13 FEBRUARY 2002

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The sympathy strike in context

Isabelle Calleja of the University of Malta’s Department of International Relations speaks on the flammable subject of the sympathy strike, and puts the heated local debate into an international context

In recent days there has been much contenuous debate over the retaining or withholding at law of the right of the sympathy strike. The unions have argued that it is an essential prerequisite in their continued quest to represent and protect the rights of employees. In turn employers and to a certain extent the state have argued that this right allow the unions to capriciously handle industrial disputes to the detriment of the employer and the economy at large. These arguments make clear that both parties view the sympathy strike simply as a tool in the ongoing clash between capital and labour and that its retention favours the interests of the latter. This argument however is false. The right of the sympathy strike does not favour one interest group.

On the contrary it is an inalienable right that provides an organised, legal method through which civil society and all the interest groups which it incorporates including those that represent the interests of capital can freely express their views and concerns vis a vis the changing parametres of the state and the economy.

We are fortunate enough in Malta to live in a pluralist and democratic society which provides us with the tools and mechanisms to participate in the on going political dialogue over how best to retain the precarious balance between individual and societal concerns, to the advantage of both. These same mechanisms also allow us to show our disapproval and disagreement in peaceful and acceptable ways when we feel this precarious balance is challenged.

We are all too quick to forget quite how lucky we are. To fully appreciate what we have achieved and how quickly it can be lost. Malta is surrounded by examples of countries that lack these same mechanisms, Kosovo, Macedonia, Algeria, and as a result have resorted to violent means to achieve their ends. In Malta we only have to hark back to the late 70s and early 80s to realise how newly won this present civilian state of peace and consensus really is.

The sympathy strike has an important role to play in maintaining this present state of wellbeing. The sympathy strike first came to the fore in the early 19th century. Its origins however can be traced to the French revolution. Consequently this type of action has been seen as radical, extreme and a threat to the prevailing social order. Sympathy strikes today are still viewed largely in this light. The sympathy strike however was a hard won right. The Todpuddle martyrs in Britain in the 1830s were deported for daring to participate in such action. Eventually it was legalized later in the century. Since then it has been used to protect the interests of diverse groups, and at times of civil society as a whole both on the continent and in Malta.

In its limited sense it has allowed trade unions to strengthen their hand by enabling them to ask affiliated workers at other enterprises to show solidarity with workers in distress at a specific place of work. This move may at times be deemed essential, in cases of unjustifiable deadlock, in cases where there is need to spread the financial burden for striking workers who may have no right of pay, or in cases where striking may be prohibited for those workers manning essential services. These concerns effect employees across the board and are not just the obsessive ramblings of a few extremist hard liners with Marxian views. Recently it was the doctors who felt that they were being short changed by the system. A few months back University academics were in a very similar situation.

In a wider context sympathy strikes have been used as a mass form of political action to protest and overturn changes that threaten the equitable balance of the social contract. This threat may come from the portals of capital, from the multinationals and the large corporations and may run contrary to the interests not just of labour, but of the state as a whole. The general strike of 1926 in Britain against the mine owners fuelled the sympathy of many in government. The protests that often follow a summit of the World Trade Organisation are often in defense of universal social values and environmental interests as those that followed the introduction of the MAI treaty sponsored by the multinationals. This treaty suggested cutting back on many social and environmental rights across the board and was eventually scuppered by governments.

The threat may also come from the state. In 1968 in France sympathy strikes brought attention to the deteriorating practices of government and provided the fuel for change. In Poland in the 1980s wide ranging strike action organised by solidarity struck at the very heart of the communist system and engineered its downfall. In Malta in the early 1980s the consolidation of trade union and other interest group activity that culminated in increased strike action slowly eroded what legitimacy was left to the government in power and helped in bringing about its demise. The Maltese court of appeal in May 2001 confirmed and gave further substance to this right of the political sympathy strike in the UHM’s action against the budget of 1998.

The sympathy strike thus ultimately is not a threat to either the forces of capital or the state at large. On the contrary it is a mechanism that protects and shores up the system. It ensures that the interests of a large section of civil society can be peacefully and legally expressed. If eliminated we will all be the poorer for it. The outcome will be a system that panders to the interests of a few and limits the freedom of expression of all. It will make peaceful protest harder weakening our defenses in times when the system is threatened and ultimately opening the door for non peaceful protest which as Hobbes makes clear in his Levaithan is a horror no one would wish to bring on. However in 1982 when Thatcher removed the right of sympathy strike it is towards this direction that she geared Britain. Strike action here is shown to have increased post 82. The political system becoming more polarised rather than less and slowly congealing into a state of have and have not with the highest unemployment rate in Europe. In this era of globalization and European Union when multinationals are increasingly insisting on a level playing field, let us ensure that this is indeed the case for all. Let us not in the interest of short term contingency forget the larger picture.

 



The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt