If you can't get to work today, you could do worse than head down to a picket line and offer your support, or at least ask a trade unionist why they have decided to strike.
Under the campaign stewardship of Lynton Crosby, the Tories have turned their fire on the trade union movement.
The party’s PR machine, together with their friends in the media, have orchestrated a well-oiled campaign to discredit trade unionists and trade unionism in general.
One way they have gone about this has been to portray any group of striking workers – from teachers to firefighters to those who work on the London Underground – as insouciant extremists looking to cause as much disruption as possible to “ordinary people”.
Missing has been any sense of nuance: people don’t go on strike to be “disruptive” or “for a laugh” or because they’re lazy. They usually walk out as a last resort to exercise the only democratic means they feel they have left when faced with an erosion of their rights.
You wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, but trade unionists go on strike reluctantly and for very specific reasons. For instance:
1) Because jobs are being cut in a myopic attempt to save money
If, like me, you’ve ever been stranded in central London after missing the last train on the weekend I imagine there’s a good chance your spirits were lifted upon hearing the news that the tube will be open for 24 hours on weekends from 2015. I certainly was; until I found out how Transport for London (TfL) was planning to cut 1,000 jobs to pay for it.
It might be argued that because of technological advances some of the ticket office jobs facing the axe are no longer necessary – it is the hallmark of the Luddite to cling to outmoded modes of work when technological advances allow a less labour-intensive method to prevail – but there is little evidence to suggest that closing every ticket office is a smart move.
Automation can certainly be more efficient; but as anyone who as ever used an automated supermarket checkout will know, things often go wrong – things which require the help and input of a human being to resolve. People sometimes need to speak to a human being, rather than a box with wires inside it, about their train ticket.
2) Because without the occasional strike there would be no such thing as rights at work
Confrontation is deeply unfashionable in our age of ‘consensus’ politics. Even parliament is said by some to be too ‘partisan’ (nobody seems to realise that this argument is in effect a call for a one-party state). As a consequence, workers are pilloried for ‘rocking the boat’ or characterised as bad eggs intent on implanting extremism into the minds of fellow workers when they down tools. Disagreeing with your employer is fine; doing something about it just isn’t cricket.
One is apt to forget, however, that without the occasional withdrawal of labour, workers’ rights as we know them would be practically non-existent. Don’t believe me? Then contrast the working conditions on the London Underground with those of similar jobs where there is no trade union or where there is a pliant trade union which is unwilling to strike.
According to this morning’s Spectator, it is “baffling” that workers should be willing to strike when “Transport for London isn’t asking anyone to leave, simply to be flexible”. Perhaps if the writer followed their train of thought a little further they might enquire as to what the word “flexible” actually means in practice, and who is being asked to be “flexible” and for whose benefit.
3) Workers feel they have no option but to strike
Workers don’t enjoy going on strike. Well-paid newspaper leader writers with public school educations seem to think they do, but this is rarely the case. When workers decide to withdraw their labour they do so after a lengthy process of consultation and almost always after numerous attempts at compromise with bosses. Workers going on strike can suffer a loss of earnings and an increased feeling of enmity with management on their return to work. It’s less a case of people choosing to walk out as much as a feeling that they have no other option but to walk out.
Strike action is also democratic. Three quarters (76 per cent) of those who voted in the RMT ballot backed today’s strikes on the London Underground. Critics point out that this was based on a turnout of just 40 per cent of RMT members. While this may sound low, this level of turnout is fairly common in most elections. Mayor of London Boris Johnson was elected with turnouts of just 44.5 per cent (2008) and 37.4 per cent (2012). There is no reason why the adage that applies to politics should not apply to trade union ballots: if you don’t bother to vote, you don’t get a say over the outcome.
In sum, if you can’t get to work today, you could do worse than head down to a picket line and offer your support, or at least ask a trade unionist why they have decided to strike. You will probably find that their workplace worries are not that different from your own.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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