The Problem of Public Strikes


Recent times have seen a strong increase again in the number of industrial actions in the public or semi-public sectors, probably under the influence of the current crisis. Recently the court in Amsterdam enjoined the unions from striking in the public transport of the three largest cities in the Netherlands. This strike had been intended as a means of exerting public pressure against the plans of the Dutch government to increase the retirement age to 67.(1) In the meantime the United Kingdom is now witness to a large-scale action by the union CWU against the plans by Royal Mail to implement severe cuts in the services and pensions.(2) The latter of these however threatens to have a counterproductive effect, since Royal Mail is already under significant pressure under the name of privatization. If the mail services were to fully compete, the result would be that the private competitors would be able to obtain all the lucrative mail services by offering worse labor conditions, whereas the Royal Mail, because of its obligation to service, would be stuck with the ‘unprofitable’ mail (as is being seen to some extent already).

A different problem however with industrial action in the public services is the severe pressure they put on public opinion. Strikes rarely succeed if public opinion turns against the unions: the latter are, in a system of generalized competition, from the get-go weaker vis-á-vis the capitalists, since the latter can always point out that the employment of the union members depends on the competitiveness of the company they are acting against. In this manner, an intelligent management can always turn the position of the laborers against them. In such cases it is essential to obtain public support, so the political side of the affair can work out in favor of the union and be the means to their victory. In the public services, however, it is not management but the general public which feels the effect of a strike, and this can quickly cause the tide of opinion to turn. This goes in particular for public transport, since many people rely on this for their own work. A strike in the orthodox style in public transport therefore always threatens the general public in their own laboring position.

Privatizations, cuts and lengthening the working day or year in due time damage everyone, not just the workers of a specific sector that are in a labor conflict at a given time. It is therefore important that the labor unions be granted all support and sympathy from the general public, and it is therefore to be condemned that the law prohibits in the Netherlands and elsewhere to strike for political reasons that affect more than just a conflict with the immediate management. Nonetheless it is also important on the part of the labor unions that they organize their actions in such manner that these do maximum damage where this is merited, and that they spare the general public as much as possible. The habit to organize actions in public transport in the form of refusing to inspect tickets is for this reason much superior to a strike which disables (parts of) public transport as a whole. This applies mutatis mutandis to all actions in public services: when the labor unions meet the public halfway and put the blame on those who deserve it, the public will in turn give them the necessary support. This is the only solution for the dilemma of public strikes.

(1) “Rechter verbiedt staking ov”. ANP (6 Oct. 2009).
(2) Adrian Roberts, “Fresh strike wave is set to escalate the dispute”. Morning Star (Oct. 23, 2009).

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