A Man Who May Not Withdraw His Labour is a Slave 55

I am extremely worried by the judicial activism involved in a series of decisions to prevent strikes. This year both Unite and RMT have been prevented from holding strikes, amid general undisguised establishment glee that workers have not been allowed to go on strike.

In today’s judgement against Unite (and for British Airways), there was no dispute that union members had genuinely voted to go on strike. But they had been notified of the result of the ballot by posted notices, and the court ruled that this did not meet the requirement that all members must be individually notified of the result.

In this country, posting a notice is sufficient notification to the neighbours if you apply for planning permission to build something next to them, and posting a notice is sufficient notification to the community if you plan to get married. The judicial ruling in no way follows the spirit of the law, which is intended to ensure that union members democratically vote on strikes. They did.

Free marketeers are quite wrong to crow over this blow to Unite. If you believe in the free market, you must believe that a contract is freely negotiated between master and employee. The employee must have the right to withdraw his labour.

An employee forbidden by the state to withdraw his labour is a slave. It really is that simple.

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55 thoughts on “A Man Who May Not Withdraw His Labour is a Slave

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  • Des

    I agree that the ruling is not in the spirit of the law but they are hardly slaves! If I want to withhold my labour from my employer I ay do so, I just won’t have a job to go back to after I decide to return. Simple as that.

  • Parky

    But what could the court do if cabin crew whether unionised or not decided of their own accord to strike on a particular day? They could even just phone in sick and not turn up. If there had been no ballot or union involvement they could not be held liable.

    If the governing body are going to play the game dirty and not by the spirit then they can’t be surprised if the players also do the same.

    That has reminded me about these “allegations” of bribery against the russian and spanish football authorities which are to be “investigated” by FIFA reported this morning. It was thought the whole embarassing matter had been brushed under the carpet this weekend by the swift dispatch of Lord Triesman, however it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to consider such corruption especially when the russians are concerned.

  • david

    Personally I dont think BA staff have to much to complain about. They currently have the best conditions of any cabin crew, and their pay and benefits are something that the company curently cannot afford. Does the chief exec deserve his huge salary.. no he does not.

    The want of the worker to strike is not usually about money, its about perception. Those at the top make no sacrifice yet those at the bottom are expected to. That obviously leads to deep resentment and a lot of worker dissatisfaction….. So they chose to take action en masse. If the idiots at the top sacrificed then those at the bottom would be more willing to accept cuts. Everyone in it together is a strong and powerful motivator….. Strikes are caused by very bad management, and BA has bad managment.

    The RMT strike ballot was a joke and the courts where correct to overturn that ballot, the original BA ballot was basically sound, and the last one is definately sound. I dont agree with people going on strike, I think if its that bad then you leave and take your skills else where, of course BA cabin staff wont do that because they would be on even worse pay and conditions.

    All that said we have the right to strike in this country, and using the courts to block a strike on a technicallity as small as this one is unreasonable.

    If BA staff really wanted to go on strike then they should just all phone in sick one day, probably make a much bigger statement than having an official strike.

    In this instance it really does look like its a case of 6 of one and half a dozen of the other. Both sides share the blame for this action. Managment for being crap and cabin crew for not being willing to accept a massive downturn in their industries income.

    Someone should bang all their heads together, its 2010 not 1970, the relationship between employer and employee should not be this bad, managment techniques have developed hugely over the last 40 years.

  • Tony Rogers

    The contract between private employer and employee is a voluntary one. If they are no longer satisfied with their pay or working conditions, BA employees are free to withdraw their labour whenever they want and – and find another employer who agrees to their demands. To call this situation “slavery” is ludicrous.

  • Jon

    @writerman, thanks for your cogent analysis. I too am surprised at some of the reactionary positions expressed here – people who are complaining that they earn less than BA staff and who assert that the strike is unfair simply for this reason, are assisting in keeping their own wages depressed.

    I have seen this behaviour before, in lengthy discussions elsewhere. If it is pointed out to people of such views, a powerful cognitive dissonance tends to take over, and the people currently viewing BA staff with some bitterness would rather hang on to their regressive position rather than support workers at the bottom of the tree, which would have the additional effect of bolstering workers across the market.

    And I would strongly assert that, in a capitalist analysis, BA workers – and many of those who have struck in the UK in the last few years – are indeed at the bottom of the tree. Just because a workforce is on £30k each doesn’t mean they can resign en masse and find another job immediately. Job markets are only totally fluid during times of full employment – which never happens – and we’re presently in the middle of a serious recession, with swingeing cuts on the horizon.

    @Craig, thanks for the post.

  • Chris

    If this is allowed to stand then those who seem to have no problem with the idea of the law being used to deny the right to strike need to think on.

    You all seem to be saying… ‘if you don’t like it get another job.’ All well and good you may say. But for those who scream foul when the word ‘slavery’ is used, consider the following.

    We are in desperate times economically. Benefits look as though they will be cut. Therefore your potential safety net is shrinking. Take away the right to strike in such circumstances and you won’t be able to change job because the conditions will be the same wherever you go and the race to the bottom will be complete. You will then be left with a simple choice: Do whatever your employer wants or lose your home or starve. If that does not define slavery then I’m not sure what does.

    Some people on this thread need a serious reality check. I want a race to the top not the bottom. Raise your sights… please.

  • Anonymous

    Management have tried to portray BA staff as greedy and claim they are the best paid in the business. What they don’t tell you is that 70% of cabin crew earn less than £20,000 a year and many rely on tax credits or second jobs to survive.

  • Redders

    Gosh, a lot of very well informed opinions and I think I’ll put writermans post on my personal blog, its seriously perceptive.

    There are a few matters here I think need addressing though. BA and Willy Walsh’s evident legal chicanery I think reflects BA’s attitude to, what appears to be, the unions ballot rigging in earlier rounds of this bout. Of course people ought to be able to collectively withhold their labour but condoning railroading them into striking by ‘a fellow worker’ who earns in excess of 4 times the average BA cabin crew staff is distorted justice, at best.

    BA have had their earnings cruelly compared to soldiers campaigning in Afghanistan. There is manipulative distortion of comparisons here, how on earth does it make soldiers feel to not only have it brought to their attention that they are being paid less, far less to have their noses rubbed in it by the guttersnipe press we tolerate by our mangled concept of freedom of speech. I would be prepared to bet cold hard cash that almost every soldier in the services would support BA’s staffs right to strike because thats what they are damn well fighting for and I also believe they would be the first to point out that the benefits like subsidised housing, pension arrangements etc. they receive are a fair exchange to avoid travelling in a disease ridden tube of aluminium dealing with repugnant civilians, serving drinks with a smile whilst mopping up their vomit before enduring the same again following a turnaround of a few hours. Furthermore, there isn’t a soldier, policeman, nurse or teacher out there that does the job for the money, which is much more than can be said for Bob Crow and his cronies.

    And we should get this into perspective in terms of previous disputes and the successful rousing of the working classes was during the miners strike for which I understand Arthur Scargill did not have the mandate to call a strike. Instead of that he rabble roused throwing the country into turmoil and playing right into Thatchers hands. I don’t perceive any of the current union leaders to be any different, its in their interest to justify their extremely well paid position by ensuring industrial action is perpetrated regardless of its legal precedence, they always have the moral card to play regardless of mere legalities. If I were Willy Walsh I would also fight fire with fire and not be turned over by a manipulative individual no more concerned about anything but his own success than Willie Walsh is.

    Make no mistake, once again this dispute is about nothing more than two personalities; their respective ego’s make it impossible for them to do anything but use every asset at their disposal as pawns to assert their personal dominance over the other.


  • Redders

    PS…….would you believe I’m an ex copper who dated an air hostess (as they were called then) during the miners strike!

  • Redders

    PPS…..Sorry Craig, I agreed with your post when I first read it but had a good old think and realised what was happening.

    What is encouraging is that you allow unmoderated posting with limitless characters. Try posting on Peter Hitchins blog on the Daily Mail site and see what happens. But then what did I expect of the Daily Mail!!

  • Redders

    PPPS……..SORRY, SORRY! but this is worth reading. From the Workers Liberty site http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/01/15/while-millions-take-pay-cuts-union-leaders-rake-it

    “According to the Times (17/01/09), Derek Simpson now receives nearly £200,000 in pay and benefits, with his pay package increasing 17 percent this year. He also has the right to stay in his £800,000 house in Hertfordshire until he dies, after which his partner will be able to remain there at a heavily subsidised rate.

    Simpson, according the Times, demanded that the union subsidise his accommodation to “make it affordable” – a perk worth about £40,00, bringing his total remuneration to £194,252.

    We can assume all this is true, since Unite’s official response was: “These arrangements were approved by the executive committee at the time and have been a matter of public record ever since. His remuneration is published every year and is properly approved every year.”

    For our union leaders to be living this sort of lifestyle is wrong in itself, particularly at a time when so many of us are taking pay cuts (Unite members earn, on average, less than the national average wage). In addition, Simpson has handed a massive propaganda coup to the bosses and the right-wing press. He and his like are a disgrace to the labour movement.”


    Shouldn’t Simpson be living in a council house?

  • Owen Lee Hugh-Mann

    As writerman says, the free market is a fiction used to justify policies which help the wealthiest and most powerful in society to further increase their wealth and power at the expense of the poorest and the powerless. The ‘Free’ in Free Market is a meaningless “Newspeak” term intended to disguise its true nature, (like ‘Socialist’ in the National Socialist Party or ‘Labour’ in New Labour). International border controls have been designed as a semi-permeable membrane allowing free passage to the powerful and their money while acting as a barrier to the poor and powerless.

  • Common Sense

    Bob Crow is a fat, ugly, thick, moronic peasant. his behaviour in the League Two play-off semi-final and his abuse of the Morecambe dugout was an absolute disgrace. If this brainless, pie-scoffing overpaid loser is the head of RMT, then I have absolutely no sympathy for the union whatsoever.

  • technciolour

    Yes, another agree with writerman, including the need to curtail the whole industry. Meanwhile I thought the people saying “they can just leave their jobs” were having a joke. Staff who take pride in their current jobs have every right to strike to prevent (and as someone pointed out, this is preventative action) standards and salaries being slashed.

    This whole business is obviously dirty, and yet the media are presenting it as a victory for the public. It is not a victory for me; I want my aircrew to be well paid and well rested, not doing second jobs to survive.

    And the removal of travel privileges from strikers was disgraceful. Thanks to the person who pointed out that this is effectively a financial knout.

  • Jon

    @Redders – I agree with you on the privileged elite at the top of the unions. The problem with Labour reformism is that union bosses become accustomed to their comfortable status quo, at the expense of the class they are expected to represent.

    I disagree about Scargill though – the miners were very much inclined to strike by a wide majority, and that the technicalities of “requiring another vote” was chosen by the right-wing press to propagandise against the strikes. The miners were quite likely to have been defeated by MI5 infiltration – there is a very thorough book about this called “The Enemy Within”, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in a left perspective on the topic.

  • Jon

    Incidentally, I agree that there should be a union-set cap on what a union boss can earn, perhaps based as a low multiple of the average wage of the workers he/she represents.

  • Anonymous


    “I disagree about Scargill though – the miners were very much inclined to strike by a wide majority”

    The vote was actually likely to have been very tight, probably with a small majority in favour. But Scargill never gave the rank and file the chance to vote. The Notts miners would almost certainly have acceptad a national strike if agreed in a ballot, even if they voted against. But they wouldn’t accept a strike called without one. On such “procedural niceties” do great historical events sometimes hang…

  • nevergiveup

    It is a foolish argument to push forward that workers who have negotiated better and proper working conditions are the financial leeches.

    Instead we should be asking why all the other Airline companies seek to pay their staff so badly.

    Perhaps the answer is that 1p fares is not a sustainable profitable price to pay for seats.

  • Jon

    Anon @ [May 18, 2010 9:35 PM]

    Thanks for your thoughts, that’s interesting – I’ll look into that, as this period is of direct relevance to union activity today. I tend generally to regard the margin in a strike vote as a reflection of its justifiability. On the basis of your comments, was there a reasonable view at the time that the strike was contentious amongst workers? What was the reason for those who would have voted against?

    I take the strong view that the period was characterised by a vicious class war by the Tories who, having had their class bruised by union wins in the seventies, were seeking revenge. Miners at the time would have been extremely conscious of this, which makes the tight margin you describe quite mystifying.

  • Tony Rogers

    “Take away the right to strike in such circumstances and you won’t be able to change job because the conditions will be the same wherever you go and the race to the bottom will be complete. You will then be left with a simple choice: Do whatever your employer wants or lose your home or starve.” – Posted by: Chris at May 18, 2010 3:19 PM

    In a competitive market, employers also have to compete for employees, whose wage is the price they charge for their labour. Poor pay by company X benefits company Y in the long run as the best employees find new contracts there. If a whole industry is in decline due to low demand then employees seek contracts with more prosperous industries.

    Your allusion is that unions are the drivers of wage price increases. They are not and never have been. That is left to the market. Especially given, in this difficult period, the relatively trivial content of Unite’s gripe with BA, they will bring about no good for anyone in the long run. Looks like a bad case of union-ego.

  • Jon

    Tony, I think unions *can* be drivers of wage price increases, although in the capitalist market of course the “unseen hand” tries to set its own value of wages too. The problem is that the unseen hand is, of course, employers who wish to pay the least they can get away with whilst still retaining enough of their work force.

    I should clarify here: large HR departments work on the basis of “reasonable retention” i.e. so long as staff losses to other firms (for financial reasons) is low, the company is regarded as doing fine – if no-one left for financial reasons, it is generally regarded in HR circles that the staff are overpaid, on average.

    This highlights the problem of “leaving it to the market”. The market doesn’t care if a given individual in a given financial year is paid less for more work. And this is certainly the case during recessions – people are asked to take paycuts, or have pay freezes applied to them, or are seconded to unpaid additional roles.

    The theory that the market can determine everything, that it should, or that if we only left it to its own devices everything would work much better, is distinctly part of the US, hard-right, neo-conservative project. It is not nor should be regarded as part of liberal or centrist political thinking. Surely the markets have crashed enough times now, and ordinary workers suffered for other peoples’ greed, for free-marketeers to have moderated their perspective somewhat?

  • Chris


    if your arguments were true then unions would never have existed because we would never have needed them. Instead we could all rely on the wonderfully moral largesse of big business.

    They are also about a lot more than wage rights.

    And, are you arguing that in your version of the world the business owners would not quite happily collude with one another (as they already do over prices etc) to drive down wages?

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Yes, even the workers at GCHQ fought for, and won, the right to unionise. Interestingly, they were virtually the only group of workers to win against Thatcher.

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