Internal enemy? Barely…most people see why we need strike-ready unions | Kenan Malik

JConservatives love the working class. As long as workers can help them win red seats. As long as they can portray them as “socially conservative” and use them as alibis for legislation hostile to immigrants or welfare claimants. As long as they can exploit them as accessories for a fantastic upgrade program.

But the moment workers take matters into their own hands, assert their collective voice and act to preserve wages and conditions, they are being exposed as militants and the enemy within; even, ridiculously, as “Putin’s friend”, as Conservative MP Tobias Elwood claimed of the RMT strikers. Conservatives like the idea of ​​the working class in the abstract, as individuals who could vote for them every five years, but not the working class in the flesh, as people who act collectively to defend their rights. .

RMT critics in government and beyond have tried to frame the strikes as an immoral weapon wielded by indifferent union bosses to “hold the country to ransom”. In fact, strikes are the weapons of the weak and not of the powerful, a means of restoring a minimum of balance in a very unequal relationship between employers and workers.

Companies have a myriad of ways to impose their power on employees: cut wages, force layoffs, tear up contracts, withdraw investments. When companies threaten to close factories if their plans for layoffs or wage cuts aren’t accepted, or to move investments elsewhere if they don’t get enough sweeteners, few call it “holding the country to ransom.” But that’s exactly what it’s all about – and with far more influence than unions could ever muster.

The primary deterrent that workers collectively possess in response to employer power is withdrawal from their jobs. No one takes a strike lightly – after all, workers lose money by striking. But sometimes it’s a weapon they have to wield.

Every time an “essential” group of workers goes on strike, the Conservatives repeat in chorus that “unions are too strong”. It’s as plausible a claim as to suggest that the problem with Boris Johnson is that he has too much moral decency. Over the past 40 years, successive governments have made it increasingly difficult to strike, suppressed opportunities for effective action and banned most forms of solidarity, from secondary strikes to flying pickets.

Despite all the Tory taunts, Labor has been only marginally more sympathetic to trade union rights. As the 1997 general election approached, Tony Blair, responding to claims by the Conservatives that the party was too close to the unions, insisted that “the essential elements of the trade union legislation of the 1980s will remain”. “The changes we are proposing,” he added, “would still leave the most restrictive UK trade union law in the Western world.” It stays that way.

The P&O debacle earlier this year exposed how easily companies can circumvent the paltry legislation that exists to protect workers and sacrifice them for the sake of profit. When P&O made nearly 800 people redundant and replaced them with lower-paid agency staff, ministers twisted a lot. Faced with the RMT, a union that refused to be intimidated by employers, the ministers threatened to change the law to make it easier to use temporary workers to break strikes. The proposed use of interim staff would be temporary, but it is both a new attempt to crush the strike and another step towards the P&O model of industrial relations. Much has been said about a “return to the 70s”; the truth is that the status of British workers today is closer to that of P&O employees than that of miners or printers 40 years ago.

Given the current “race to the top” discourse, it should be emphasized that one of the most important tools to prevent inequalities are trade unions. Between 1937 and 1979, union membership in Britain doubled, while the share of income going to the top 1% fell by two-thirds. Between 1979 and 2014, union membership halved and the income share of the top 1% more than doubled. Workers’ share of national wealth has also declined, and wages have not kept pace with rising productivity. Trade unions are essential to protect living standards and working conditions.

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch: “the kind of voice that should be at the heart of any opposition”. Photography: Andy Rain/EPA

The reason the government is so desperate to paint railway workers as particularly greedy or indifferent is because it knows that a host of other workers are in much the same situation and may soon take action themselves: teachers, nurses, postal workers, BA check-in staff, BT engineers. He also knows that if the RMT wins, it becomes easier for other workers to achieve their goals.

Union leader Mick Lynch has won widespread praise for his candor, eloquence and willingness to call out bullshit, whether from ministers or journalists. This is the kind of voice that should be at the heart of any opposition. Labour, however, appears too frightened by Tory accusations to show the most basic elements of solidarity, forcing shadow health secretary Wes Streeting to apologize for telling the BBC Question time that if he had been a member of the RMT, he would have voted for the strike and threatened to discipline MPs who join the picket lines.

It turns out that the public is much more sympathetic to the strikers than the Labor leadership assumes. Most people worry about the inconvenience that strikes create, but also support the righteousness of the cause.

The real surprise is not that there may be an explosion of strikes this summer, but that there has been so little industrial action in recent years. In 1979, 29.5 million days were lost on strike; by 2018, that number had fallen to less than 300,000. The previous year, just 33,000 workers went on strike – a historic low. The catastrophic drop in union membership and the legal restrictions on strike action allowed the conservatives to push through austerity and wage moderation. Now many workers are showing their reluctance to continue doing so.

The government’s insistence that wage demands must not match inflation is a demand that all workers must accept a reduction in real wages. As with austerity, the price of the economic crisis is being borne by those below. When unions push back, it should be a cause of solidarity, not censorship.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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