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.