As an autumn of co-ordinated industrial action by public sector unions looks increasingly likely, HuffPost UK looks at the history of those who ignore the union bosses and cross the picket line...
Two months ago, in the midst of the phone hacking scandal, the former Deputy Prime Minister, a former Labour minister and Sky News’ political editor had a furious public spat. On the same day Rupert Murdoch met with the family of the teenaged murder victim whose phone the newspaper he owned had hacked into, John Prescott labelled Sky’s Adam Boulton a liar and a “Murdoch mouthpiece”, while Tom Watson demanded an apology. But their argument, played out on Twitter, was not over the murder of Milly Dowler, or the activities of the Met Police. Boulton had accused the two men of crossing a picket line to be interviewed by BBC journalists, when the news organisation was striking over planned cuts to its budget.
Strike-breaking, or, to give it its pejorative name, scabbing, has a long and controversial history. In this case, as Tom Watson explained, the interview was an outside broadcast and cleared with the union striking. Prescott and Watson’s reluctance to be labelled as crossing a picket line is not unusual. Plenty of journalists, politicians and public sector workers feel the same – both for fear of stigma or as a show of support for strikers. It used to be even worse.
Twenty years ago breaking strike action sometimes led to death threats made against family of the 'scab'. During the miners strike in the early 1980s, a dispute so better Tony Benn called it a "civil war”, the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) did not withdraw their labour.
National president Neil Greatrex, reflecting on the tension between the UDM and Arthur Scargill, said the fear of being labelled a scab was often overpowering.
“I have seen full grown men, hard men, crying their bloody eyes out because of the fear of going across them [picket lines]. People are never, ever going to forget that”, he told the BBC in 2004.
“He said his entire family was threatened. My daughter Colette was 10 at the time and I stopped her going out of the house. We didn't want to tell her somebody was threatening to kill her; threatening to burn our house down.
“They threatened my wife, Sheila. One day 80 people gathered outside our house but I drove into the crowd and they dispersed.”
Richard Saundry, a reader in Industrial Relations at the University of Central Lancashire has previously worked for the National Union of Mineworkers. He says if unions tried to intimate workers in the same way today, they could have their assets seized.
“That wouldn’t happen today for two for two reasons. One is that trade unions are less powerful and two is that it’s illegal; it’s unlawful to picket in that way. If they allow that type of picket, if that picket then becomes problematic, the union will potentially have their assets seized by the courts. And that happened to the National Union of Mineworkers… that does restrict what unions are able to do. You can only peacefully persuade somebody not to cross a picket line.”
He added: “Now employers in general are much more assertive about taking action against those employees who take strike action… It’s not illegal to dock a day’s pay because of strike action.”
Professor Stefan Berger of the University of Manchester agrees the situation has changed “dramatically”. He says after Margaret Thatcher’s government the role and type of unions in Britain fundamentally changed.
“Working class unions have become weaker and weaker because of the de-industrialisation in Britain. The history of trade unionism of the 1980s until today is one of the terminal decline, unionism and the strongest in the sector now are service sector unions.
“In comparison to north-west European countries, unionisation figures are particularly low. This tradition of outing scabs, the kind of traditions which are associated with that, I would say has declined. Today’s powerful unions represent desk-based jobs, such as Unite, they don’t have the same kind of traditions that were so prominent. In my view things have changed quite dramatically.”
During a 2005 strike at the BBC over job cuts the news on radio stations 6Music and Radio 2 was read out by Alan Dedicoat , a man better known for providing the voiceover for the national lottery programme. In strike action a year ago, the BBC’s director of news Helen Boaden stood in for a newsreader on Radio 4.
But strikes don’t always bring newsrooms, or transport, to a standstill. London suffered a wave of tube strikes in 2010 and 2011– but many reported tube lines still running and low turnout. It doesn’t surprise London Underground worker Peter Lucas, who has been a union member for forty years. He says he never strikes “unless it’s about something really important”. He says he proudly turned up for work during the 2010 Boxing Day tube strike, (“although none of the drivers did”). So, what’s really important? “Not pay”. But does it matter if people label you as a scab? Not so much anymore, says Lucas.
Lucas is not alone in feeling free not to strike. When the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents civil servants, called a strike in June over changes to civil service pensions the Cabinet Office jubilantly pointed out that less than half of their workers chose to withdraw their labour. Francis Maude said he was “not at all surprised” by the low turnout or by the fact that “only around 42% of PCS’s” took part. “Very few civil servants wanted this strike at all – less than 10% of them voted for it - and they are right.”
Now, as the ballots go out to public sector workers for a proposed mass day of action in November, Conservative MP Dominic Raab says the freedom to work is as important as the freedom to withdraw labour.
"The freedom to work is fundamental. Fat cat union bosses on six figure salaries are living in a different solar system from their members - which is why not one of the unions striking on 30 June could carry a majority of its members to support strike action”, he told Huff Post UK.
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