Posted tagged ‘strikes’

Industrial action in the academy

May 23, 2011

Here’s something I suspect not many university heads are able to say: on two occasions in my working life I helped organise strike action in a university (in my then capacity as an honorary trade union officer). I stood at picket lines, and on the whole I believe I was quite successful. But it wasn’t an easy task: most colleagues made it very clear to me that taking industrial action was not part of the academic profession’s ethos.

So now, here I am, having now been a university president and principal for 11 years or so, the poacher very definitely turned gamekeeper. And what do I think now of industrial action? After all, there have been several examples of it in Britain and Ireland over recent years.

Notwithstanding the much more militant rhetoric of lecturers’ trade unions these days, the reluctance on the part of academics to take real action is still there. An¬†article in a student magazine from Nottingham University revealed that only 6 per cent of staff supported the recent strike action over pensions by the University and College Union (UCU), with the university Secretary suggesting that the action ‘may not have been noticed’. A year or two ago staff in my then university, DCU, were extremely reluctant to join one day strikes over public service pay cuts in Ireland, voting against participation in the ballot.

As the trade unions identify issues they believe are of concern to members, the way in which they raise these issues and seek to have them resolved favourably becomes crucial. Right now there seems to be an assumption that industrial action is a good way of getting results. Whether this is really true may be open to question. Unions often do not have sufficient membership penetration in universities to win major campaigns through militant action, though such action can create major inconvenience while they last – often at the expense of students. The latter reality also tends to ensure that it is hard for trade unions to make common cause with students, who will not tend to appreciate disruption to their studies, even in pursuit of an aim they support.

Perhaps universities need to look more generally at staff participation and consultation, to ensure that issues do not need to be addressed in a confrontational manner. But in the meantime, traditional industrial action may not be the most effective way for unions to advance their agenda.

The return of ‘industrial action’?

January 29, 2011

My first academic job back in the 1980s was that of lecturer in industrial relations in Trinity College Dublin. This came just after Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’ that fatally undermined Jim Callaghan’s term as British Prime Minister, and just before the British miners’ strike, which probably more than anything else contributed to the erosion of trade union strength in the UK. In Ireland at the time industrial unrest was also widespread. In the year before I took up my post Ireland had lost over a million working hours due to strikes, about a hundred times the number that would be normal now.

Over the two decades that followed, strike action was subjected to far more legal constraints, including the requirement of a secret ballot before action could go ahead. In addition, with the rise of the ICT sector trade union density – membership as a proportion of the total labour force – declined. This combination produced an era of low levels of industrial action.

Is this about to change? There have been mutterings in Britain about strikes, or even a general strike, in response to government policies and cutbacks. Some trade union leaders have taken to issuing threats, or maybe predictions, of industrial unrest. This in turn has prompted the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to state that trade unions are ‘forces of stagnation’ and that they are set to hinder economic recovery.

While there is clearly a fair amount of uneasiness in society about the impact of government economic policies, there is little evidence that the wider public would look benignly on waves of industrial action. The miners’ strike in the mid-1980s was actually a turning point, in that it helped to swing public opinion behind the Thatcher government rather than against it.

A free society needs to protect the right of employees to withdraw their labour. But using this as a tool in a political campaign is not wise, as has been reccognised by the UK Labour Party. Trade unions would do well to think very carefully about such campaigns.

Strikes in Ireland: a return to the bad old days?

March 2, 2010

One particular statistic we should probably not welcome back was revealed today: according to the Central Statistics Office, during 2009 a total of 329,706 working days were lost due to industrial action in Ireland. This is a massive increase over the equivalent figure in 2008 – in that year 4,179 working days were lost. I suppose that before we get too exercised about it, we should note that a significant proportion of these days were lost on one day – the national day of public service strikes on November 24. Nevertheless, that particular nuance will be lost on our international audience, who will only see and note the bottom line figure. This in turn is on a par with the average number of working days lost during the worst times of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

We may of course have strong views about the rights of public sector workers, or indeed about industrial relations developments more generally. But if we manage to recover a reputation for being strike-prone it will fatally undermine our attempts to secure international investment. It is something for the various parties to the social partnership discussions to ponder, should these get back on the road.

Action days

November 24, 2009

Today, as certainly all Irish readers of this blog will know, has been a day of strike action organised by Irish public service trade unions in protest at cuts in funding for public services, expected salary reductions and reductions in staffing. As a result more or less all of Ireland’s public and civil service offices and institutions were shut down, from ¬†government offices to schools. Most universities and colleges were also shut, with the exception of DCU and the University of Limerick, where staff voted not to join in the national strike action.

It was impossible to travel anywhere around Dublin today without seeing groups of people picketing workplaces. Some were low key, but many were very active. As I passed Trinity College’s various entrances by car, for example, it seemed to me that there were very large numbers on picket lines, so that access (even if the gates had been open) would have been difficult, and would certainly have required strong nerves.

And even before the day was over, it was announced by the trade unions that another such day was being planned for December 3.

The day of action, and the seemingly strong participation in it, arose from a feeling amongst public servants that they are the victims of mismanagement by others; that government, banks and business leaders behaved recklessly and lost large sums of money, and that those responsible are being protected or cushioned from the consequences and that public sector employees were being asked to pay for all this. Others also believe that the poor are being targeted while the wealthy are protected. A very significant number of posters being carried on picket lines today demanded that the rich should be taxed more in order to resolve the national economic problems.

No doubt the anger, fear and resentment are understandable, and perhaps the day of action provides an opportunity to let off steam and allow people to express their frustrations. Whether the assessment of our problems on which at any rate the picket line posters are based is accurate is rather another matter. According to the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan TD, 4 per cent of Irish taxpayers provide almost half of all income tax receipts, while half of the country’s income earners pay no income tax at all. As for the public services, the claim now is that pay levels for public servants are substantially above what is earned by public servants in other comparable countries and also above what is earned by those in the private sector in Ireland; indeed the claim is that this was the case even before substantial increases were applied earlier this decade through the process of benchmarking. At two picket lines today I saw members of the public expressing their anger at the picketers in fairly colourful terms.

Obviously, tempers are hot, and there is a sense that the work being done by public servants is not appreciated – and so it seems to me that a process of reassuring them that this is not so is a step that needs to be taken. A situation where both media comment and political actions seem to be suggesting constantly that public servants are exploiting national resources for selfish ends has not been helpful. On the other hand, it is not likely that actions such as today’s will strengthen the position of public servants, at least not if the rest of society withhold their backing and sympathy. The potential of strikes is that they will alienate the general public rather than encourage them to feel solidarity.

This may be a good time for all sides to think again about their tactics.


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