Whither strike action?

The proposed strike by British Airways staff has thrown up several interesting tidbits. Apart from all the usual  stories about hard-working families having their holidays ruined and how a strike will cripple the barely-recovering British economy, there is the question of: strike, yes or no? Well, over 90% of the workers at BA said ‘yes’, if the management backs out of a solution, but of course, as every Tory politician who can get in front of a tv camera is squawking, they would be because the unionised workers are greedy and inflexible and basically just left-wing economic terrorists who run the government..yada yada….

Anyone who has been snoozing since about 1985 will need to be informed that, in contrast to what the usual Conservative Party repertory performance suggests, the unions have very little clout with the current Labour government. The illusion lies in the idea (from both union supporters and their opposition) that the departure of Blair and his associated –ism has allowed the Labour party to return to old Labour values, and that the carpet has been rolled out for the unions. The truth of the matter is that 30 years of neo-liberalism has dented the idea and meaning of what unions and strikes are and what they are for. So that people complaining about a not being able to catch the train to work for three days causes the BBC news crews to go trawling around Britain’s train stations to see how many people they can find who will say “disgusting” or “shambles” or “scandalous to the economy” on camera. Of course in calmer moments, when the trains are running, many of the same people support the right to strike and would oppose it being challenged by the law; not to mention how many people wish they had joined some sort of union when career-wise they are shafted into next week by some corporation.

On the BBC’s Question Time programme this evening,  the Tory shadow health secretary Andrew Langley betrayed the  true view that sits badly-disguised among the Conservative Party, a view that has never gone away despite the slick airbrushing and the campaign to  soften the old Tory image: that they would like to outlaw striking. Those were his words: that strike action is “outdated”.

Unfortunately, capitalist big business leaving its workforces with no other leverage than strikes has not gone out of fashion, but this is something men like Langley will always fail to grasp. Gordon Brown’s position is even more spectacular in that he is not only tremblingly supportive of the management, but that he is also a fully paid-up member of the union (UNISON) which has actually called the strike; which must mean that he supports striking in principle and gets to appear all indignant when David Cameron encourages strike breaking and crossing the picket lines.

So aside from the consistent, yet deceitful, Conservatives, we have a contradictory situation where ‘in principle‘ people support the right to strike, but no-one seems to think it should happen or be used as leverage. A situation where people know that big business has a power that otherwise easily overwhelms workforces and where government protection and regulation is notoriously weak, but that strikes are ‘holding the public to ransom‘. As usual in politics, the mind boggles.

The question of whether strike action will take place is not settled, despite the go-ahead vote. It may, as is the popular view, be that BA staff have chosen the wrong moment for strike action: in the recovery period of a recession when others are facing  job and pay cuts with little chance of a turnaround soon. The Tory and big business supporters are making big capital of that and peddling it as not only a argument against this strike, but against strikes full-stop.

The only ‘argument’ against unionism in the developed world is that workers demanding their due, leads to businesses hot-footing it to places where people are not unionised where they can be in cahoots with the governments who will keep it that way by force if necessary, for the right price. In BA’s case this is not really an option, so they need all the anti-union feeling they can get, playing on the  ideas that unions  ‘stifle growth’  and all the rest of the usual newspeak used to push the views of neo-liberalism as the natural state of affairs under threat. Whether it’s from a Labour or Conservative-dominated Downing Street, the 30-year plan to put unions out to pasture comes one step closer.


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