Socialists like me are supposed to always support industrial action. But reports that doctors, teachers, local government employees and just about everyone in the public sector are considering joining rail workers on strike have failed to gladden my proletarian heart. Why? Because the reality is that none of these workers have much of a case to make for bringing Britain to a halt.
Don’t get me wrong: strikes aimed at improving the wages and conditions of low-paid workers are a legitimate way of ensuring demands are met. Socialists should always back workers when they are driven to strike because they are being treated unacceptably. But is this really what is happening in Britain today? I’m not convinced. Take the justification of Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, whose members are striking this weekend. He says:
‘I think there are going to be many unions that are balloting across the country because people can’t take it any more. We’ve got people doing full-time jobs who are having to take state benefits and use food banks.’
Yet the truth is that many of the occupations considering strike action are far from badly paid. Teachers, railway signallers and junior doctors all enjoy starting salaries of between £25,000 and £30,000 a year. After tax, this works out to around £1,700 a month: there is no way that this is not enough to live on. How do I know? Because I am a single person in the south east of England and I have always lived on less, often significantly less.
Few would begrudge better pay for teachers and nurses. And with the Bank of England predicting that inflation could hit 11 per cent this year – and average household energy bills expected to reach £2,800 in October – their money will certainly not be stretching so far. Even Jim Callaghan couldn’t deny that there’s a cost-of-living crisis. But there’s a problem with unions demanding more for their members and staging walkouts to try and get their way. Doing so at a time when everyone in the country is facing these increases ignores the fact that government money can only come from one place: the taxpayer.
The Nasuwt teaching union’s demand for a 12 per cent pay rise in September and another 10 per cent next September sounds lovely until you realise who has to pay for it: other people. And many of those taxpayers who fit the bill will be earning a great deal less than teachers (the government estimates that two million people earn minimum wage or under). It’s also worth acknowledging that unqualified teachers earning less than £24,000 (with adjustments for the London pay scales) will already receive a pay award in 2021/22. This rather undercuts the argument put forward by those who back the strikes that the lowest-paid are being neglected.
Socialism is not just about fighting for better pay and conditions; it is about cooperation and ridding society of the idea that things work best when individuals compete against each other to advance their own interests. While it is true that improvements for one group of workers can be expected to lead to improvements for others, fighting for a much bigger piece of the pie for your members without thinking about who else might go short as a result isn’t socialism; it’s just capitalism on a group rather than individual basis. A genuinely socialist approach, in these straitened circumstances, is to work together to make sure that everyone is helped, starting with the very poorest.
The unions themselves must also bear some responsibility for the situation we are in, given that some of their members were among those clamouring for coronavirus restrictions, even months after the advent of the vaccines. To argue for such restrictions because you believe they are necessary is one thing; to do so without sufficient thought to the consequences is another.
Children have been severely affected educationally and emotionally by the pandemic and the NHS treatment backlog will take years to clear. While the argument that public sector workers have a duty not to strike because of the effect on others is unfair – it is the government’s responsibility to make sure they are fairly treated, after all – there are surely ethical questions about causing further disruption to health and education after the past two years, especially when your organisation has been instrumental in pushing for the measures that led to that disruption. The workers considering strike action at least have a voice: a professional body that represents them. But who speaks for children, the ill, the elderly and the other groups for whom the effects of the lockdowns have been truly devastating? Don’t the unions have a duty to stop and consider the impact of further disruption on these vulnerable groups?
Kicking the government might be justified, particularly after the way Boris Johnson and the Tories have behaved. But workers shouldn’t be pawns in this political punch-up. When a union becomes motivated to harm a government, the purpose for which it exists – to look after its members – becomes diluted. The losers in political fights between unions and governments are always the same: the workers. My ancestors, who were miners in the north east of England, could tell you that.
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