Molly Guinness

Should public servants go on strike?

David Cameron has promised to change the law to make it harder to go on strike if he wins the next election. The Spectator has generally been in favour of tightening up strike laws, not trusting union leaders to do the right thing. In 1919, just as a law banning the police from striking was being passed, The National Police Union issued a sudden order to down tools, which was not a good PR move.

This unscrupulous attempt failed except in Liverpool and Birkenhead, where about half the police absented themselves from duty and allowed the criminal classes, who are largely Irish Roman Catholics, to riot and plunder. Order was restored last Sunday by troops. In London about a thousand men out of 19,000 failed to appear at their posts. Sir Nevil Macready was prepared for such an emergency, and a mild outbreak of disorder south of the river was promptly suppressed. In Birmingham a tenth of the police ceased work. All the other police forces remained loyal…An ugly feature of the police “strike” was the secrecy with which it had been planned by the Union organizers for the eve of the holidays. These men suddenly issued an order to their deluded followers to cease work at once. Had the order been obeyed, the great cities would all have been exposed to the fate of Liverpool, where for several days the mob had command of the central shopping district, and looted and destroyed property to the value of £200,000 before it was dispersed by rifle-fire. The organizers must have foreseen the possible results of their action.

A year later, the Conservative government brought in a bill to make union ballots secret. The Spectator was in favour of reform, describing how wild young men were running amok and ‘prostituting trade unionism and Democracy’.

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