Contemporary Review, 1985, 247 (1436), 143-144.


by John J. Ray

NOW that Britain's coal strike is at last over, one must wonder was it worth it? No doubt, for Britain's long-term economic survival, Mrs. Thatcher was simply doing what she had to do, but could not the agony have been brought to a halt sooner? Recent events in Australia suggest that ways to this end are available.

'But how can a country with a strike record marginally worse than Britain's teach anybody any lessons?' might be asked. The answer is that there have been big changes recently. Imagine, for instance, that Britain's striking miners had been supported by the power station operators and that Britain's electricity was cut off for two hours out of three until the miners won their demands. In that case, surely Arthur Scargill would by now be the uncrowned King of England! Yet something very much like that happened in Australia recently and yet the strikers were still routed.

In February 1985, linesmen (power line maintenance workers) employed by SEQEB (the electricity generating authority) in the State of Queensland (like the USA, Australia has a federal system of government with substantially independent States) struck in support of a demand that SEQEB abandon its practice of employing private contractors rather than its own linesmen to install new lines. The Queensland government, led by the redoubtable Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen ('Sir Joh' to one and all) responded by sacking all strikers. As with Britain's miners, however, about a third of the linesmen from the beginning refused to go on strike. Sir Joh then hired private contractors (by and large, ordinary electricians) to do the linesmen's work. The power station operators (members of a different union from the linesmen) then came out in support of the linesmen and deliberately turned off the State's power for two hours out of every three. This went on for ten days in the midst of the summer heat and the contents of all private and commercial refrigerators rotted. Food supplies were seriously curtailed and industry came to a dead halt. Even petrol began to run out. Would not any political leader crumble under such pressure? Not Sir Joh. Basically, what Sir Joh did was to threaten the power station operators with the same fate as the linesmen (dismissal) plus the extra threat of massive personal fines. This was backed up by the obvious fact that if Sir Joh could hire private electricians to do the job of a thousand linesmen, he could hire private electricians to do the job of a handful of power station operators as well. Faced with going from affluence to bankruptcy overnight, the operators backed down.

The only concession wrung from Sir Joh was that in 30 days' time he would offer the striking linesmen the opportunity to sign contracts which would enable them to go back to work. The contracts would, however, include a no-strike guarantee, would require them to work longer hours than heretofore and would not restore to them their superannuation benefits. In other words, the strikers would have to eat dirt if they wanted their jobs back. Their superannuation losses alone would amount to tens of thousands of dollars for most linesmen. Sir Joh also entrenched his victory by passing a batch of legislation that made future strikes in the power industry grounds for instant dismissal and instant personal fines. The police were also given sweeping powers to arrest any picketers or other users of intimidation. In 10 days, Sir Joh gained a bigger victory than Margaret Thatcher gained in 11 months. The Queensland electricity industry is back to normal and all that the Australian union movement can do is fulminate. Queensland has been effectively rid of one of its most troublesome unions. Using the full power of the State against unions can work. All it needs is the resolve. Had Margaret Thatcher, for instance, insisted on the law being obeyed and arrested all picketing miners, surely the British strike would have crumbled pretty quickly too. She might have had to reopen one or two wartime internment camps to hold them all, but if law-enforcement requires it, why not? Mr. Scargill certainly saw his campaign as a war. Wars require wartime measures.

On the other hand, of course, no society wants to live in a state of civil war and persuasion or voluntary co-operation is surely always to be preferred to brute force. In this respect, too, Australia has in recent times made considerable advances. The Australian Federal government at the present time is led by a former trade union boss -- Bob Hawke. It is as if Len Murray were Prime Minister of Britain. Perhaps the major difference is that whilst head of the ACTU Bob Hawke was far more successful at settling industrial disputes than Len Murray was as head of the TUC.

Perhaps because of his background as a Rhodes Scholar and as an economist, however, Bob Hawke is far more wedded to economic rationality than would seem conceivable for a British Labour leader. He sees his role as Prime Minister not as an opportunity to give the unions all they have ever wanted but rather as an opportunity to conciliate. He fully accepts that a high proportion of income already goes to the workers and that expropriating the rich would not help anybody. He sees his main challenge, therefore, as increasing the national income rather than redistributing it. One of his overriding purposes has been to emulate the industrial relations systems prevailing in such countries as Austria, Germany and Sweden. He convened an 'economic summit' at which union leaders, business leaders and political leaders all came together to decide on ways of working co-operatively together towards improving national economic productivity.

Since the 'accord' has been in place, industrial disputes in Australia have indeed dropped drastically. There are a few maverick unions who need someone like Sir Joh to tame them, but the outcome of including the union movement in the process of setting economic goals can only be called a brilliant innovation by Anglo-Saxon standards. And let it be noted that Australians are accustomed to hear strike leaders being interviewed on their TV who amazingly often seem to talk in accents that betoken a childhood spent somewhere North of Watford. Australian union militancy is substantially a problem imported from England. So what works on Englishmen in Australia should also work on Englishmen back in England.

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