorts of things can happen (we had a member whose young child once turned their ballot paper into a work of art).

Whatever the reasons, very many industrial action ballots produce a turnout of less than 50% - and yet can still lead to well-supported action. On planet Boris, UNISON members would not have been able to take the official action for which we voted on 30 November 2011.

And, in principle, why should there be such a threshold uniquely for industrial action ballots? Management face no "threshold" when deciding to cut jobs, or hold down pay (because they have no vote at all of course). Underpinning Boris's argument is a model in which industrial action is a disruptive exception to the normal rule of workers by bosses.

One might equally observe though that conflict of interest is embedded in the employment relationship and that one-sided restrictions on the ability of workers to take action in support of our interests is no more than old-fashioned class politics, pure and simple.

Perhaps the critical point to bear in mind though is that Boris Johnson was elected with 51.53% of the vote in 2012, but on a 38% turnout. He therefore commanded the positive support of less than a fifth of London's electorate - and yet considers that a mandate not for a few days strike action but for four years rule - including the permanent closure of local fire stations, putting lives at risk.

Whatever disruption and inconvenience Londoners may experience as a result of the forthcoming tube strike it will be as nothing compared to the harm being done by our hard-right reactionary Mayor, attacking public services on the back of less than 20% support.

Trade unionists and democrats need to make the case against further restrictions on our rights.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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