On Monday, 25 November 2002 Tony Blair set out to intervene personally in the Firemen’s pay dispute after senior cabinet colleagues were accused of sending out mixed messages. By Monday 16 December 2002 the Bain report was out advocating an 11% rise in return for a reform or modernisation package that would cut the workforce down by about 3 to 5 000 over the next few years. Sir George Bain only claimed to put broad principles rather than a blueprint yet he said that change could not be dodged if there was to be a pay rise – or even if there was not to be he seemed to hint. But ever since his earlier summary report, this report was held to be hostile to the union by the strikers and they were attempting to brand it as not relevant over the weekend before it was finally published.
The papers on Tuesday, 17 December 2002 reported Bain as saying the firemen had enough pay already. Maybe a warning on strikes, that they could bring wages down as well as up (similar to the caution investors get with shares) might get unionists to ponder things over responsibly; especially when the workers are in sought-after-jobs. The Prime Minister put the government’s case in a live televised address from Downing Street at 11am on Monday morning 25 November and it was repeated on the News at Ten that night. He said that 4% was all that was due without measures that would cover any extra cost. 4% was well above what others in the public sector had been paid. It was true that firemen were a deserving case but no more so than the nurses or others in the public sector. How could he say to the soldiers, who are doing the firemen’s job now whilst being paid way less than them, that they should get less should they push for more. But it was reported on Newsnight that the Prime Minister said he was not in the business of giving the union a bloody nose. The first reaction in the morning from the strikers was sheer defiance. Some said they could be still out in March 2003, if need be, to show the government that they could win. The union spokesmen held that there was not a clear voice from the government; but Blair has haply put paid to that now. However, earlier on Monday the cabinet minister Peter Hain said that Blair hoped to create “a very clear understanding that we want the fire-fighters to achieve a just settlement” But to that he added “They deserve justice. Their situation has been ignored for far too long by everybody concerned.” This latter comment might lead the firemen to think they had some sympathy, though they told one radio programme that they could not pay the mortgage with mere sympathy.
The Prime Minister’s intervention followed the Fire Brigade’s Union [FBU] leader Andy Gilchrist on Today 25 November when he said that the government needed to sort out its “confusing messages” before negotiations could restart. He said that by modernisation the government was setting out to lower the total workforce. Maybe he just does not realise that lowering the numbers employed is the most likely result from successful union action in any case, as higher pay tends to lower demand. If the price goes up then demand tends to fall. On Newsnight that night, the government’s idea to lower the numbers in modernisation was again pushed by one of the FBU’s spokesmen. But a week later Gilchrist was calling for a real Labour government and that brought in charges of it being a political strike. The government began saying that the troops were doing about as good a job as the firemen and with fewer numbers and inferior equipment and the press began to think that the state was losing the war of words. The FBU called off the strike of the following week and went into talks with ACAS, the conciliation service, instead. They had measured public support during their first two-day strike by vehicles buzzing their horns whilst passing the fire stations, but during the second strike this fall from about 300 buzzes a minute to about ten. So they know that public support has ebbed.
But the FBU plans fresh strikes in the New Year, and they had a march in London 14 December to boost fresh public support for that campaign. Trade Unionism is largely based on ideology; in the Marxist sense of unrealistic dogmas held for the emotional satisfaction that they give. Ironically, Marx himself developed ideology in this sense rather than as a science as he claimed. Moreover, if we contrast his work with that of Robert Owen, whom Marx called utopian & who was certainly more naïve, then by any viable use of scientific Owen goes way nearer the mark, even though he remains clearly moralistic. He better put the ideas to the test instead of attempting to “blind with science” as the cliché has it. Pitt the Younger had laws against unions on the rather madcap idea that it might support insurrection in the wake of the French Revolution. The truth was that the mob in the Britain of his day was more likely to be a “Church and King” mob of the like that burned down Joseph Priestley’s home in Birmingham in 1791. But the whole romance of what is called revolution thrives on hyperbole and unrealistic fear; or equally unrealistic hopes. In the 1820s, the liberals Francis Place and Joseph Hume got the Combination Acts of Pitt repealed. Place expected the workers to soon see through the trade unions and he expected them to fade away before too long, but initially things went wholly counter to what he expected, and he and Hume needed to protect the repeal from being undone a year after they achieved it. The Tories, Huskisson and Peel, [both rather liberal leaning themselves and the latter in the 1840s utterly converted by Cobden], were concerned about a wave of strikes that clearly featured violence and intimidation during that first year of repeal in1825. However, the repeal was upheld.
Rarely, if ever, has the unions pioneered the top wages or the best conditions but the naïve idea retained by today’s common sense is that they won better pay and better conditions, especially in the nineteenth century. This was the sort of claptrap that Place thought would be bound to fall in the long run, but, like many propagandists, he overestimated the speed and depth of the spread of liberalism. The workers did not really comprehend unionism, but neither were they very curious about it. So they settled for untested common sense. There were not enough men like Place to explain unionism to them. But Robert Owen on this issue gave Place a hand, for he, too, in the 1820s, thought the trade unions were anti-social and even anti-socialist by being anti-blackleg. He set out to form a Grand National Consolidated Trades Union that would be for the working class as a whole and not against the blacklegs but against the capitalist class. It soon got up to a million men and built its own premises in Birmingham but it found no rationale, as there never was the class struggle that Owen, and later Marx, imagined. By 1830, the general union was all but defunct. However, Owen was the nearest thing to an actual scientific socialist and his New Harmony put free access to the test whilst his Grand Union put the class struggle to the test. Both were basically refuted.
In 1866, the abuse of the unions, by putting a can of
gunpowder in a working man’s home because he was a blackleg, brought a
movement to undo what Place had achieved again.
Judges declared that the unions were illegal. Gladstone, a member of
the Peel camp converted by Cobden in the 1840s, was concerned about the
thuggery of the unions, and, in 1871 he made them legal but saw to it that
they had to keep to the law like anyone else. As well as the Trade Union Act
to give them legality, Gladstone’s government also passed the Criminal Law
Amendment Act of 1871 that effectively stopped the unions from picketing.
It was left to Disraeli to repeal that Act in 1874 so that the unions
had a de facto privilege to picket.
As Owen had noted in the 1820s, they never once picketed a capitalist. They
form a barrier to entry to limit the numbers of men in a line of work in order
to create, and then maintain, a permanent scarcity in the line of work. This
gets higher wages but tends to lower the workforce and it is a restraint of
trade, as free trade tends to allow new workers in to end the shortage and to
share the higher wages. Over the weekend of the 23 November, Chancellor Gordon
Brown said a 16% pay rise for firemen, without savings from new working
practices, would be unaffordable. His comments contrasted with Deputy Prime
Minister John Prescott, who held out the prospect of a 16% rise over three
years. An FBU spokesman said: “After the debacle of last week and the
confusion of the weekend, Downing Street is clearly rattled. Perhaps Tony
Blair can now shed some light about what the government’s strategy is.”
Gilchrist then said the only signal that would bring unions back to the
negotiating table was clarity from the government on the pay offer and a
“single voice” outlining their position. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today
programme 25 November, he said: “The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the
deputy prime minister you would think, would be a single authority voice, but
they seem to be competing on this issue. What we want to see is a significant
offer on pay.” He had said that Friday 22 November’s 16% deal, offered by
the employers during protracted overnight discussions, would have cost less
than £200m to fund. However, Labour party chairman, John Reid, disputed this
figure and he said it would have amounted to £450m. Extended to all local
authority workers it would have cost £4bn, he added. Reid was also speaking
on Today, and he said the only way
forward was a negotiated settlement and that anything above 4% would have to
be self financed through modernisation that Gilchrist said the union would
pursue. Reid said the government
had been giving out the same unilateral message for the last five months in
response to the union’s demands for a 40% pay rise. Prescott made a Commons
statement supporting the Bain Report on 16 December. , He told the House that
modernisation was now bound to be implemented. But the FBU plans two more
strikes in the New Year.
Rarely, if ever, has the unions pioneered the top
wages or the best conditions but the naïve idea retained by today’s common
sense is that they won better pay and better conditions, especially in the
nineteenth century. This was the sort of claptrap that Place thought would be
bound to fall in the long run, but, like many propagandists, he overestimated
the speed and depth of the spread of liberalism.