Thursday, December 01, 2011

Yesterday's strikes

Withe the Help of David Aaronovitch of the Times:

Yesterday’s strikes were, in historical terms, a pinprick. The co-ordinated day of action was a huge organisational feat by Britain’s relatively weak trades unions and is not easily repeated. Yet, although a pain to many parents and a worry to patients and relatives, it will be largely forgotten by next week. Then will come the issue of what to do next. Does any public sector union imagine that it can successfully get its membership out on proper strike action — you know, where you go on strike indefinitely until your demands are met or moved towards? David Cameron called them a "damp squib" as part of the propaganda war. True 58% of schools were closed and a further 13% had teachers off, and 7-8000 elective procedures in hospitals were postponed, but the expected chaos at ferry and airports did not materialise and many said that ingress and egress was easier than normal.

A group of pickets stood outside the North London comprehensive that educated both the Miliband brothers. Arranging their placards in the bright, cold breakfast-time air, the strikers were young, clean and happy. The impression they gave was of having fun and of being sure that what they were doing was right. The strikers were the optimists yesterday. People don’t usually take this kind of action out of despair, but out of a belief that somehow things can be made better (at least for them) and that their activities will help things along. Perhaps many of those on the picket lines had lodged somewhere in their psyches a personal version of a Plan B, in which a government started making a different series of decisions and, bingo, good replaced bad.

The image was comforting. You knew where you were with it. In the same way that yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions suddenly reverted to the archetypical PMQs of the 1980s and MPs settled down into ancient trenches, dug and furnished by previous more certain generations. Ed Miliband had become a creature of the unions, “irresponsible, left-wing and weak”, according to the PM to hear-hears so loud and contented it seemed they had been pent up for years.

Ed then released the atavistic instincts of his own side with accusations that the Etonians were “demonising the dinner lady, the cleaner and the nurse”. Some of whom, he said, earned in a week what the Chancellor spent on a ski-ing holiday. I doubt they do earn that much, but here was a Labour leader, a Labour leader, who would never do anything so bourgeois as ski.

Why were things so grim? Labour’s fault for spending too much? The coalition’s for not spending enough? The unions? The bankers? Nothing so easily dealt with. The deficit reduction plan, which had banked on private sector growth, was stalled because of oil prices, food prices and the crisis in the eurozone and America. This left us facing the fact that, as I heard the Chancellor say yesterday, “Britain is poorer than it used to be”. And worse than this, even these gloomy assumptions were based on Angela Merkel — who does not rely on many votes in Britain — taking action that she seems disinclined to take.

This means that, whatever is said in Parliament and by union leaders, in general we must expect to be less well off for a while. This notwithstanding the galling spectacle of a very small number of business people who have insulated themselves very effectively against any pain-sharing. An irony here is that this reduction in expectation is just what the Greens have been advocating for years, yet you could find their one MP yesterday supporting action to protect the value of public sector workers’ pensions and pay. Well, a predictable irony.

Aaronovitch reports: "Then, by a series of accidents in early adulthood I found myself more struck against than striking. When staff at the National Union of Students went on strike, all of us Commie and left Labourite reps were to be discovered crossing a picket line and being called scabs by people earning several times as much as we did. There — and later at the BBC — I quickly became aware of some of the cynical theatricality of these occasions. Unions can be ruthless with the truth if it suits them. And employers can be bastards.

Some strikers may fantasise about it after the cheerfulness and colour of yesterday’s actions, but I cannot see it. You don’t put your livelihood and that of your family on the line unless you have a plan you can believe in — and it becomes ever more apparent that there just isn’t one. Which is one reason why the Occupy movement is a relative success in publicity and longevity — exactly because its remedies are so nebulous that you don’t have to imagine them being implemented. Whereas the TUC is extremely unlikely to adopt the slogan “A union is its own demand”. You don’t pay your weekly dues for optimism as airy as that. So if you ask me how bad things are, my reply is that they are so bad that there won’t be many more strikes, but there may be lots of tents."

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