This week workers on British railways will take part in the largest strike for over 30 years. The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has said that it plans to “shut down the rail system” on 21, 23 and 25 June, with huge support from its members for industrial action protesting planned redundancies and demanding pay rises. Like many other industries, those employed on the railways have suffered from a pandemic-induced pay freeze while eye-watering inflation has diminished the real value of their wages.
Governments are never happy with strikes. The Labour Party too has so far failed to come out in full support of workers standing up for a better quality of life during a cost-of-living crisis. But this time, the Tories have stooped particularly low. Exploiting the fact that the strike week lands during GCSEs, Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, said it would be a “crying shame if rail unions were to actively prevent some pupils from travelling to their exams… just to suit their political ends”.
Stopping kids from going to school to serve political ends, where have we seen that before? Zahawi has got some nerve trying to point the finger at rail workers for keeping kids off school, considering this is exactly what the government demanded for the last two years. Robin Walker, the school standards minister, said that disruption at exam time would have “long-term impact on children’s lives and that would be unacceptable”. How about the long-term impact of two years of remote learning, which, for many kids, meant no learning? While some school closures might have been justifiable in the eye of the early Covid storm, it quickly became clear that schools were being used as a means of political grandstanding. Rather than considering the long-term effects of keeping kids out of classrooms, with no resources, poor internet and overstretched parents fighting for Zoom access, politicians slammed the door on education as a means of looking like they were doing the right thing.
It has been more than disappointing to see people fall for this buck-passing. “For shame,” wrote the lockdown-sceptic Laura Dodsworth. “Will people please, for once, put the young first.” The Conservative MP Nickie Aiken was lapping up support as she told the Telegraph the strike was “unforgivable”, and the Evening Standard that it was “appalling”. Using children as political leverage is never a good look, but it’s doubly bad to suggest that those planning industrial action have no consideration for kids. From the RMT to planned strike action among bin men, Post Office workers, bus drivers, airport staff and healthcare staff, working people are sending a message to employers and politicians that living under threat of economic disaster is unsustainable. The news is awash with stories of families having to pick between heating and eating. And while government policy fails to meet the needs of working parents, is it any wonder that so many have decided to take action?
With advance notice, young people will simply have to plan ahead, maybe even wake up a bit earlier to reach their exam halls in time. Learning that the world does not revolve around your schedule is as vital a lesson in self-awareness as English, Maths and Science. Sitting GCSE exams is of course deeply important for a cohort of pupils who have suffered from educational disruption. However, to turn these students against their parents, neighbours or family members who are fighting for better conditions is the really unforgivable act. Politicians have long got away with demonising striking workers to save their own skin, but we don’t have to let them use our kids as a shield.