Union boss says strikes ‘still relevant’

Scotland’s top union group has defended striking as “very democratic” and “effective” as the next wave of industrial actions are expected.

As the Royal Mail disputes continue, the Unite union has proposed a legal challenge to British Airways today concerning cabin contracts.

The employment rights union want an injunction against the airline’s plan to administer new contract conditions without union consent.

The same union’s members in Scotland, today, voted to strike in response to closures at the Diageo plants in Kilmarnock and Port Dundas.

Ian Tasker, assistant secretary of policy and campaigns at the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) said: “Obviously, there is a number of issues relating to the effectiveness of strikes.

“The industry is changing in Scotland, take that together with attacks on the trade union legislation. However, we still think it is a justified and effective route to change. It’s a last resort, nobody takes it lightly.”

The STUC represents 640,000 members within 37 affiliated trade unions.

“You can easily get the impression from the media that the Royal Mail strikes are down to recent industrial problems, that’s wrong.

“The problems have been festering for years,” said Mr Tasker.

He said that although striking was becoming less common it was still the most valid form of protest.

“It’s a very democratic process. It’s the workers, through balloting, who decide when strike action is needed. Striking is the mechanism of change for the individuals.”

Royal Mail workers went on their first nation-wide strike last week after months of regional strikes.

Tensions between the unions and company bosses have risen following accusations that the Royal Mail has been employing temporary staff to deal with backlogs – the law on this practice is grey.

Mr Tasker said that it was “disappointing to see Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson seemingly condoning it”.

“What really concerns us is that an employer like Royal Mail would go against what is principle and law, by employing temporary workers.”

The postal company defend their recruitment strategy calling it Christmas recruitment, however this is challenged by the unions who say that the number of temporary staff has doubled and been brought forward several weeks.

“We would argue that it’s wrong and unlawful,” added Mr Tasker.

Dr Simon J Clark, head of the school of economics at the University of Edinburgh, said striking had waned in recent years: “Strikes are much less common, certainly, than they used to be, partly due to changes in legislation – unions have to go through more loop holes.

“Labour markets have changed drastically,  private sectors firms are less unionised than public sector ones,” he said.

Dr Clark said that international market changes had altered the value of striking as businesses modernised and outsourced, the competition for work grew.

“Going on strike doesn’t have the same adverse effects that it used to.

“In the current climate within the recession, workers aren’t in a strong position to go on strike. The growth of unskilled labour markets across the world  are weakening the power of strikes.

“In the private sectors lots of people are taking wage cuts or negligible pay rises, whilst strikers are demanding more. So whether solidarity is stronger or weaker during a recession, is difficult to say.”