News from Nowhere: Striking Poses
Perhaps then the answer to the current cost-of-living conundrum is neither to remove fundamental labor rights from our most valued workers nor to award everyone higher salaries. Maybe we should focus on those who most need it?
Last month, Passport Office workers announced they’d be starting a five-week-long period of industrial action running from early April through into May. This is just the latest in a series of strikes among key public sector and transport workers in the UK.
At the end of January, the British government had initiated a legislative process to grant ministers the power to ban industrial action among such workers.
Their policy would allow them to fire staff for engaging in the organized withdrawal of labor. This boils down to a stark threat: one strike and you’re out.
Those on the right of politics consider these measures a necessary evil to prevent the collapse of the economy and the healthcare system. They are also designed to prevent employers from being forced to submit to unrealistic wage demands which will continue to fuel the juggernaut of inflation in a relentless spiral of price escalation.
These laisser-faire capitalists reason that everyone will have to bear the pain of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. Apart, of course, from those too well off to notice it.
Those closer to the center might add that, as the government tries to resist rising inflationary pressures, it should at least make efforts to help those worst off, those most in need of that support.
By contrast, those on the political left see any reduction of workers’ rights – including of course the right to strike – as dangerously draconian. These measures, they suppose, place the current government somewhere on the ideological spectrum between Margaret Thatcher and Genghis Khan.
There’s a great deal of public sympathy for many of the UK’s striking healthcare workers, especially our hardworking and poorly paid nurses. This support has even been reflected in the editorial positions of some of the country’s right-wing tabloid newspapers. There is a feeling that, despite repeated government promises (and specific pledges made during 2016’s Brexit campaign), the National Health Service remains woefully underfunded and understaffed.
There is also a sense of profound national obligation to those healthcare professionals who risked their lives to protect us all during the height of the Covid-19 crisis – and in honor of whose efforts people across Britain stood outside their homes every Thursday evening for months to offer their grateful applause.
There is also a pragmatic argument that the NHS is desperate to recruit more nursing staff, and that it would therefore be wise to offer better, and fairer, pay and conditions.
But there’s perhaps less public sympathy for some of the other groups of striking workers. In particular, an ongoing series of rail strikes has started to stretch the patience of ordinary British people.
While many will appreciate that some of the poorest-paid railway workers deserve a better deal, there’s rather less public support for the train drivers themselves, whose salaries are significantly higher than UK averages, and whose continuing industrial action has stopped many lower waged workers from getting to work or attending urgent medical appointments.
Last month, the railway workers on the lowest incomes voted overwhelmingly to accept a modest wage increase. Most, after all, couldn’t afford more days without pay. The better-paid train drivers continued to strike.
It's rather like when doctors threaten to go on strike. There’s a general perception that they’re already paid rather well anyway. The same goes for other handsomely remunerated public sector professionals.
So, when junior doctors this month withdrew their labor for three days, demanding an extraordinary 35 per cent pay rise, they hardly attracted the level of popular support gained by the nurses, midwives, and paramedics.
(Meanwhile, unions representing those more poorly paid healthcare workers have recommended that their members accept an offer of just five per cent.)
Many junior doctors already earn more than £70,000 each year, on salaries which sit within the top ten per cent of UK incomes.
The public and the press therefore expressed some shock when, earlier this month, senior medics took advantage of the situation by demanding up to £262 an hour to cover for their striking colleagues. It sometimes feels like everyone’s trying to cash in on this crisis.
These wealthy professionals received a further financial boost this month when the government announced plans to lift the cap on tax-free pension contributions – and the opposition responded that, though they’d reverse this general gift for the rich, they would keep it in place for health service workers.
Some have argued that in order to raise the wages of the poorest paid within their areas of industry, everybody’s pay must rise. One can hear that argument from a range of professionals, from train drivers to university lecturers, intelligent, honest, and sincere socialists all.
There are formulae, they say, which determine everyone’s relative rates of pay. There’s a scale, a wage hierarchy, that’s apparently set in stone.
Yet one’s forced to wonder whether this economic crisis might present a unique opportunity to overturn those structures, by bringing those in the worst paid positions up to the levels of their senior colleagues.
Is there after all any reason why we should pay a doctor so many times more money than we pay a nurse? Or a railway station cleaner so very much less per hour than a train driver? Or, for that matter, a casual lecturer a much lower hourly rate for their teaching than a fully-fledged university professor?
Do they work any less hard? Do we value their efforts less?
Of course, we might suppose that some workers bring with them higher levels of qualifications and experience – of what we might call intellectual, institutional and cultural capital. And that is of course a sensible enough argument… if you happen to believe in the absolute logic of free-market capitalism.
It’s a little odd, though, that this is a premise upon which the arguments of some of those who like to place themselves on the left of politics appear to rely.
This simplistic supply-and-demand model, taken to its logical end, would require that we pay mathematics and science teachers much more than purveyors of learning in the fields of the arts and humanities and PE. However, very few leftist literature lecturers would want to take the argument quite so far.
During a day of major strikes earlier this month, the BBC headlined the words of one geography teacher who’d stood on the picket line dressed as a dinosaur claiming that “school pay” was “prehistoric”. It wasn’t immediately evident whether such an absurd piece of hyperbole strengthened the union’s case, nor that it managed to demonstrate this particular pedagogue’s expertise in paleontology.
Such PR misfires reinforce negative public perceptions, and play into the hands of reporters hostile to, or just tired of, what can easily be portrayed as poorly judged performances of middle-class militancy.
The right-wing press used to sneer that certain privileged left-wingers were what it liked to call “champagne socialists”.
Those monied Labour supporters tended to argue for tax structures to target conspicuous wealth and thereby release the resources needed to redistribute economic and educational opportunities, and improvements in healthcare and social conditions, which we tend to associate with a progressive vision of society.
It was rather rarer for them to use their politics as an excuse to demand greater material benefits for themselves at the cost of those in society who were far worse off.
Perhaps then the answer to the current cost-of-living conundrum is neither to remove fundamental labor rights from our most valued workers nor to award everyone higher salaries.
One tactic would lead to a more oppressive society. The other would provoke an inflationary surge which would hurt the least advantaged the most.
Maybe we should therefore focus support on those who most need it – not just as a short-term emergency measure (as those on the center-right would wish) but, to be truly radical, as a permanent solution.
Maybe we ought to take another long look at those irrational and antiquated formulae and scales which determine our hierarchies of socio-economic class. And maybe we need to rip them up and try to start again.