The recent strike action taken over government plans to cut public sector pensions brought forth calls from ministers for more legislation restricting trade union activity.
Education secretary Michael Gove echoed sentiments previously voiced by business secretary Vince Cable and London mayor Boris Johnson that a worker’s right to strike may have to be restricted.
Mr Gove claimed public opinion would not be happy with strike action being taken by teachers and others, pointing the way toward more repressive legislation.
This public opinion summoned up by politicians to suit their own political agendas is a curious phenomena. Supposedly in Mr Gove’s case it excludes the 6.5 million members of trade unions in this country. So when does a trade unionist stop being a member of the public?
What public opinion amounts to in this instance is a mythical force dreamt up by politicians to justify their repressive policies on behalf of employers and business – it has no credence at all amongst most of the workforce.
What government ministers constant sabre rattling about restricting strikes does denote is a global effort to cut the power of organised labour or put another way make it easier to exploit people.
In Spain for instance, the decades old rights to collective bargaining have come under threat as the employers representatives suddenly pulled back from signing an agreement. The negotiations had been ongoing since February but following the election of the right wing, the employers sensed a change of atmosphere and moved to block the agreement. Now the government has announced it will legislate to reform collective bargaining.
In Canada, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers are in dispute with Canada Post over staffing and conditions but rather than reach agreement the employers seem set on a path that would see the Conservative government legislate to force the workers back to work.
In the US, there have been the efforts in Wisconsin of Republican Governor Scott Walker to cut pensions, increase health insurance and curtail the collective bargaining rights of workers.
The move brought a vociferous response from public sector workers, taking action that included blockading the governor’s mansion.
In Tennessee, Indianapolis and Ohio there have also been attempts to restrict collective bargaining with different groups of workers.
So it can be seen that governments are making use of that old adage, never waste a good crisis, as they justify attacks on organised labour on the basis of the need to address the deficit.
What the actions of the public sector unions demonstrate is how important it is to resist this onslaught on the common good. Pensions are but the latest thing being cut on the back of the economic crisis. Yet a closer look at many pension schemes will find that most are in surplus, the shock deficit headlines are usually conjured from manipulating figures to the effect that everyone in a scheme will claim their full pension on one day – this is never going to happen.
Then there is the National Pension Fund that is used to fund the state pension. It takes in funds from national insurance contributions and has been billions of pounds in credit for years. The Treasury has borrowed against this money to fund other projects. So the claim that decent pensions cannot be afforded is just bunkum.
The Church must speak out on these matters of worker’s rights. Speaking ahead of her address to the National Justice and Peace Network annual conference (15 to 17 july) TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Catholic teaching recognises that the relationship between an employer and a worker is a fundamentally unequal one and that therefore unions have an important role at work and in society, building solidarity and providing a voice for working people," said Ms O'Grady, who was echoing teaching going back to the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) that recognised the injustice of a situation where the worker with only his or her labour to sell is pitched against the overwhelming power of the employer. As such the Church has always recognised the right to be a member of a trade union.
In his encyclical, Laborem Excercens (1981), Pope John Paul II stressed that the interest of labour must take precedence over those of capital.
More recently the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) states that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensible element of social life.” Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols recently indicated that the Church would welcome an approach from the trade unions as part of the ongoing discourse on how it will respond to the Pope’s call for a greater role in the sphere of social responsibility. It must be hoped that this discourse can be established and that the Church will articulate a louder voice on the rights of workers and the importance of the role that trade unions play for the common good of our society.
* For more information on the NJPN conference - Justice at Work see http://www.justice-and-peace.org.uk/