Tube strikes have invoked right wing hysteria. But it is not “pig headed” to stand up for the health and well-being of your fellow workers.
Adjacent to Borough Market and a stone’s throw from the Thames, the Market Porter is a cracking pub, an old fashioned London boozer that opens early in the morning to quench the thirst of traders on the busy fruit and vegetable market across the road. Many times I’ve stood outside enjoying a pint in one of the most atmospheric parts of London. Alas, no more. During July’s tube strike a notice in the pub’s window blamed its closure on “the criminals on the trains holding us all to ransom”. That’s the last they’ve seen of my custom.
The Market Porter wasn’t alone in cranking up the anti-union rhetoric. The swanky M restaurant in the City joined in with a pompous statement on their website declaring that they “would like to say DUCK YOU to the pig-headed unions as they irresponsibly bring London to a standstill” and offered a complimentary smoked duck or pig’s head starter on the day of the strike.
Presumably none of the owners, management or staff at either of these establishments have ever had cause to thank trade unions for fighting, down the years, for the likes of paid holidays, sick pay, maternity pay, equal opportunities or flexible working. If they had then they might not be so quick to resort to such abuse.
The good news for those partial to a duck breast and a glass of white for their lunch is that the government’s Trade Union Bill presented to Parliament in July seeks to make it more difficult for public sector workers to go on strike proposing that for “essential public services” a strike ballot must have a turnout of over 50% and be supported by more than 40% of the electorate. Fine words from a government that secured less than 37% of the vote in May’s general election. And the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, one of the most vociferous critics of trade unions, triumphed in the 2012 mayoral election with 44% of the vote from a turnout of barely 38%, in what was effectively a two horse race with Ken Livingstone. One rule for the politicians and one rule for ordinary workers it appears. The recent budget condemned public sector workers to another four years of 1% pay rises. Meanwhile MPs will receive a generous 10% increase in their pay.
Arguably the surprise of the last few years is that there has been so little industrial action in the public sector given the government’s austerity-driven assault on it. Around 400,000 days were lost to strikes in 2013 compared to the 29 million days lost in 1979. Perhaps only teachers and firefighters, in addition to transport workers, have caused much significant disruption in recent times. Surely there should have been more unrest?
In nearly a quarter of a century of working in the NHS I’ve been on strike on only three occasions, resulting in the loss of a mere two working days. In November 2011 I joined other NHS workers in a one day strike over cuts to public sector pensions and then in the autumn of last year took part in two half day strikes in protest at the freeze on public sector pay. I was proud to join and support other NHS workers on the picket line at the entrance to our hospital and if the comments of patients and passers by and the toots of support from passing vehicles were anything to go by then the strikes were supported by the majority of the public. Under the proposed legislation none of these strikes could have occurred legally.
The Trade Union Bill goes way beyond simply making it more difficult to strike. If enacted it would result in the criminalisation of picketing, leave employers free to break strikes by taking on agency staff and limit the amount of time that staff can devote to union duties. Additionally the legislation seeks to starve the Labour Party of funds by making union members opt into the political levy rather than contribute by default.
It would be nice to think that in the interests of democracy and fairness that we could also look forward to a ballot and a 50% turnout amongst shareholders being made mandatory for public companies who are proposing to donate funds to a political party? And how about customers buying products or services from companies that donate to political parties having a similar opportunity to pay a lower price that is free of any political contribution? Surely in this day and age it should not be beyond us to make this possible.
But don’t hold your breath as the onslaught against unions isn’t about democracy at all but an ideological attack on the trade union movement that even in its present emaciated state represents a threat, and at times perhaps the only credible opposition, to years of austerity. If the government was in any way serious about increasing workplace democracy then they could work with unions to introduce electronic voting, one of several options to boost participation in union ballots.
Unions are essential in providing balance in an economy tilted towards the super-rich and huge multi-national corporations. And the right to withdraw your labour is a fundamental part of any society that wishes to call itself democratic. The fact is that without collective bargaining the rich simply get richer and richer. Research undertaken in the US tracked the relationship between union membership and inequality between 1917 and 2012 graphically (referring to it as the “arc of inequality”). When unions were strongest in the middle decades of the twentieth century the richest ten per cent’s share of national income fell significantly from the early part of the century. American society became more equal. But as union membership has plummeted since the 1980s the share of national income garnered by the richest 10% of the population has risen like the profile of a mountain top finish in the Tour de France.
Whilst the largely anti-union media continue to use emotive language whenever there is a strike (a tube strike always “paralyses” the transport system, causes “chaos” and “holds commuters and businesses to ransom”) the reality is that trade union power has waned considerably over the last thirty years. Trade union membership in Britain is now less than half of what it was at the beginning of the 1980s.
During last autumn’s two half day NHS strikes only three members of the hospital finance department that I work in, numbering more than fifty workers, took part in the strike action. Most of the office are not members of a union and indeed some were unaware that there was even a strike on. Many young office workers, ambitious and keen to get on, fail to see the point of joining a trade union. Partaking in strike action may hold them back and result in them being labelled as trouble causers or denied a promotion or pay rise. It’s easier to keep your head down and get on with your job. Sadly, belief in collective action and of support service staff demonstrating solidarity with doctors, nurses, therapists and other clinicians has declined significantly during my time in the NHS.
Yet strong trade unions are needed perhaps more than ever with the growth of casual labour, zero hours contracts and an increasingly unequal society. The wonderful United Voices of the World (UVW), a volunteer run trade union with no paid officials, represents migrant workers in London’s burgeoning low wage service sector. Cleaning, catering and portering staff in London’s top end hotels are often paid the minimum wage for long shifts spent mainly on their feet. Many complain of low wages, long hours, exhaustion and the lack of dignity and respect and sometimes abuse that they experience from management and some guests. And the same is true of many famous London restaurants and shops. UVW are beginning to turn the tide, however, and cleaners and porters at Southeby’s, the high end auction house where works of art are routinely sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, recently secured the living wage, a wonderful mini-triumph over a culture of bullying and arbitrary dismissals. The fight for proper sick pay goes on; they’ve secured the bread, now for the roses too.
For a nation that supposedly supports underdogs and encourages people to stand up for themselves there should be much to admire in the work of UVW and other trade unions. Although demonstrations and strikes can often be a pain in the arse for the general public, commuters and small businesses it is a relatively small price to pay for trying to secure better working conditions or pay for fellow workers. The current tube dispute, far from being a tale of “greedy” tube drivers, is ostensibly a dispute over the rostering of regular night shifts to support the move to night time tube services, something deemed essential for a “world class” city such as London. When it comes to measuring the prestige of a city clearly issues such as safety and the health and well being of its population come further down the pecking order than, say, being able to get home from the boozer in the early hours after a night on the town.
It is not “pig headed” to stand up for the health and well being of your fellow workers. Nor is it “criminal” to fight for a decent wage for some of the poorest paid workers in the country. The UVW reckon that “while the law may be ludicrously skewed in the employer’s favour it’s still always worth fighting to the bitter end, both in court and on the streets”. I’ll raise a glass to that.
Just not at the Market Porter.
– Originally published on Nowt much to Say and republished with permission.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.