The present fire‐fighters' strike has brought back into the media the issues of “how much is a miner (fireman, milkman, home secretary, etc.) is worth” and of “crossing the picket line”. And like in any issues tainted with ‘politics’ people take sides instead of examining the issues from prime principles — and this is why no British government has succeed in solving the problem of industrial disputes. Politics cannot resolve industrial disputes, because industrial disputes are a creature of politics. So it falls on us to examine the rights and wrongs of the fire‐fighters dispute using the tools of truth, honesty and justice.
At the time of the Miners' Strike in the Thatcher days a union leader addressed his followers with the rhetorical question: “How much is a miner worth?”. And then continued talking about the difficulties of a miner's job, the sweat, and the coal‐filled sandwiches. This aroused emotions and applause, but he could not come up with the amount of money that would answer the question he asked. So let us find the answer to this question.
When people decide that they need to employ somebody to do some work, they advertise a vacancy. They also say how much they are prepared to pay for the job. It is up to them to decide how much they are prepared to pay, say £200 per week. Then somebody sees the advertisement and decides to take on the job advertised at the money offered. This is how people get employed.
A prospective employee can also make a counter offer, saying that he will take on the job, if he is paid not £200 per week, but £300 per week. It will be up to the employer to accept such offer or to stick to his £200 p.w., or to offer £250 per week. Both the parties can offer any amount they like, but neither of them can force the other party to accept its offer.
The agreement must be voluntary. And either party can end the agreement, or offer to change its conditions, by giving to the other side an agreed or reasonable notice, say a week, or a month. The purpose of the notice is to give the other side possibility to make the necessary arrangements. The employer can find a replacement, and the employee another job.
The parties can also change or end their contract. So the employee can come to the employer and say, “You are paying me now £200 per week, I want to be paid £800 per week from next month, otherwise I shall leave the job in 30 days time. Here is my notice”. It will be up to the employer to decide, if he wants to keep the employee for £800 p.w. or to let him go and hire another one in his place. But he cannot make the employee stay against his will, nor can the employee force the employer to employ him on his terms. This is because they are both free people, equal under the law. It is up to the employer to decide how much he is prepared to pay, and it is up to the employee to decide how much he is prepared to sell his time, skills and energy for. Once they agree on mutually acceptable terms, they are both bound by that agreement, but can change it or end it by giving an agreed or reasonable notice.
This is common law and common sense, based on the assumption that all people are free and equal under the law.
The above is not abstract theory. It happens in real life. And people who see themselves as free people, rather than “working class”, can ask whatever the ‘market will bear’.
Recently I saw a self‐employed builder getting paid £4,000 for a week's work. More than the “Prime Minister himself” — envy, envy! He was paid that much because he did a difficult job that nobody was prepared to do, and the job had to be done urgently and the customer was willing to pay that much.
Some time ago, an employed person (let us call him George) told me that he quarreled with his “boss” and gave him notice, and now was “worried” about “finding another job”. The reason for the “quarrel” was that George asked “his boss” to increase his salary from £20,000 a year to £20,500. The “boss” refused. George called him some bad word. A verbal exchange followed, and in anger George “resigned”. Now he was “worried”.
I asked George about his skills and experience. Having heard his tale, I suggested to him that he write it all down on a piece of paper and send it to an employment agency, as a self‐employed contractor. He got an offer of £950 a week, before the expiry of his notice. So instead of £20,500 over which he had an “industrial dispute” with his employer, he got £49,400 a year, an increase of 147% upon his old £20,000. His worries were over — and without industrial disputes, round‐the‐table talks, smoke‐filled rooms, government arbitration and picket lines. If anybody knows of a trade‐union negotiated “pay settlement” of 147% or more, please send me an email with details.
So how much is a “worker” worth?
As much as “the boss” is prepared to pay for the time, skills and energy “the worker” has to offer. There are no “classes” of “workers” and “bosses”. The same person can be both employer and employee at the some time.
Nobody is entitled to a wage as of right. Wages, salaries, commissions, or any payments for work done are determined by voluntary agreement between the parties, and nothing else. This is why “minimal wage” is wrong in principle, and harmful in practice. If the government wants to guarantee a minimal income, it should be paid as a welfare benefit out of taxes, not by imposing a minimum wage limit. This would be more honest, and would not deprive those who would be willing to work for less than minimal wage from the freedom to sell their time, skills and energy.
But some say: “The firemen are doing such a dangerous and difficult job. Surely they are entitled to more money.”
There is no “class” of firemen. It is up to each person individually to decide how much money he is prepared to accept for doing a fire‐fighting job. If he wants more money, he can ask for it, or find some other way of earning the money he wants.
In Thatcher times some “wise” police chief, frustrated with the law‐and‐order problems caused by picketers suggested that the word “picket” should be “legally defined”.
Seeking legal definition of a “picket” is like seeking legal definition of a “scab” or a “pig”. All the three terms are part of the trade union mythology, and the interpretation of the “real meaning” of these terms could be of interest to linguists or social anthropologists. For the purpose of maintenance of law and order these words are totally irrelevant. Trespass to property, obstruction of public rights of way, intimidation do not become ‘legal’ because the persons perpetrating these acts are members of a trade union or call themselves a picket. Trade unions have no legislative powers. And theft does not become a ‘legal’ act, because a political demagogue calls it ‘redistribution of wealth’.
On Sunday November 10, 2002, The Observer published an article by Tony Blair entitled “My vision for Britain”.
In this article Tony Blair introduced the concept of “respect”, one of the instances of this concept he defined as “Respect for property which means not tolerating mindless vandalism, theft, and graffiti”.
But respect for property cannot be restricted to “vandalism, theft and graffiti”, it has to be general and unconditional. And it has to start from the government. The government has to learn to respect private property themselves, and to recognise that protection of person and property is the primary duty of government.
On the firemen picket lines the strikers are trespassing on their employers property. The fire engines do not belong to the strikers, they belong to the employers, and the strikers have no right to interfere with the property of their employers in any way whatsoever. Nor can they be present on the employer's property without the employer's permission. This is trespass, and it is not just lack of respect, it is a crime and a civil wrong. Nor can they obstruct anybody in any way. They can ask as much money as they want, but, if the employer does not agree, their only option is to accept the employer's offer, or to end the contract of employment by giving the agreed notice. They cannot force anybody to employ them on their terms.
This is common law and common sense. Everything else is socialist nonsense, which has no legal validity whatsoever. And the reason for the present strike is failure by the government to perform its primary duty — protection of person and property.
So why is the government not performing its duty of protecting person and property?
The government are failing in their duty, because in the past political demagogues were promoting false ideas of “industrial relations”, of “union rights”, of “working class”, of “class struggle”, of “industrial democracy”, of “the two sides of industry” and of “the two sectors of the economy”.
They saw prices and incomes as matters of government policy, not as a result of contractual relationship between free people equal under the law.
The governments who enacted the various industrial relations acts acted incompetently and dishonestly. They abused their powers, and the laws enacted by them are null and void. It is the duty of government to protect private and public property, and to provide workable system of administration of justice for resolution of private disputes. Politics is abuse of government powers.
In his “vision” article Tony Blair acknowledges that “the rhetoric and false choices of the past” must be abandoned. But old rhetoric should not be replaced with new rhetoric. All rhetoric and politics must be abandoned lock, stock and barrel, and replaced with honest and competent government.
If Tony Blair really wants a society free from crime and anti‐social behaviour, and industrial strikes are examples of criminal and anti‐social behaviour, he must scrap all politically motivated legislation introduced by previous governments, and redefine duties and responsibilities of government from prime principles. Attempts to re‐brand or re‐jig the criminal and perverse philosophy of Socialism are bound to fail.