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The strike threat system

By Rafe Champion - posted Thursday, 12 January 2012

"The duty of a union to be anti-social; the members would have a just grievance if their officials and committees ceased to put sectional interest first." Lady Barbara Wootton of the British Labor Party.

The Fair Work Act was designed to increase the power of the trade unions and it is important to explore the rationale and justification for the "strike threat system" which is the key to their power and influence.

The Qantas workers demonstrated the power of the strike threat system last year when they announced, well in advance, that they would not be working on the next Friday. Qantas responded by extensive modifications to their schedule, including the cancellation of some flights. Later the union advised that the strike was off, but it was too late to save the original flight plans and so a great deal of inconvenience was inflicted on the company and the public without any cost to the unionists.


The Strike Threat System is the name of a book by the English economist William Harold Hutt (1899-1988). He also wrote The Theory of Collective Bargaining on the history of the trade union movement and the principles and practice of collective bargaining. He examined several of the historical claims which support trade union demands for special privileges, especially the use and the threat of physical violence which would normally be illegal.

The Suppression of the Trade Unions

According to the standard labour account, the English Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were designed to favour the employers and to prevent the workers from forming associations. Hutt challenged this in the chapter "Labour's Bitter Struggle" in The Strike Threat System. The chapter is on line.

He sketched the history of the relevant legislation from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century to show that the aim was to control what we now call restrictive trade practices. He cited numerous examples of the application of these laws to merchants and traders, less often to trade unions, partly because the craft guilds that were constituted by royal charter enjoyed the privilege of being above the laws that controlled restrictive trade practices by other people. It seems that the workers where not subjected to any novel or oppressive constraints under the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, or indeed any other legislation, before or since.

Labour's Disadvantage

The idea of the inherent disadvantage of labour has been a potent influence in gaining widespread acceptance of the systematic use of violence and intimidation to pursue industrial claims. The mythology of struggle, "us against them" is explicit in the radical Marxist worldview and also in the militant but not necessarily Marxist sections of the labour movement.


The notion of disadvantage of labour versus capital is supposed to be self-evident, especially in the case of large firms, but it can be contested on the ground that the firm needs workers just as much as the workers need the firm, so it is just a matter of how much the firm is prepared to pay or can afford to pay in hard times.

Hutt challenged the myth of disadvantage The Theory of Collective Bargaining and The Strike Threat System. It is not clear when there ever was disadvantage on the labour side because the history of industrial legislation from 1824 (repeal of the Combination Acts) is a record of the scales being tipped more and more in favour of labour at the expense of capital and managers. In 1905 the Liberal Party under Lloyd George even legislated to restrict the possibility of tort actions against trade unionists who caused damage in the course of industrial action.

Even without a leg up from the government, trade unionists soon learned to use a variety of destructive and productivity-eroding strategies to advance their personal advantage: the strike in detail, when one competing firm after another is subjected to strike activity; the "go slow" or work to rule; bogus safety issues and outright sabotage at sensitive stages of work such as concrete pours, harvesting and the transport of perishable goods. The question has to be asked, what do they think they are achieving for the workers at large and the common good, by these tactics? Lady Barbara Wootton of the British Labor Party provided an answer, cited by Hutt in The Strike Threat System (p viii). It is "the duty of a union to be anti-social; the members would have a just grievance if their officials and committees ceased to put sectional interest first." This brings us to the solidarity of the workers.

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About the Author

Rafe Champion brings the grafting qualities of the opening batsman and the cunning of the offspin bowler to the task of routing dogmatists, protectionists and other riff-raff who stand in the way of peace, freedom and plenty. He has a website and he blogs at Catallaxy and also at The History of Australian and New Zealand Thought. For more about Rafe visit here. All of his posts on Catallaxy for 2007 can be found at this link. Not all the links work and some need to be cut and pasted into the browser.

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