There are times when I fear the pro-market right can be guilty of a double standard. On the one hand, we decry any leftist who claims that businesses should be run ‘in the national interest’. It sounds like the opening of an attempt to bring private enterprise under the long shadow of the state.
We quite rightly point out that the business of business is business, and that government attempts to co-opt businesses into the state are usually authoritarian and wrong. We defend the right of private citizens to run their own affairs and defend, within the constraints of the law, their own interests.
But with this public sector strike some of the right has turned on its head. Suddenly, the unions are selfishly refusing to subsume their private interests into the national interest. Their strikes are ‘irresponsible’. The distinction between the private and the public interest, which we so keenly defend for businesses and individuals, gets inexplicably blurred for unions.
Yes, people get hurt when schools and other public services close due to strike action. But people get hurt when factories close and companies move to more business-friendly countries. Why should we believe that unions have some kind of duty to people other than their membership?
Of course, the unions bring some of this on themselves by striking ridiculous poses. Claims that the public sector unions are somehow striking for all workers, or for the nation, are absurd. The idea that public services would simply cease to function if public sector workers were paid private sector wages is a fantasy.
But the right should not sink to their level. Rather we should always seek to point out the blunt truth of the matter: the public sector unions are doing their job. It might seem hypocritical for people who pose as selfless public servants to be causing so much disruption in defence of an unsustainably generous wage and pension settlement, but that is an argument for the conscience of the individual public servant, not the union.
The union’s job is not a heroic defence of justice or social democracy, whatever their spokespeople might claim. A union’s purpose is the ferocious defence of the interests of its members, and that alone. The state of the public finances is not their duty. Why should it be?
A union in under no more moral obligation to refrain from striking ‘in the national interest’ than a business is to pay exorbitant taxes for what a left-wing government believes is the national good. They are both private concerns with private interests that the market right should recognise and accept.
If the job of the unions is to deliver the best possible deal for their members, the government has an opposing function. As an employer it has a duty to get the best value for money out of public labour as possible on behalf of its stakeholders, the taxpaying public.
Unlike a private sector employer the government has for a long time failed in this duty because while a private company cannot simply wish profits into existence, when the government comes off badly from a wage negotiation it can simply tax the money it needs out of the public.
With the new and desperate need to bring down government costs, the government is finally starting – and only starting – to do its job and face down the public sector unions in order to deliver the best possible value for money on the public wage bill. This is the opening salvo in what will probably become a long-running battle between successive governments and the last trades union dragons in the public sector, which needs fundamental reform.
I opposed the strike, like many millions of others, but I don’t think it’s somehow illegitimate for the unions to be trying to defend their settlements and it is hypocritical of many rightists to claim such. Industrial action is a simple trial of strength between organised labour on the one hand and the employer and their stakeholders on the other.
The fight between an employer and the union is thus a natural and morally neutral result of their opposing functions. The unions represent their members, and the government represents the rest of us.
The government must make that message clear, and not let the unions continue to pretend they’re striking for anyone but themselves. Then we must defeat them, and remove one of the most formidable barriers to meaningful public service reform.