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Protecting the right to strike has never been so important


3 min read

“The trade unions are a long-established and essential part of our national life...we take our stand by these pillars of our British society as it has gradually developed and evolved itself, of the right of individual labouring men to adjust their wages and conditions by collective bargaining, including the right to strike...”

These words come not from Keir Hardie, nor even Clement Attlee, but from Winston Churchill’s 1947 Conservative Party Conference speech, even after his legendary wartime leadership and what must have felt quite a bitter defeat in the subsequent General Election. Contemporary Conservatives would be wise to learn from the magnanimity of their greatest leader as he built on the Disraeli tradition of protecting the right of working people to organise. Rishi Sunak should do this; not just for a shot at a better place in history, but because it is both principled and politically shrewd.  

Facilitating negotiation rather than more controversial legislation would be a better path for government

Over 40 years earlier and long before the right to strike had been enshrined in the international human rights settlement in which he played a significant part, Churchill observed: “It is most important for the British working classes that they should be able if necessary to strike – although nobody likes strikes – in order to put pressure upon the employers for a greater share of the wealth of the world or for the removal of hard and onerous conditions...”

In a world of union-free and exploitative Amazon warehouses; one of food banks next to investment banks, his 1904 comments could not be more salient. Rights to union-recognition, collective bargaining and to withdraw labour, are merely the employee’s equivalent of property rights; including to engage in coordinated consumer or investment action against unscrupulous companies or foreign powers that exploit slave labour. How can it be regarded as conservative to further attack them?

In the private sphere, government would be seen to be siding with intransigent, unscrupulous and profiteering rail companies with whom passengers have little sympathy after years of rising fares and diminished service. In the public realm, it would be abusing its power as legislator, further undermining the nurses and ambulance drivers who are as much the heroes of the pandemic as any service person was during World War Two. 

Their concerns are as much about the state of the service as their own terms and conditions. These are highly ethical people and in any event, prohibited by law from putting lives at risk during industrial action. Agency workers are already paid multiples of their earnings whilst they resort to food banks. What are they supposed to do if employers and ministers won’t talk and listen? 

No doubt some Tories are nostalgic for the days of Thatcher versus the miners. Here I agree with many commentators that those times were significantly different. Those urging a tough line towards current strife point to the greater numbers of union members in those days. I would counter that “pits” were not located in every community in the country. The traditional all-male workforce was more easily demonised in the shires as ideological dinosaurs. They were not led by the more pragmatic, sympathetic – and often women – trade union advocates of today. 

Perhaps I am naive about the electoral benefits of constant divide and rule as opposed to one nation politics. However current polls would appear to favour my argument that facilitating negotiation rather than more controversial legislation would be a better path for government.

Alternatively, ministers can add NHS professionals, firefighters, rail workers and no doubt countless others, to the lawyers, climate change protesters and migrants already on their list of the unwelcome.


Baroness Chakrabarti is a Labour peer.

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