The newspapers and their Tory friends have been milking the planned series of strikes over the next week for all they’re worth. “Ruining Christmas” seems to be the more-or-less ‘official’ tabloid description; although I’m sure they’d have found a similarly pertinent title at any other time of the year.
I don’t doubt that the strikes will inconvenience many, and I’m equally sure that if I were depending on Southern Rail to get to work, or on BA to fly away for some Christmas sun, I’d be pretty unhappy about it too. Unhappiness, and playing on people’s anger, sells newspapers. To make the issue more complex, I’m not sure that I have a huge amount of sympathy with the grievances of the staff taking strike action in every case either; the issue of driver-only train operation, for instance, seems to have been resolved elsewhere, and I’m finding it hard to understand why what’s acceptable sometimes isn’t more generally acceptable.
But there’s an underlying issue here which isn’t really about the validity or otherwise of a particular grievance, it’s about where power lies and what rights working people have to pursue a dispute with their employer. To listen to some of the Tories talking, they ‘accept’ the right of people to withdraw their labour, just so long as it causes no inconvenience to the employers or customers; the moment it does, it becomes a case of trade unions abusing their power. And that in turn leads to demands to ban ever-increasing sections of the working population from ever going on strike. But a right to withdraw labour only so long as it inconveniences no one doesn’t look like a particularly useful right to me – the whole point of any industrial action is to put pressure on the employer. Striking, or threatening to strike, is effectively the only power that workers have.
What concerns me even more is the way in which people are being swept along with this attitude. Finding angry commuters to interview is easy enough, but it’s no substitute for a consideration of the power politics underlying the question. Ultimately, the Tories and their media friends are seeking to make the power balance between workers and employers even more one-sided than it is at present, and the presentation of the issue is effectively aligning workers in other industries and sectors with the employers. Every time those workers who depend on the trains to get to work criticise the strikers, and demand that they don’t strike, they are effectively telling them that they must accept whatever the employers say and forgo any right to oppose it.
In an increasingly interconnected economy, the failure of services on which so many depend – whether because of a strike or for any other reason – is something which we would all prefer to avoid, naturally. But the jump from there to handing all power to employers and telling employees that they must accept whatever is imposed on them is far too simplistic a response. In recent decades, under Tory and Labour governments alike, the balance of power has swung very much away from employees, and those who wield the power are seeking to continue that process.I understand the argument that strikes should be a last resort, and that not all strikes will appear to have merit to everyone, but who should decide on the merits or otherwise of a particular dispute? It’s a question which we can debate ad infinitum, and one on which our opinions will tend to depend in large measure on the impact any particular dispute has on us as individuals. But the solution is surely a bit more complex than simply taking away employee rights and giving all power to employers. I hope that ACAS will be able to help resolve the current disputes – that’s the best outcome for all concerned. The alternative (and apparently popular) suggestion of further eroding the position of working people, and further accumulating power in the hands of the employers, doesn’t look to me to be in the long term interest of all those angry people being so willingly interviewed by the media, however much it might appear to be in their short term interest at a point in time.