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We all depend on trade unions

What is one day of paralysis compared with a lifetime of poorly-funded and under-staffed services?

New Statesman
Workers at Unilever's Port Sunlight factory picket outside the main gates of their factory on the Wirral. Photograph: Getty Images.

Who knew that a student blogger with a pet peeve for public sector workers could incite so much anger? Sara Malm, a journalism student at the University of Kent, probably had no idea when she ranted against "disgraceful, selfish and, quite frankly, passé" industrial action.

Her post, published on the Independent's iWriters section on Friday, has inspired 300 comments, as well as a response from blogger Lucy Snow denouncing her "vitriol." And while anyone sympathetic to workers' rights should denounce Malm's insulting article, you have to wonder why people are surprised.

Britain is seething with anti-union sentiment. Be it Michael Gove proposing to abolish teachers’ staff rooms in order to save money, or the right-wing press attacking “Red Len” McCluskey’s call for strikes during the Olympics. Thatcher used all she had in her to curb the power of unions, but the return of a Conservative-led government is reflected in our media, our fellow citizens and, now, our youth.  

Criticise the cash-for-access scandal that erupted last month and the ensuing revelations of the power of big businesses over the Conservative Party, and you will be met with claims that the Labour Party is just as reliant on its union funding. Well, yes. But unions speak for thousands of ordinary people who share similar stakes in society – which, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think necessarily appeal to the chairman of the world’s largest interdealer broker (Michael Spencer, who enjoys Downing Street dining so much he paid nearly £4m for the luxury).

But the problem is that many of these ordinary people don’t recognise the beneficial nature of unions – including Malm, who doesn’t seem to realise that she has the right to union support herself. The very fact that Boris Johnson prides himself on his pledge to limit the power of the transport unions shows how far this has gone. If elected next month, he promises to make key underground lines driverless within two years. Rather than arousing concern for the inevitable job losses this will create, the move is hailed as somehow freeing commuters from the constraints of irritating tube drivers and their endless demands; the picture painted of tube unions is not unlike the terrorising hostage-takers that Malm describes. And Boris, saying “I want to be the Mayor who does that” (create more driverless trains), has tapped into the public contempt that his own party has helped to fuel.     

A lot of the time, people who moan about industrial action don’t understand the reasons behind it. And this is something that Malm fails even to address. The strikes that the NUT proposes for later this year are about defending national pay rather than a performance-related salary – akin to much of the private sector – that Gove is suggesting. The education secretary wants teachers’ pay to be more “market facing” – a flagrant example of the creeping veil of privatisation with which this government is stifling public services.

But performance-related pay works both ways: bright young graduates should be attracted to a career in teaching with decent salaries, pensions and working conditions. Otherwise, what is to stop the best potential candidates preferring professions that don’t immediately benefit society? Don’t we want our children, Britain’s future, to be taught by people who are intelligent and enthusiastic rather than worn out and grumpy? Ironically and perhaps unknowingly, Malm hints at what the NUT is complaining about, claiming that strikes have “no place in a market economy, especially not one four years into a recession.” But that is the very problem: that the recession is incessantly taken out on people like teachers. It’s no good creating – and maintaining – a consumer-driven society that conditions people to be motivated by success, only to devalue on so many levels the careers that really matter.

Of course a strike across the London transport network is devastating on any day, let alone during the Olympics. Thousands of ordinary people will not be able to get to work, children won’t be able to go to school and the capital’s economy will dip – for a short period. But people strike to make that very point: we are all reliant on public sector workers. We need to stand by them while they protest job cuts, pay freezes and pension reforms. After all, what is one day of paralysis – to borrow from right-wing rhetoric – compared with a lifetime of badly-organised, poorly-funded and under-staffed services?