Brendan O’Neill

In defence of striking

In defence of striking
Members of the RMT on the picket line in Cambridge (Credit: Getty images)
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Here’s something I’ve learned over the past few days. The right loves the working classes when they’re voting for Brexit, but it hates them when they go out on strike. When they strike, they’re wreckers, a pox on the nation. They’ve clearly been led astray by their smooth-talking union bosses. So what if there was a democratic secret ballot in favour of the strike action they’re taking – these low-information workers clearly did not understand what they were voting for.

The left, meanwhile, loves the working classes when they’re out on strike, but of course it hates them when they’re voting for something like Brexit. When they strike, they’re heroic, they’re sticking it to the man. But when they cast a ballot to leave the EU, they become tabloid-addled ‘gammon’, dimwits who have been led astray by populist demagogues. So what if millions of them voted to cut ties with Brussels – they clearly did not understand what they were voting for.

These are generalisations, I know. Some on the right are sympathetic to the rail strikes, and some on the left back Brexit – think Labour Leave. But in the round, large chunks of the right support Brexit but bristle at strikes, while much of the left is fine with strikes but horrified, still, by Brexit.

And this is noteworthy because it suggests that across the political class, from the Tory right through to the radical left, only a certain amount of ‘taking back control’ will be tolerated.

The right is down with working-class voters taking back control from Brussels but it draws the line at working people taking back some control from their employers, their bosses. And the left loves the idea of working people demanding a little more clout in the workplace but it reaches for the smelling salts when these same people demand more clout in the nation, and over the constitution itself.

Where does that leave those of us who support all efforts by working people to have more control over their lives, whether in politics, in their communities or at work? Politically homeless, that’s where.

This week’s strike-bashing by Tory ministers has been incredibly tone-deaf. Boris Johnson says the rail workers who are walking out for three days are ‘harming’ working people by preventing them from getting to work. Big talk from a PM who shut down the economy for months on end. That prevented pretty much everyone from going to work. In the first lockdown, Boris stopped you from going to work for three months – rail workers are only making it a little more difficult for you to get to work for three days.

The sight of handsomely paid members of the political class slamming striking workers who earn on average £33,000 a year is nauseating. Much of the political set worked from home for the best part of two years. Some of them still are. And there they are in their luxury digital apartments writing angry press releases and tweets about workers who carried on working throughout the pandemic. Give it a rest, guys.

How swiftly one can go from being a key worker to being the enemy within! During the pandemic, the government instructed us to whoop and cheer for the people who were keeping society chugging along, which included rail workers. Now it wants us to boo and hiss at them just because they’re taking action against their obstinate bosses – and the obstinate government itself – in defence of decent pay, job security and good pensions. Nah, I’m still clapping.

Most troubling of all, officials have been hinting that they might restrict the very right to strike. There is talk of changing the law so that agency workers could be hired to replace striking workers. This would effectively be government-endorsed ‘scabbing’. It would render strikes toothless, and pointless. Grant Shapps is proposing that workers could be banned from working overtime to make up for any pay lost during a strike. This would be a wholly vindictive and authoritarian measure designed to punish workers who exercise their right to take industrial action.

Look, I don’t expect Tory ministers to be in favour of strikes. But I do expect them to appreciate that the right to strike, whether they like it or not, is an essential liberty. The right of working people to withdraw their labour in protest against bad pay or poor conditions is up there with the right to vote and the right to speak freely in the armoury of freedoms that allow ordinary people to defend themselves against arbitrary and sometimes cruel power. It must be protected.

Boris and others in the government say they want us to take pride in British history. Surely that includes the history of people power, including strikes, that gave rise to everything from weekends off to rights for children? Without strikes, life in the UK would be a lot harder and a lot less free than it is today.

Both the right to vote and the right to strike have taken a pounding in recent years. Many on the left, including current Labour leader Keir Starmer, threatened to do grave harm to the right to vote with their plans to void the EU referendum result and force us all to vote again. And now Conservative ministers are whispering about undermining the right to strike.

That’s enough. The vote and the right to withdraw labour are two of the most important freedoms people enjoy. Nothing should be done to undermine these hard-won liberties of modernity.