ALL OUR HUMAN RIGHTS derive from the power to say just one word: “No.” If we cannot speak that one word – and be heeded – then we have no rights.
This right to refuse does not give us licence to do exactly as we please; but those to whom we entrust the authority to limit the citizen’s right to refuse must always be able to justify its use.
Jami-Lee Ross, the National Party MP for Botany, will soon introduce a bill to Parliament limiting the right of workers to say “No” to their bosses. His innocuous-sounding Employment Relations (Continuity of Labour) Amendment bill, by authorising employers to recruit temporary staff to perform the duties of striking or locked-out employees, undermines, fundamentally, the latter’s right to refuse to work for the pay offered and under the conditions proposed.
Withdrawing their labour, as a means of inducing their employer to make a better offer on wages and conditions, is the only truly effective negotiating tactic available to employees.
Not that “going on strike” is an easy decision to make. Obviously, while a strike is in progress the workers involved will not be paid. The impact on the strikers’ families is readily imagined.
Nor are strikes easy on employers. While its workforce refuses to perform their normal duties, no business can function effectively.
This is, of course, the point. By imposing a financial penalty on both sides, the strike provides a strong incentive for the contending parties to resume their seats at the negotiating table.
One’s opinion on the rights and wrongs of going on strike is one of the great differentiators of politics. This is because it goes to the heart of how Left and Right define the legitimate limits of the individual’s rights. More simply: in which circumstances are we entitled – both individually and collectively – to say “No.”
It’s a paradoxical question. In order for the individual employee’s right of refusal to have any practical effect, it must first be joined with every other employee’s right to say “No.”
One worker, alone, is seldom able to negotiate with his or her employer from a position of strength. “If you don’t like the wages and conditions on offer here,” the boss will say, “there’s the door!” You may, of course, be lucky and possess a skill in short supply and which the business cannot do without. If so, then the boss will do all he or she can to persuade you to say “Yes.”
But, if the work on offer is easily mastered, the individual applicant’s position is hopeless. Take the job, or remain unemployed, becomes the choice. And if that is your choice, then be ready for the Ministry of Social Development to withdraw any assistance you may have been receiving as a “Jobseeker”.
Now the choice becomes: take the job, or starve. And that is no choice at all.
It is only through a union that the individual employee’s power to say “No.” can be realised. In the words of Ralph Chaplin’s celebrated union anthem, Solidarity Forever:
When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.
To conservative politicians like Jami-Lee Ross, however, this strategy of preserving the individual’s rights by aggregating them into a single unit of advocacy and assertion is anathema. Rather than interpret the union’s collective voice positively – as a way of amplifying each member’s individual “No!” – the Right hears only a collective roar drowning out the minority’s refusal to be aggregated.
But that is not all the Right hears. In the collective voicing of workers’ demands, the conservative detects a baleful bass note of systemic danger. The winning of individual rights by means of aggregation may begin in the workplace, but what guarantee do the defenders of private enterprise have that it will stay there? Once individual citizens work out that they’re much more likely to secure the good things of life by working together, than they are by struggling alone, the foundations of capitalism itself begin to crack and crumble.
And so, Jami-Lee Ross proposes a measure that will render every union in the country powerless. Even if 100 percent of the employees on a worksite vote to strike, their employer will, nevertheless, be empowered to over-rule their unanimous shout of “No!” – by hiring temporary replacement workers.
If Mr Ross’s private member’s bill becomes law, then the only recourse available to those workers who still insist upon their right to say “No!” will be to physically prevent these replacement workers; these strike-breakers; these scabs – from entering the workplace.
Then, the only justification for Mr Ross’s newly minted authority will be the justification of force.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 June 2013.