How not to manage a general strike
The 30 November strike could be a huge own goal unless unions ensure they appeal to as many workers
Ahead of the November 30 strike, it's important to understand why low-paid workers might be resentful towards public sector employees, and to think about strategies of how to win them over. And let's consign the word "scab" to the dustbin.
While previous disputes have pitted traditional "class" enemies against one another, such traditional distinctions are not so easy to draw nowadays. We're faced with a situation in which the public sector "class" have been portrayed as living the life of Riley with decent wages, working conditions, holidays and the so-called "gold-plated" pensions by successive governments' friends in the media, while the private sector has forced employees to up their pension contributions in order to maintain pitifully bleak pension outcomes, and while wages have failed to keep pace with prices.
It's simple to see why one group of workers might view the other with suspicion or resentment, even if it's not desirable to see a race to the bottom. But times are tough. Private sector wages don't go as far as they used to, and they are suffering thanks to corporate greed of employers and wider economic woes alike. Forcing public-sector workers to suffer as much as those who've been in the private sector won't solve anything, but it's not hard to see why some might see that as somehow deserved or overdue.
While unions are fighting for the pension rights and futures of public sector workers, there are hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers right across the country seeing their wages disappear in tax while they're struggling to cover their basic outgoings -- and that's if they're lucky enough to have a job in the first place. When those people read their newspaper in their brief lunchbreak and see the carefully constructed average figures for public-sector pensions, deliberately designed to make them seem as outrageous as possible, how do you convince them that it's important to maintain those standards?
How are unions going to win over those people, and tell them it's worth paying their taxes to ensure that teachers or civil servants get the pensions they deserve? It's not going to be a simple task, but it's worth doing. Low-paid workers are those who could be helped the most by being members of a union, or be lifted up by collective bargaining rights in the workplace; they are the most vulnerable to being kicked out at a moment's notice or treated badly by unscrupulous employers. They have the most to gain from the labour movement, yet they are the ones who may well view it with the most suspicion.
Even if you accept that it's vital for unions to be campaigning for the hard-fought rights of public sector workers at this time of ideological cutbacks, when the government is zealously tearing into the fabric of the state by using "the mess we inherited" as camouflage, it's important not to allow workers to be divided and conquered. It's happened so many times before, and it's bound to happen again.
November 30 could be a massive bear trap unless unions ensure they try and appeal to as many workers as possible. Let's have no talk of "scabs" -- those who cross picket lines may not do so joyfully but because they've got families to feed or because, in the case of public-sector workers, they feel their duty is with the public they serve. There must be respect for those choices at all times, for the word "scab" is the biggest gift of all to the enemies of the labour movement.
We'll be told there was a small turnout for the action. We'll be told that workers have gold-plated pensions. Unions will, as ever, be on the back foot when it comes to publicity and the government will have its slick media strategy prepared well in advance, ready to take on the Tories' old enemies. The only thing that will make it even harder to get the right message across will be scenes of intimidation of those who are faced with the awful choice of having to cross a picket line.
This is going to be a tough sell for unions, which isn't to say it's the wrong action at the wrong time. It's the right thing to do at the right time. But it's vital that the right messages come out of this, that unions are inclusive and for everyone. Otherwise, it runs the risk of being an own goal.