On a purely personal level, one can understand Ed Milband’s reluctance to condemn the impending strike of petrol-tanker drivers. After all, their union, Unite, is the biggest paymaster of the Labour party in general and Ed’s election campaign in particular. Under such circumstances, expecting from him a ringing denunciation of the proposed action would be presuming too much on human goodness.
And nor can a realist expect that any politician, regardless of his party affiliation, would these days act out of anything other than personal interest, narrowly defined as hanging on to power. In this case, of course, Ed’s ideological DNA comes into play as well — socialists of any hue, and Ed’s is among the reddest, feel about industrial action the way conservatives feel about tax cuts: as something to be welcomed ipso facto, regardless of any attendant considerations.
Never mind that the proposed strike could well paralyse the country at her time of great need, mostly punishing those same ordinary folk in whose name Labour seeks power. It’s not for nothing that Labourites sing the Internationale at their party conferences and wave their red flags. They live by the old Leninist maxim: the worse, the better. The worse off the country will be during and following the disruption, the more troubled the waters in which assorted lefties can fish.
It has to be said that not all strikes have this desired effect. For example, when Belgian doctors went on strike in 1964, the results were astonishing. In the six months that they stayed off, the mortality rate in the country registered a statistically significant drop, prompting the Serbian philosopher Ivan Illich to opine that most diseases are iatrogenic, that is, caused by doctors.
That example aside, and I wouldn’t want to be the one to put Illich’s theory to another test, there is a strong argument that strikes by vital public services — policemen, firemen, doctors, ambulance paramedics and so forth — ought to be banned. One can suggest that also included in this category should be a strike that may make the vehicles driven by those people run out of fuel. This argument lies on the surface.
However, if we were to delve a bit deeper, we might well ponder the very institution of labour unions. This is not to deny that during the Industrial Revolution trade unionism had a useful role to play. As millions of workers were routinely used to perform mechanical tasks requiring little skill, each individual worker had next to no bargaining power. They were all easily and instantly replaceable. That handed inordinate power to the employers, and, in a free society, any inordinate power must be checked. Hence trade unionism, which in those days performed the truly conservative function of securing individual liberties (the methods employed by the unions weren’t always conservative, but that’s a different story).
Things have changed though — enough for us to know that, as labour becomes more and more qualified, labour unions become more and more redundant. For example, university professors can under no circumstance be regarded as merely faceless cogs in a giant machine, and yet they too have their own union. If someone is among the few people in His Creation who understand quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity and how they just might be at odds, then surely such an overachiever (don’t you just hate them?) ought to be able to negotiate his own pay deal? The same can be said about most people who are gainfully employed, whose relative number is diminishing in proportion to the growth of union power.
In our post-industrial age, labour unions are an anachronism, there to remind us that, like death and taxes, modernity never relinquishes what it claims. Gone are the industrial conditions that brought unions to life, and their claim to existence is becoming ever more fraudulent. When an instituiton finds itself in such a situation, it has to justify its own existence at all costs. After all, why should union leaders be any different from the spivocrats who govern us? They too want to cling on to power, and their ability to do so depends on their potential for stirring up trouble, the more disabling the better.
Though I’m not an unequivocal admirer of Margaret Thatcher, she understood all that, which is why she faced up to the unions with her usual firmness. Many people assumed then that the ubiquitous, malevolent presence of the unions in Britain’s life was thus a thing of the past. Little did they realise that all the unions had suffered was a temporary setback. They are back in force now, having rebuilt their semi-atrophied muscle. And the salient difference is that today’s spivocrats are no Lady Thatcher.
Meanwhile, it’s 2000 all over again, and whoever sells jerrycans must be doing brisk business. Well, it’s good to know that there’s one business sector that stands to benefit from the strike. The rest of us must train to be able to walk long distances. It’s good for you.