The current Tory government in the next few months will move to try and make it more difficult for workers to withhold their labour in protest. As the union movement continues the be undermined, we need to come up with a different approach to strikes that will continue people’s ability to strike whilst also challenging the Thatcherite myths of trade unionists being greedy and unconcerned with the general public.
By challenging these myths and increasing public support for the union movement, it will become less politically expedient for the Conservative Party to rail against the largest democratic movement in the country as oxymoronically undemocratic. By coming up with modern ways to withhold labour the trade union movement can become more effective and the arguments used by management will become weaker.
This article was originally going to be a response to a news story that many Polish workers were going to go on an informal strike to protest against the toxic rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate and to illustrate how valuable they are to the economy. The strike, planned for the 20th August is backed by the Polish Express newspaper with merchandise being produced with the slogan ‘Enough! Stop Blaming Us’ emblazoned on it. Opinion is divided among the 680,000-strong Polish community, as many people do not want to inconvenience the public.
The reason that this article is not focussed exclusively on this strike is that because that I must discourage this strike action. Every fibre of militancy in my body is crying out to encourage these people to go out on strike because of the ever increasing hostile and often times racist rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate.
However in this particular instance, although I support the principle, Polish people are not organised as one trade union and therefore, if the workers were to withhold their labour on 20th August, they wouldn’t be entitled to legal protections that could prevent the employer from instituting reprisals. If the people organising this informal strike instead focussed on signing up people in the Polish community into an official trade union so that such industrial action can be executed with the legal protections from employers seeking punishment I would be proud to stand on the picket lines alongside them.
Since the Miners’ Strike the Conservative Party, along with the right-wing media, has been deriding working people and their right to strike; this Tory government is also committed to making the existing legislation even more Draconian. Furthermore Conservative politicians characterise striking workers and trade unionists as greedy and unconcerned with the wider public’s need for the affected public services.
Unfortunately because, particularly in London on the Underground, management under a Conservative Mayor, has been totally intransigent and anger toward the unions has grown because the public see the picket lines and immediately assign blame to those people on strike. We need an innovative solution to this problem.
I believe that the home of French radicalism has the answer. In recent years a new strike tactic has been sporadically employed in Paris that has increased the striking workers’ favourability with the general public. The strike is a way of withholding some labour whilst also inflicting huge damage to profits of the management; it is this which I believe should be used in London.
In the case of a London Tube strike, rather than closing the entire network which inconveniences millions of people and thus creating resentment that some people target at the trade unionists, I propose that union members go into work on the day of industrial action, and open all of the ticket barriers. By keeping the tube network open, people that are ideologically opposed to unions have their preconceptions challenged, and those who are ambivalent towards the unions actually financially benefit as they don’t have to pay their fares.
Keeping the network open will result in management having to pay for all the running costs of the day without ticket fares coming in to pay for it. Similarly, because people like drivers and people on the station platform who would have gone out on strike would not be withdrawing their labour, they would still be getting paid thus making the financial cost to management even greater.
After a day or two of free London Underground travel for all Tube users, and millions of pounds in lost revenue, management would be forced into coming to the negotiating table because the unions’ demands for increased wages, better working conditions etc., are less of a financial burden than the continued running of the network without fares being charged.
By changing the nature of trade union radicalism and the method of protesting, the relationship between working people and the general public will be strengthened, rather than weakened, and the ability of management to criticise those on strike for disrupting the public will no longer have weight. Together we can revolutionise the direct action of the union movement and galvanise greater support from the general public to stand in solidarity with the trade unionists themselves.