This Christmas period the UK will be hit by a wave of strikes in the transport and postal sectors. This will cause massive amounts of inconvenience to Joe Public, and risks making this a fitting Christmas for 2016. Understandably, people are annoyed, and they have got lots of airtime in the media. Which is the point of strikes: to draw the public’s attention to the plight of the striking worker.
The striking workers come from the Post Office, Southern Rail, BA and Swissport baggage handlers. ‘What are they striking about, surely they just want more for less, the greedy bastards’, I hear you roar as you stand, frozen, on the platform. Well, Post office workers are striking about 60 branches switching to the private sector and job cuts. This will change pension plans, meaning 100,000 workers will lose thousands in retirement funds.
Southern Rail workers are disputing “driver only operation” proposals for trains. This will see conductors being taken off trains, with the drivers being responsible for closing all the doors – which they can see with the help of mirrors. Union says this will harm passenger safety. Despite being a minor operational issue – as conductors will be reassigned – there is a theory they it is being dragged out in attempt to defeat the union, which the union fears will result in eroding labour rights. To put this in perspective, Southern Rail made £99 million profit last year, so claims of cost-saving don’t strike true. Further, Southern Rail are also wining from compensation claims of the put-out consumer, as the taxpayer compensates the consumer and is also compensating and paying for the operating company. They have no incentive to avoid the strikes and show no concern for their passengers.
BA staff are striking over ‘poverty pay’. ‘Mixed Fleet’ staff say that they were promised wages of £21,000 but really only earn £12,00 plus £3 an hour in flying pay. They have rejected a 2% pay rise after having a ‘six year pay freeze’. Last year, BA’s owner saw profits of £850 million. The Union insists low pay is a safety issue, as members of staff will report for duty when unfit to because they cannot afford not to work. Others sleep in their cars because they cannot afford the petrol. We’ve all seen the motorway signs telling us that tiredness kills. Now think about that when you’re in an aeroplane with tired staff manning it. Finally, the baggage handlers also striking after being offered a pay rise over three years that would barely keep up with inflation. They have not had a pay rise since 2014.
Downing street have said that these strikes show contempt for ordinary people. Once again, pitting ordinary people against ordinary people, creating their own politics of envy where people begrudge some people getting small benefits because they themselves won’t get the same benefits. This is despite the fact that the rights being fought for are eroding in the pursuit of profit.
Striking workers are cast as haters of profit, as enemies of progress. In a neoliberal society, there is always going to be tension between the worker and the employer. It is in the employer’s best interest to obtain the worker’s labour at the cheapest price. The worker wants the the maximum price for their labour. Market orthodoxy says that as they are both rational actors, coming into the arrangement as equals, the best price will be agreed between them. We know this is rubbish. We know what the working conditions in Victorian times were, what the conditions in factories in Bangladesh are, and the precarious work those without unions undertake now.
For equality to be achieved in negotiations and working conditions to improve, unions were created. Unions are the reason we have weekends. The fact that they bring equality to negotiations, rather than allow workers to flail about individually, weakening them and having their rights disintegrate before their very eyes, shows that the unions are a necessity of neoliberalism. They would not be needed without it, and represent their very essence. So when the government attacks them and says that they are showing contempt for ordinary people when they are just trying to protect their rights, it shows that the government has sided with the employer in its attempts to reduce workers’ rights.
It is through unions that working conditions improve, and by supporting them you support every person who works for someone else. By supporting unions you are showing that you believe working conditions can and should change, and that profits should not be put before workers. Rather, profits should be considered together with workers’ rights.
So, this Christmas, rather than be annoyed at unions for inconveniencing you, begrudging them having rights that you have lost long ago, support them. Better than that, if you don’t like the conditions you work in, join a union, or create one. Pressure the government to support the demands of the union, pressure the companies to grant their demands. It are these companies that are inconveniencing you, not the workers. They are trying to defeat the unions and erode rights to improve on the large profits they already have, and by dragging this out and allowing strikes to happen over the Christmas period, they are the ones showing true contempt for the ordinary person.