Border Agency walk-out? Give their jobs to redundant soldiers
It's right to invoke Reagan: he supported union rights against greedy bosses - but not in the public sector
CULTURE Secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted that in the face of a planned strike on Thursday by UK Border Agency Staff some ministers are looking for a "Ronald Reagan approach" – shorthand for sack the lot of them.
On 3 August 1981 that's exactly what President Reagan threatened to do to striking US air traffic controllers unless they called it off. "…if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated." Even with the word 'terminated' used in its pre-Schwarzenegger sense it was powerful stuff.
The air traffic controllers' militant union thought Reagan was bluffing and only a small percentage returned to work. When the deadline expired 'The Gipper' dismissed 11,325 of them, handing over control of US airspace to the Air Force until a new generation of air traffic controllers could be trained up and brought on line.
Reagan was a strong believer in trade unions – for private sector workers who needed the right to organise to prevent exploitation by unscrupulous and greedy bosses. In 1960, as head of the Screen Actors Guild, he had organised its first ever strike in an effort to get the cartel of the big seven Hollywood studios to pay fairer rates to actors and extras.
But he did not believe that public sector employees with their guaranteed pensions, inflation-proofed wages and comparatively short hours of work needed the protection of unions or the right to strike.
His comments at a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House that morning are instructive. Boasting of his own union background he went on: "But we cannot compare labour-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."
Reagan played hardball. During the strike there would be no negotiations with the union and afterwards there would be no amnesty for strikers. Not only would they be 'terminated' they would also be banned for life from holding any other federal employment. The government also began legal action to freeze the union's strike fund. Brezhnev and the politburo in Moscow were impressed by his uncompromising stance.
Reagan could do this because he enjoyed one crucial advantage over hapless contemporary British ministers – it was illegal for key federal employees to strike.
Some ex-strikers were allowed to re-apply for their jobs in 1986 but the lifetime ban on holding any other civil service employment wasn't lifted until 1993 by President Clinton.
The Olympics don't do much for me and I can't be the only one who finds Lord Coe, 'chair' of the Olympic Organising Authority, irritating. It goes back to 1980. As a private soldier in the ranks of a tank regiment I spent that long hot summer trying to memorise the silhouettes of a host of different Soviet armoured vehicles – thousands of which were then pointed aggressively at the very heart of western Europe. Soviet Russia was an expansionist enemy threatening our way of life.
The United States and other allied countries had quite rightly decided to boycott the Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mrs Thatcher wanted a boycott but left the decision up to the British Olympic Association and the consciences of individual athletes. Us squaddies were distinctly unimpressed by Sebastian Coe and other British athletes like who took part in the Moscow Games – a massive propaganda exercise for the Soviet Union as tasteless and sinister as the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
But Britain has signed up for the 2012 Games and it is the duty of all public servants to ensure that they go off as safely and efficiently as possible.
Those in the Border Agency who intend to strike on Thursday, if it can't be stopped in the courts today, should think of this: 20,000 soldiers are due to be sacked in the next few years plus smaller numbers from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. All these men and women have led disciplined lives in which the shortcomings of their terms of service are the subject for dark humour and endurance rather than the raw material for national blackmail. Many of them would jump at the opportunity to join the Border Agency. They might even start controlling our borders or at least trying to.
Anyone who strikes on Thursday should have their employment terminated. Threatening to disrupt arrivals at the country's airports on what might well be their busiest day ever is simply a modern form of wrecking. Even the lefty legal establishment will be forced to suggest that employment law has been infringed.
Jeremy Hunt does seem to be showing a little backbone. Good for him. Better to be remembered as a disciple of Ronald Reagan's conservative public sector reforms than a creature of the Murdochs or an early morning malapropism by the BBC Today host James Naughtie.