Thursday, 31 October 2013

The death of industrial action in Britain

When I woke for university this morning, I resigned myself to a day of disruption. The staff were, of course, on strike, and I prepared for a day of cancelled seminars, poorly-attended lectures, and closed facilities.

In the end, I didn’t get any disruption. The most annoying thing was the cafe in the Fraser Building being shut. What I got instead was such a sickening display of non-commitment from the trade unions that it left me staring in disbelief, and then shaking with rage. There was no solidarity; no passion; no dedication. I have rarely supported strike action in the past, and if this pathetic excuse for a strike can elicit such feelings of anger in me, then it also convinced me that industrial action in Britain is dead.

Before we go further, let me say that I am in no way opposed to UCU, Unite and Unison’s grievances. The issue of executive pay versus staff pay, not just in education but across the private sector, is a significant one, and the differences in salaries are increasingly ridiculous. However, I have long doubted that strike action is the best way to go about fixing things. Having been raised in a family where my father didn’t have the right to strike and my mother did but was very vocal in her belief that withholding ones labour was not a legitimate form of protest, I’ve always been rather sceptical of strike action. I believe it radicalises and entrenches both sides. I watched the Grangemouth strikes this month in astonishment. The pig-headed stupidity of the union defied belief: Grangemouth was haemorrhaging money and needed to be reformed to save it. When the choice is between losing some jobs and some pay to save the plant, and losing all jobs and all pay by causing the plant to close, the decision strikes me as fairly obvious!

Wondering whether I’d have a lecture this morning, I made my way down to the Adam Smith Building at 08:30. I saw a handful of strikers outside. It was less of a picket line and more two men having a conversation. My Politics lecturer had seen fit to cross this pathetic excuse for a picket line and took us as normal, though it was poorly-attended.

After the lecture I made my way to the Fraser Building to grab an early lunch. I found that the cafe was shut, clearly in solidarity with the striking staff. This proved to be the most disruptive part of my day.

I made my way out, thinking to go to the Greggs on the Byers Road, when before my eyes unfolded a scene of that first stunned me, and then enraged me. It was the picket line in front of the Glasgow University Main Building, and it must be the most half-hearted display of grievance in the whole history of organised labour. There were barely enough people there to keep both gates covered. The line had conspicuous gaps. Placards were not defiantly held high but were held dejectedly on the ground. There was not a shred of passion to it.

Megaphone in hand, a union representative listed their reasons for striking. A Lenin he was not. His oratory left much to be desired. There was nothing stirring yet concise like; “Not a penny off the pay; Not a minute on the day”, nor even something as crudely evocative as “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out! Out! Out!” It was just a long spiel of unmemorable demands, utterly devoid of passion, followed by an unemotional exhortation to “Support the Workers”.

Really? “Support the Workers”? Surely he was joking? He could have said anything else: “Fair pay! Fair pensions!” would have been good enough! Even “Support Fair Pay!” would have stuck in people’s minds! But “Support the Workers”?! Who are these “workers”? The same people who mark essays on multi-hundred-pound laptops while sipping lattes in Starbucks?! Only by the greatest stretch of the imagination can university staff be compared to the workers who went on strike in years before! The Red Clydesiders and miners of the 1980s would look at this and either laugh or weep.

There were no chants. There was no singing of The Internationale or The Red Flag. Their way of attracting attention seemed to involve blowing air horns at irritating volume and length. My History lecture went on as normal. I came out an hour later and found, to my surprise, that the pickets had dispersed. I found out in my Politics seminar (which went on as normal as well) that they were only picketing until 11:00.

Only picketing until 11:00?! From 1984 to 1985, the miners and their families endured months of shrinking fuel supplies and intermittent access to food because they believed what they were doing was right! A man was killed because he tried to return to work! In 1919, the Red Clydeside strikes became so bad that tanks had to be sent into restore order! Is this what strike action in Glasgow is now?! The city whose blood runs Labour red would give up picketing before lunch?!

I was amazed at myself that I could feel anger at this. Being opposed to strike action, I should have welcomed its failure! But no. The utter ineptitude and non-commitment with which this pathetic excuse for industrial action was conduct angered me somehow. There was no solidarity. There was only a 35% turnout of union members in the UCU strike ballot, with 62% voting in favour of strike action. UCEA said that only 7.8% of the 378,250 people working in the sector took part in the vote for strike action. Tutors who were still working said that they wanted to keep the University running even though they supported the strike. That is not how strike action is supposed to work! The point is supposed to be made by disruption, not through the mere symbolism of a picket line! If you believe in class warfare, then today was an utter betrayal of every single one of Clausewitz’s principles: you either go in thoroughly prepared to win, or not at all.

If a strike this pathetic occurred in Britain’s most socialist city, the city that gave us Red Clydeside, then I shudder to think how ineffective it was in the rest of the UK. This, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the Grangemouth strike, has convinced me that industrial action as a force for change in Britain, is dead.

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