With the calling off of the Fire Brigade Union’s strike in London, David Brownsey-Joyce looks at the future of strike action within the public sector and the common sense direction it should take.
The Fire Brigade Union’s strike over Bonfire Night and the festival of light, Diwali, in London was called off in what can only be seen as a common sense reaction by unions to what was becoming a media backlash against public sector workers who put their lives on the line for this country but through their unions appeared to be ignoring their traditionally busiest period of the year.
There are times when it is necessary to strike, to withdraw your labour and stand up for your rights, but choosing when and how are a difficult matter, especially in a time of 24hr media and in the middle of a recession that is affecting everyone in the country.
Lets face it, people are fed up about hearing about staff striking, it seems to be a constantly on the news, whether it be plans to strike, actual strikes, or resolved strikes (of the three I like the last best). This at a time when we have high levels of unemployment and a lot of people are simply saying ‘that those striking should just be thankful they have a job’, unions need to be careful.
Public sector cuts are about to take hold, consultations are about to, if they haven’t already, begin, and unions are looking at the possibility of a number of their workers being thrown to the wolves.
Unions need to be careful and look after their members’ best interests, whether that mean working with management on redundancies, through viable alternatives such as reducing the number of hours a person works or getting better deals to support voluntary redundancies. They also need to make sure that they get their message out in a positive way, that explains why they are taking the action they feel is necessary to maintain support; they need to make sure that they don’t take action that whilst maximising effect will make people resent them to wonder whether they are better off with different people rather than the members who are sitting on their laurels behind a picket line and not working in the publics best interest; and most importantly they need to give up the mentality of entrenched positions.
Look at it this way, the London Fire Brigade members who were threatening to strike during the what could best be described as two nights of mass celebratory arson, decided to call off the strike after a) an injunction was granted against obstructing members of AssetCo, the private sector ‘scabs’ who were brought in to make sure we didn’t all die from fire whilst the union members drank tea on the picket, entering or leaving fire stations after reports of fire engines being obstructed from attending emergencies; and b) further talks were arranged between London Fire Brigade and the Fire Bridges Union for 16 November.
Talking is good, dialogue to resolve disputes is the way forward and whilst there is a time when action is called for, Bonfire Night and Diwali are certainly not the smartest time for them. Whilst there are those that would say it would maximise effect, I say yes and you are leaving the prevention of fire to a private sector firm that your own union does not rate very well.
Doesn’t generally look very good, instead what the union should be saying is “that our members could not trust the private contractors to cope with the busiest time of the year and they felt a moral obligation to protect the public.” That just makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but not too warm.
Unions need to do a better job of explaining why public sector workers do what they do, how they are better than the private sector and how they cannot in good conscious allow the public sector cuts to go ahead as they are without a fight.
We are going to be suffering strikes for a while, unions need to wake up and start thinking about the public that their members serve so loyally. They need to compromise occasionally and work out exactly what is important to their members whether it is their jobs or their conditions as something tells me that the public sector is going to make a play to adjust the bottom line on one or the other.