On Holding The Country To Ransom


It is often argued in the Anglo-American press that strikes are universally illegitimate; that they are an abuse of power by workers. “The unions are holding the company/country to ransom”, is the cry. “Why should the innocent general public suffer for these greedy workers?” “It shouldn’t be allowed”.

But surely an employer is ‘holding the workers to ransom’ when they threaten large-scale redundancies unless workers accept lower wages or worsening terms & conditions? Why is it morally acceptable for employers to do this and not workers? After all it is workers who create profit, not the legal entity that is a corporation or even the shareholders who own the company.

Employers might take the position that without them employees would not have a job.

But it would be equally true to say that without employees employers couldn’t provide the goods and services that the organisation (public or private) was set up to provide.

At this structural level employers and employees are entirely dependent upon each other.

However, for the most part power in the employer/employee relationship resides with the employer.

It is the Employer who hires and fires the Employee and it is the Employer who decides the terms and conditions under which that Employee will work.

The most obvious reason for this is that the Employer has the legally defined authority to determine whom they Employee. This means that they can dismiss Employees who they no longer wish to employ or not employ people who they don’t want to employ.

The second reason is that throughout most of history there have been more potential Employees than jobs available. This means that Employers can pick and choose between those who they wish to employ and can sack Employees in the almost absolute certainty that they will find a replacement at least as good as the sacked Employee.

In extreme cases this excess of potential Employees over available jobs can lead to wages falling below the level at which hard-working Employees can provide even basic food and shelter for themselves and their dependents. (As happened in the 1930’s as refugees from the mid-west dust bowl poured into the fruit picking labour market of Northern California. See The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck).

All this perhaps sounds perfectly reasonable; surely this is simply the law of supply & demand in action? Maybe, except an Employee is not an abstract idea, not a “human resource” to de distributed according to the faux scientific rules of Economics. An Employee is a human being, a person; a person with responsibilities and dependents, talents and failings, hopes and dreams. An Employee is a human being who can suffer. And to take away a human beings capacity to provide food & shelter is to inflict suffering upon a thinking, feeling person.

In the modern, globalised, urban economy, agricultural self-sufficiency is simply not a realistic option for almost anyone. For almost everyone in the world, working for someone else is the only way of providing food and shelter for themselves and their dependents.

For a man or woman to have the ‘power’ to take away a fellow-human being’s capacity to provide food & shelter is therefore a situation that surely cannot simply be taken for granted?

If we believe in even the most basic concept of justice then we have to ask questions like; what legitimises the Employer’s power to hire & fire? Are the reasons for not employing or dismissing a person Just? How is a person who has been rendered unemployed to provide food & shelter for themselves and their dependants?

In the 19th Century, these questions started to be asked and radicals like Marx and Bukunin pointed out that if employers and employees are entirely dependent upon each other and Employers are entitled to decide who and when to employ or sack workers then similarly workers can decided if and when to work or withdraw their labour. Structurally without workers Employers cannot function – it is only the excess of workers over jobs that gives Employers power.

And so as the 19th turned into the 20th Century, ‘the strike’ became a primary tool in the workers fight to claim a fair share of the excess value (profit) created by their labour. Employers, realising the power of the strike reacted with extreme violence and the full power of the law was brought to bear on strikers and their families in an effort to assert the power of the employers, but it was to no avail and gradually the sacrifices of generations of trade unionists and workers improved the material lot of the toiling millions.

But if you only looked at mainstream media none of this heroic history would be apparent. In reports of strikes all you would perceive is that greedy, selfish, trouble makers, are committing some sort of moral sin by withholding their labour, and increasing the psychological trauma of the poor managers who are trying to cope with “having to make difficult decisions.”

It would be laughable if it weren’t so fucking offensive!

But when my grandchildren say, “why didn’t you try to stop them privatising the health service and education?” Or “why didn’t you fight to maintain pensions and working conditions?” I want to be able to look them in the eye and say I did everything I could  – even if that means occasionally withdrawing my labour and thus committing the awful sin of mildly inconveniencing some of the great British public – bearing in mind of course that I myself am a member of the great British public!

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4 responses to “On Holding The Country To Ransom

  1. I am in accord with your comments. However, the relationships between employers, employees, and the public need to be refined and civilized so that mutual respect is encouraged and the use of violence and rude behavior is no longer accepted as a tactic for accomplishing change. Of course all adversaries would have to comply with the “rules” and cooperate, or no harmonious agreement would be achievable.

    • Which seems a different response to your comments about troublemakers harassing the “innocent public”. I’m interested in the idea that anyone using civil disobedience to try to bring about political or social change are all attention seeking troublemakers? Were George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson all merely attention seeking troublemakers? These guys started a violent revolution against an established and widely accepted government and this ultimate act of civil disobedience led not only to the harassment of the ‘innocent public’ but the death of hundreds of thousands of them.

  2. I don’t know about hundreds of thousands of deaths. That seems way too much. However, I think the whole business of the Revolution got way out of control and way too uncivil due to the activities of Revolution-era “Chicago Seven” style agitators who were most likely pursuing selfish personal objectives and not the lofty goals voiced by Adams, Jefferson and Washington.

    • So sorry, tens of thousands then. A quick google search comes up with figures for the American revolution of between 10-40,000 total deaths out of a population of 2.4 million so that’s between 1 and 4 million as a proportion of today’s population.

      In any event the point is that the USA wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for wide-spread civil disobedience leading ultimately to armed revolution and a prolonged war. Yet Americans like to airbrush this inconvenient truth out of history when criticising the peoples of the rest of the world who dare to attempt the same thing.

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