Some public service workers do not have the right to strike – the police and the armed forces. Is it unreasonable to deny them this right? I think most people – myself amongst them – would say no. They would see that the right to strike has to be balanced against the public good of having the streets policed and soldiers, sailors and airmen who will be unquestionably available to provide national defence and to attend to national emergencies.
If we decide as a society that the police and servicemen cannot strike, there is no reason in principle why the removal of the right to strike cannot be more widely extended for we have already decided it is not an absolute right. The question is how far to extend the denial of the right.
There is a case for a general ban on striking by public service workers because they are funded by the taxpayer and ultimately responsible to the taxpayer or at least the electorate. But before any such ban could be reasonably considered the general pay and employment conditions must be made fair and secure in the manner described in the previous section – their pay and conditions would have to be such that the majority of the population would think them reasonable. That would leave the problem of union action over unfair dismissal or other disciplinary action, but it is difficult for a union to argue that there is not adequate recourse through Employment Tribunals or, if the union wishes to fund a case brought by one of their members, through the courts.
If a general ban is thought too severe, there is good reason to ban strikes in those organisations which provide services which are both vital and immediately necessary. It would be difficult to argue that all-out strikes by NHS staff or firemen would cause less public damage and chaos than strikes by the police or servicemen.
Because of privatization, there are also private companies whose employees in principle need to be banned from striking, particularly the utilities such as gas, water and electricity. That raises another objection to the placing of utilities in private hands: it makes action such as ruling strikes illegal for certain workers very difficult, even impossible in practice. The utilities being private companies, governments cannot control their wages and conditions of employment as they can those of public bodies. Or rather, they could do so, but then they would be taking so much of the control of a fundamental part of a private business out of its management’s hands (this would be in addition to the areas already covered by the various utility regulators) that two questions would arise: (1) could any private company operate under such constraints? and (2) if a company has to be so constrained by government, what is the point of it being a private company? The answer to (1) is probably no and to ((2) no point.
The real answer is to renationalize these vital services.
If the right to strike is removed those affected could be compensated by the introduction of mechanisms to ensure they are treated fairly when pay and other conditions are decided. Pay might be linked to the average national wage with wages rising or falling as the average wage rises or falls. This would involve weighting different jobs as a percentage of the national average wage. For example, a senior civil servant might receive 400% of the average wage and a clerk only 80%.
Conditions are more problematic to solve by strict rules because of their diversity, but judgments based on comparisons with organisations not affected by the ban on striking could be used as a yardstick to decide what was reasonable.