"One of the eternal conflicts out of which life is made up is that between the efforts of every man to get the most he can for his services, and that of society, disguised under the name of capital, to get his services for the least possible return.
Combination on the one side is patent and powerful. Combination on the other is the necessary and desirable counterpart, if the battle is to be carried on in a fair and equal way.
The fact that the immediate object of the act by which the benefit to the unionized workers is to be gained is to injure the employer does not necessarily make it unlawful, any more than when a great house lowers the price of goods for the purpose and with the effect of driving a smaller antagonist from the business."
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – 1896
A dissenting judgement in the case of Vegelahn versus Guntner, an 1896 labour law decision from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
Although it took several years to make its full impact, this dissenting judgement was a seminal one in determining the course of American labour relations and collective bargaining in the 20th century, and its influence was felt throughout the industrialised world.
Its central argument carries the same force today, as we approach a United Kingdom general election in the midst of the BA strikes and the prospect of a national rail strike.
Americans are much more realistic about labour relations, sometimes brutally so, but after a century or more, attitudes in Britain remain naive and ill-informed, and the reaction of government and media commentators to strikes is remarkably consistent, and raises the question – Why are the unions always the bad guys?I hope to examine this further in a subsequent blog.
Why won't these companies learn?
Keep your lip zipped in public comment through the media when there is a chance of averting the dispute. A strike threat is a negotiating tactic - until the workers actually hit the street. It is a way to stiffen a negotiating position against an otherwise all-powerful management negotiating team.
I gave you this advice as a consultant when you were British Rail, guys - but you have learned nothing in the 20 years since.