Ignore the media scare-stories about strikes

Those who strike are not firebrands or ideologues, they are ordinary men and women who are fighting

As public sector workers prepare for strike action, the media narratives have already been prepared. Today's Daily Mail has a tale headlined "STRIKE LEADER'S HUGE PAY RISE" and it won't be the last. The pay and pensions of union leaders will come under scrutiny like never before as the usual suspects prepare to demonise organised workforces, and their right to protest against changes to their pay and conditions. Look at the union bosses and see their greed!

The phrase "gold-plated pensions" will be wheeled out time and time again, without ever daring to represent quite how un-precious public sector settlements really are for the vast majority of people. Strikers will be portrayed as betrayers of the children whose education they deny, in the case of teachers; as greedy, money-loving fatcats not living in the real world, pumped full of entitlement and "our money" thanks to years of racketeering from their New Labour chums, in the case of everyone else. It won't be true - of course it's not true - but that won't make any difference.

The stories are already as good as written. All the 1970s imagery, of binbags in the street and bodies left unburied, will be dragged up, whether it's relevant or not. There's no avoiding that, I am afraid. There was a time when newspapers had industrial correspondents who dealt with these matters in a reasonably even-handed way, but that is increasingly not the case. Now, the narratives do not come from the unions, or their members, but the politicians who fight them, and the corporate media in whose interests it is to demonise organised labour and workers' demands.

The anti-striker and anti-union stories will tap into a powerful, emotional sense that somehow this isn't fair. We are suffering in the private sector, so they must suffer too. Spread around the suffering. Make everyone hurt, so it's fair. We've got terrible pay and conditions, and we don't bother to do anything about it; so why should these people, who have bothered to do something about it, get better treatment? Our apathy deserves to be rewarded; we've been "good" employees and haven't made a fuss, yet we've been passed over. It's not fair.

Faced with an inevitable slew of stories about trade union leaders' salaries, opinion pieces about the selfishness of striking and articles about the righteousness of bashing the public sector, what kind of strategy could see the unions and their members win over public opinion? Is striking a trap that will play into the hands of the coalition government and give them the hate-figures they need to deflect attention from who is really causing economic problems? Are unions and their members making themselves the coalition's scapegoat?

It's a difficult decision, to take action when you know that you are going to be misrepresented; to battle against something which is described, again and again, as being the only possible option. But it all depends on how the motivation of strikers, and public-sector workers, is seen. Time and again, all they can do is to explain what has happened over the past few years - not just under this government - and why they are fighting: not to cause disruption, not out of political mischief-making, but because it is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

All I know, from a personal point of view, is that I've spoken to a lot of public-sector workers and activists recently as part of other stories I've been writing. Time and again, I have got the impression that these are not firebrands or ideologues pushing a political agenda that comes from the top or from their leaders; these are ordinary men and women who are fighting for their futures, fighting for their families, because they believe that there is no other way, because they feel that things have gone so far that they simply cannot do nothing, or accept the axe, or roll over and die. These are not the facemasked anarchists chucking bricks in protests; these are hardworking parents seeing a bleak future for their children, and wanting to do something now to make a change for the better, to stop something that will change the country forever.

They will not be depicted that way, and they know it. But they will fight anyway, and fight to get their message across.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496