Stowell Sherman, “Workers on Strike”

This essay, on the importance of trade unions and the right to strike, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 27 June 2022, under the headline “Enemy within? Hardly… most people see why we need unions prepared to strike”.

The Tories love the working class. So long as workers can help them win red wall seats. So long as they can paint them as “socially conservative” and use them as alibis for legislation hostile to immigrants or welfare claimants. So long as they can exploit them as props for a fantasy levelling up agenda.

But the moment workers take matters into their own hands, assert their collective voice and take action to preserve wages and conditions, they are denounced as militants and the enemy within; even, ludicrously, as “Putin’s friend”, as Tory MP Tobias Elwood claimed about RMT strikers. Tories like the idea of the working class in the abstract, as individuals who might vote for them every five years, but not the working class in the flesh, as people who act collectively to defend their rights.

Critics of the RMT, in the government and beyond, have attempted to portray strikes as an immoral weapon wielded by uncaring union bosses to “hold the country to ransom”. In fact, strikes are weapons of the powerless, not the powerful, a means of restoring a modicum of balance in a highly unequal relationship between employers and workers.

Corporations have myriad ways of imposing their power on employees: cutting wages, enforcing redundancies, tearing up contracts, withdrawing investment. When companies threaten to close down plants if their redundancy or wage cut plans are not accepted, or to move investment elsewhere if they don’t receive sufficient sweeteners, few call it “holding the country to ransom”. But that’s exactly what it is – and with far more leverage than unions could ever muster.

The main deterrent workers collectively possess in response to the power of employers is the withdrawal of their labour. No one takes strike action lightly – after all, workers lose money by going on strike. But sometimes it is a weapon they have to wield.

Whenever an “essential” group of workers goes on strike, Conservatives chorus that “unions are too strong”. It’s a claim as plausible as suggesting that the problem with Boris Johnson is that he has too much moral decency. Over the past 40 years, successive governments have made it increasingly difficult to go on strike, stripped away the possibilities of effective action and outlawed most forms of solidarity, from secondary strikes to flying pickets.

For all the Tory taunts, Labour has been only marginally more supportive of union rights. In the run-up to the 1997 general election, Tony Blair, responding to Tory claims that the party was too close to the unions, insisted that “the essential elements of the trade union legislation of the 1980s will remain”. “The changes that we do propose,” he added, would still “leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world”. It remains so.

The P&O debacle earlier this year revealed the ease with which companies can circumvent the paltry legislation that exists to protect workers and sacrifice them to the call of profit. When P&O sacked almost 800 people and replaced them with lower-paid agency staff, there was much ministerial hand-wringing. Faced with the RMT, a union that has refused to be cowed by employers, ministers have threatened to change the law to make it easier to use agency staff to break strikes. The proposed use of agency staff would be temporary, but it is both a further attempt to crush strike action and another step towards the P&O model of industrial relations. There has been a lot of chatter about “a return to the 70s”; the truth is, the status of British workers today is closer to that of P&O employees than it is to the miners or printers of 40 years ago.

Given the current talk of “levelling up”, it is worth emphasising that one of the most important tools in preventing inequality are trade unions. Between 1937 and 1979, union membership in Britain doubled, while the share of income going to the top 1% fell by two-thirds. Between 1979 and 2014, membership of unions halved and the share of income for the richest 1% more than doubled. Workers’ share of national wealth has also fallen and wages have not kept up with rises in productivity. Unions are indispensable in protecting living standards and workplace conditions.

The reason the government is desperate to paint railway workers as uniquely greedy or uncaring is that it knows a host of other workers are in much the same position and may themselves soon take action: teachers, nurses, postal workers, BA check-in staff, BT engineers. It knows, too, that if the RMT wins, it becomes easier for other workers to achieve their goals.

The union’s leader, Mick Lynch, has won many plaudits for his straightforwardness, eloquence and willingness to call out bullshit, whether from ministers or journalists. It is the kind of voice that should be at the heart of any opposition. Labour, though, seems too frightened of Tories’ accusations to show the most basic elements of solidarity, forcing the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, to apologise for telling BBC Question Time that had he been an RMT member he would have voted for strike action and threatening to discipline frontbenchers who join picket lines.

As it happens, the public is far more sympathetic to strikers than the Labour leadership might suppose. Most people worry about the inconvenience that strikes create but also support the rightness of the cause.

The real surprise is not that there may be an explosion of strikes this summer but that there has been so little industrial action in recent years. In 1979, 29.5m days were lost in strike action; by 2018, that had fallen to fewer than 300,000. The previous year, just 33,000 workers had gone on strike – a historical low. The catastrophic fall in union membership and the legal restrictions on strike actions have allowed the Tories to push through austerity and wage restraint. Now, many workers are showing their unwillingness to continue doing so.

The government’s insistence that wage claims should not match inflation is a demand that all workers must take a cut in real pay. As with austerity, the price of economic crisis is borne by those at the bottom. When unions push back, that should be reason for solidarity, not censure.

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