Supporters of limits to rights to strike were in a minority at legal debate.
Anyone who has attempted to take a Southern train in the past few months will have strong views about the statement ‘we must limit strike rights, not CEO pay’.
This was the bold claim that attendees of a lively debate hosted by Thomson Reuters were asked to vote on.
The event, which had no repercussions in the real world, formed the latest in Reuters’s Legal Debate Series, bringing together panellists from the legal profession and media to debate relevant legal issues.
At the outset, a convincing 67% of the audience said they backed the right to strike with 11% saying strike rights should be limited. It was then down to the panellists to try and sway the argument in their favour.
Pro limiting strikes: journalist Isabel Oakeshott and employment law specialist Carol Davis of Littleton Chambers.
On the unions’ side was Hannah Reed, employment rights officer at the TUC and Devereux Chambers’ industrial disputes specialist Andrew Burns.
Oakeshott began her defence by holding up an an image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. This, she said, represents how commuters feel when they learn of another strike by rail staff – which she said had ‘caused misery’ to commuters.
Commuters look like Edvard Munch's The Scream when they hear of more strikes
‘We are expected to feel sorry for them, though they [train drivers] start on a measly £49,000 per year.’ So-called ‘fat cats’, she added, generally do a very good job ‘and if not are dispatched forthwith’. ‘In a post-Brexit, global-thinking Britain, we must welcome people who want to aim high, not limit their aspirations,’ she added.
According to Davis the current laws surrounding strikes, ‘which allow industrial action to be taken with just a small number of workers voting in favour of it’, must be curtailed. ‘All we are asking for is a fairer system’ she said, referencing the government’s Trade Union Act that requires a minimum 50% turnout for a successful vote for industrial action.
Davis added that high ‘fat-cat’ pay ‘was one of the consequences of living in a free-market society’ and that those on enormous salaries paid ‘huge amounts in tax’.
Reed was less sympathetic on the issue of CEO pay. She said some bosses earn more than 100 times the yearly salary of the typical UK worker.
Claiming that the rail strikes were, above all, about passenger safety, she added: ‘Are we seriously saying that in a time of great uncertainty for workers we are going to limit their rights even further?’
Burns noted that of the many industries in which workers were able to exercise their right to strike those in favour of limiting action could only point to ‘one or two examples’. He added that strike levels were the lowest they had been for decades.
The only question remaining at the end of the session was whether the panellists had managed to persuade the audience to change their minds.
Final polling showed that, even after listening to the impassioned speeches, the percentage of people who believed strike rights should be limited had risen to only 35%.
It wasn’t enough to topple the unions who stood strong with 58% backing their right to strike.
Under the government’s new proposals, that’s a clear victory.
Max Walters is a Gazette reporter