An inspiring (if unattainable) example from across the Atlantic
How to respond to a national walkout by government employees who perform a critical job for a large organisation, and who cynically advance their demands for more money under the false banner of concern for public safety?
Ronald Reagan offers us one blueprint, from back in that dim and distant time when both Britain and America were blessed with leaders who (for their various faults and blind spots) were not afraid to lead, and to take bold and decisive action when necessary.
This is the speech Reagan gave in August 1981 when PATCO, the American air traffic controllers union, called an illegal strike (federal workers being prohibited from striking under the Taft-Hartley Act) demanding, among other things, a 32-hour work week:
This morning at 7 AM the union representing those who man America’s air traffic control facilities called a strike. This was the culmination of 7 months of negotiations between the Federal Aviation Administration and the union. At one point in these negotiations agreement was reached and signed by both sides, granting a $40 million increase in salaries and benefits. This is twice what other government employees can expect. It was granted in recognition of the difficulties inherent in the work these people perform. Now, however, the union demands are 17 times what had been agreed to – $681 million. This would impose a tax burden on their fellow citizens which is unacceptable.
I would like to thank the supervisors and controllers who are on the job today, helping to get the nation’s air system operating safely. In the New York area, for example, four supervisors were scheduled to report for work, and 17 additionally volunteered. At National Airport a traffic controller told a newsperson he had resigned from the union and reported to work because, “How can I ask my kids to obey the law if I don’t?” This is a great tribute to America.
Let me make one thing plain. I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I’m maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL – CIO union. But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being.
It was in recognition of this that the Congress passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees against the public safety. Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: “I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.”
It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
Obviously such a feat could not be repeated by the British government in its dealings with striking NHS staff – though the case for banning strikes by national public sector workers becomes more compelling by the day.
But if repeating Reagan’s actions are not possible for political and logistical reasons (firing 11,000 air traffic controllers is much easier than firing 55,000 junior doctors, not to mention the fact that the junior doctors are operating within the current law), at least we might hope that the government will act in the spirit of Reagan. And in the spirit of Reagan, the government should refuse to give any further ground to striking public sector workers who are willing to cynically jeopardise public health in a dispute which now rests primarily on the question of Saturday pay – and is certainly nothing to do with patient safety or the continued existence of the NHS.
This blog firmly believes that the NHS model is broken and than a system conceived in the 1940s is barely adequate to the demands of the 2010s, and will be hopelessly inadequate to the demands of the 2040s. If we are to persist with a public option, then there is no reason why healthcare should continue to be provided by a monolithic government organisation, the fifth largest employer in the entire world (with all the baggage, internal politics and resistance to change which that stunning fact implies).
There is no good reason why we cannot look closely at the healthcare systems of countries such as France, Germany, Japan or Canada and redesign our system accordingly – if only we could rediscover our sense of national ambition and shed our increasingly unwarranted pride in the NHS. We could even still call the new healthcare system “the NHS” if our cult-like attachment to the brand really runs so deep.
The time is long overdue for Britain to have that national conversation, endlessly kicked down the road by politicians terrified of upsetting nervous voters and governments which have proved constitutionally incapable of daring mighty things. But first we need to overcome this peculiar, anachronistic industrial dispute – one which belongs more comfortably in 1976 than 2016 – and end the junior doctors’ strike, by imposing the current contract offered if necessary.
And in that effort, let the spirit of Ronald Reagan guide Jeremy Hunt.
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