The real scandal of the tube strike is that we’ve stopped defending the right to strike

by Sam Fowles

In my attempts to subvert the south west London blogger stereotype I’ve abandoned my usual method of writing these things (MacBook in Starbucks). Unfortunately I haven’t found anywhere I like quite as much as Starbucks (I know they don’t pay any tax but I just really really love those blueberry muffins) so I’m typing this on my iPhone on Putney Station platform. Essentially I’ve just reduced the size of the Apple device and got colder. Today I am eternally grateful to Bob Crow and the RMT for giving me the extra time to write as, thanks to the tube strike, every train has been full to bursting and I’ve now been sat here for 45 minutes. I’d also like to pass on my sincere thanks for finally providing me with the opportunity to quote The Amateur Transplants in a post. So here goes: “I’m standing here in the pouring rain…” (If you don’t know the rest go listen to the actual song)

Apparently I’m not the only one inconvenienced. David Cameron is calling on everyone from Ed Miliband to the Pope (probably) to condemn the “Union Barons” (TM) who are “holding the capital to ransom”. Boris Johnson apparently refuses to negotiate  with a “gun to his head” and everyone agrees that the Tube is vital to the London economy and thus stopping it working is a terribly bad thing. This argument might seem a little less hollow had the government itself not cut funding for this supposedly vital service by 8.5%.

This isn’t actually going to be a post about the tube strike. Even though it’s vying with the Mutiny on the Bounty and the Spartacus Uprising for title of “Worst Handled Industrial Dispute in History”.The only thing more amateur than the industrial relations of this dispute is the reporting. A strike represents a failure in negotiation of both labour and management. If Johnson and co really think that keeping the tube running is that important then they should have made more effort to negotiate a settlement. I’m just an (increasingly damp) observer but if Bob Crow won’t negotiate until Johnson agrees to postpone the order his proposed changes and Johnson won’t negotiate until Crow postpones the strike can’t they just postpone them both and stop bitching at each other on LBC?

But there’s a wider point to be made here. The tube strike has thrown up all the classic arguments about “holding the country to ransom”, whether the unions control the Labour party and why strikes should be banned. Of course, none of these would pass scrutiny in a sixth form debating society but apparently they’re good enough to be trotted out by the leaders of the land.

That said, for the less analytic minds out there:

1. Accusing Unions of “holding the country to ransom” when they go on strike for two days is incredibly hypocritical when bankers threaten to flee the country permanently and en mass whenever anyone suggests they should pay a fair share of taxes.

2. Unions don’t control the Labour party and even if they did they’re democratic organisations so that argument basically boils down to “Oh my God the Labour party decision making is influenced by mass membership organisations promoting the democratically expressed wishes of the majority of their members, given voice by their elected representatives, and those members are WORKING CLASS”.

3. You can try to ban strikes but that would put you on a level with Russia, Egypt and Bulgaria in terms of permitting peaceful public protest.

Now, on to the grown up arguments.

The real scandal here isn’t that Cameron and co are trotting out the same ridiculous soundbites. At this point we should expect nothing better. It’s that generations of Labour leaders have cravenly capitulated to those arguments. The Unions are now a political problem for Labour because they have been allowed to become one.

The TUC may have a worse PR strategy than Ghengis Khan but, at it’s heart the union movement is one of ordinary people coming together to support each other. Decisions are made democratically amidst fierce debate at conferences and branch meetings across the country. Representatives are elected at every level, from shop stewards to the general secretary. Union members are prepared to support their colleagues even to the point of losing pay and benefits by going on strike. This is democracy in action but it’s also an incredibly inspiring example of social solidarity. Union members don’t just ask “what’s in it for me” but “how can I help my colleague”. If Cameron wants to see what “all in it together” really looks like he should take a trip down to a picket line today.

The fact of living in a free society means that sometimes other people and organisations say and do things we don’t like. Unions are no different. The way that society stays free is that the government doesn’t then ban them for it.

Every politician bemoans the lack of political involvement but the political establishment, Labour by omission and the Conservatives by calculated strategy, have worked systematically to destroy the largest non-state democratic institutions in the country. Cameron’s suggestion that the tube be declared an “essential service” (although not essential enough to properly invest in) so that future strikes would be banned and the Conservatives’ constant howling that Labour leaders condemn strikes is just one example of this.

The unions, and Labour’s relationship with them, need reform. But what doesn’t? Any institution needs continuous reform to remain relevant: it’s called progress. But this doesn’t change the fact that unions are essentially ordinary people helping each other out and trying to have a democratic voice in the future of their industry. Ed Miliband, rather than cowering before Cameron’s fallacious thunder, should stand up and say that the unions are grassroots democracy in action and that people engaging in grassroots democracy is a good thing.

One may disagree with the tube strike, but that isn’t an argument against unions. But banning strikes or condemning strikers is suppressing legitimate democratic expression. And that’s much worse than making the train late.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and blogs at the Huffington Post 

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15 Responses to “The real scandal of the tube strike is that we’ve stopped defending the right to strike”

  1. John Reid says:

    Who’s this “we’ve” you refer to in the article, the first half of this article, I thought, the wrong headline had been put with the article, no one stopped defending the right to strike, no one in the Labour Party has said that they feel the strikers are selfish, and shouldn’t be on strike as it’s making it difficult for us to get to work, regarding labours relationship with the unions, the unions who fund labour certainly have done themselves no favour, and the electorate as a wider whole, couldn’t care less about the Collins reforms,

    This article reads like the unions were great in the 30’s, labour use to be SUCSESSFUL,in the old days when unions use to pop around for sandwiches, the Tories are nasty, they don’t like the working class and unions, yet the working class are the ones who will decide the next election, the working class all like unions, and we as Labour members should be on the picket lines with the RMT ,and that way we’ll bring down those nasty Tories,

  2. swatantra says:

    Maybe we should enshrine ‘the right to strike’ as a fundamental human right.

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    Well said Sam.

    Perhaps John Reid hasn’t been watching the same news programmes that we have; I haven’t seen anybody defending the right to strike (except Bob Crow obviously). The moaners in the media (and Nigel Havers) need to remember that the right to withdraw their labouring power is the only bargaining token that many workers have.

    This is from the Guardian:
    “Labour has said that the strike should not go ahead. Labour leader Ed Miliband calling for both sides to hold “proper negotiations”.”

    From what I can gather the Mayor of London has refused to speak to the unions; therefore to make him listen they have decided to withdraw their labouring power. The option to strike is an important part of collective bargaining. Perhaps Johnson needs a lesson in labor relations.
    Perhaps he should try this website
    or this one

  4. Matt Wardman says:

    Perhaps we should draw on the example of France and make maintenance of a minimum service on public transport a legal duty.

    The Tube is an essential service. Recognise it as such.

    The need for reform is for Unions to become democratic in representation of their members. A claim by mass(-ish) organisations to represent all their members with their various views, and then to affiliate to a single political party, is a sick joke.

  5. Henrik says:

    Now this is more like it, comrades. Socialism red in tooth and claw, enshrining the right of a minority to spread misery and economic damage in pursuit of political ends, disguised as the protection of outmoded Spanish practices. Great stuff, altogether.

    Get the local Labour activists out there on the picket lines explaining to commuters and, you know, working folk, the ones with jobs and things, why the strike is just the best idea ever and how it’s all the Mayor’s fault. Get Bob Crow’s council flat upgraded to a 4-bedroom mansion in Mayfair while you’re at it, why don’t you, 147 grand won’t get him the place he deserves without some help from his class brothers.

    ….or, alternatively, try and look as if you’re the party of the working class – that’s the class which works, rather than the party of the unreformed public sector and the unwaged. Your call. One way you’re electable and might make a difference, the other, well, you’ll be ideologically pure, which I’m sure will be a consolation.

  6. john P reid says:

    robin thorpe. You use newsnight as a measure of who the labour party spokespersons are, and that that it he sort of public outlet, where labour members express their views?

    what aobut members meetings,left leaning papers,or blogs, or even m.P.s at a local level via the local press, i’ve heard loads of support for unions and strikes by labour,

  7. Ex-labour says:

    Sam, you poor love. If you’re cold why not join Bob on his cruise and jolly to Rio. It looked warm on the photo’s. Better still why not lodge with him at his council house when he gets back? What, can’t get a tube to there?

    Talking about 6th form politics. I’m afraid you need to read what you write.

  8. Tafia says:

    Henrik@:- enshrining the right of a minority to spread misery and economic damage in pursuit of political ends, disguised as the protection of outmoded Spanish practices.

    Are you talking about the strikers there or the political parties and the vermin that infest Parliament (Commons & Lords)

  9. John Reid says:

    Henrikson, all though it was a bit of a pain, having to jog 3 miles to work ,for a couple of days, and seeing the traffic queues as the others drove, can’t have been fun for them, and also baring in mind, that,not enough people voted for the strike, to make it appear, that there was a great support for. This,

    I think the majority of commuters supported those strikes, and whatever cuts or redundancies the tube are bringing in, it’s worth remembering they weren’t in Boris manifesto,

  10. swatantra says:

    I suppose the Spanish complain about the English practice of everyone downing tools and going out on strike when the whistle blows and the call goes out: ‘Right, everybody out!’

  11. Henrik says:

    @Tafia: in this particular case, I had the relatively small number of pro-strike members of the relevant union in mind; that’s not to say that I necessarily disagree that the political class, whether elected, parasitical direct Quango appointment, local activist or media commentator, has let the country down badly. At least we can all vote for some of them.

  12. Sam says:

    Hi all, interesting comments as always.

    Robin I completely agree. John, I’d expect to be some defence of the strikes in the very left leaning publications but that audience really isn’t the one we need to convince. Labour leaders should be on Newsnight, QT and Today making the case that Unions are a fundamentally positive thing.

    Swantra- I think the right to strike is probably covered by Arts. 10 and 11 of the ECHR and the ILOC of 1948 more generally. I’d have to read up on the case law but I think from a legal perspective a specifically enshrined right to strike isn’t completely necessary. However I’d also completely disagree with Matt when he says that the tube should be classified as an essential service. The tube is not fundamental in terms of national security or preserving life and limb so there is absolutely no justification for subverting the exercise of democratic rights to ensure it runs.

    Ex-labour, as ever, your comment warms my heart. You’ll be delighted to know that, soon after sending the post off I was able to find a train to take me to a nice warm office in Lincoln’s Inn (I was able to walk from Waterloo). I’m also one of those “working people” (ish) so I’m fortunate enough to have the sort of income that makes a council house unnecessary. As a general point though, I try not to use my good fortune as a comparator to condemn those who need help from the state or who need to take extreme action to ensure better working conditions.

    I also think where Bob Crow lives couldn’t have less to do with this debate. His council house and his salary have absolutely nothing to do with what’s best for the future of the tube and the 1000 workers with their jobs in danger. I realise it’s a fun way to score cheap points but it’s not difficult to see how irrelevant it really is.

    As for the strikes this week – I’ll be buying a bike!

  13. Tafia says:

    Henrik – @Tafia: in this particular case, I had the relatively small number of pro-strike members of the relevant union in mind

    30% of the total RMY membership voted to strike. That is more than the UK voting base than voted tory in 2010 and more than the London voter base that voted for Boris.

    Crow has a bigger mandate than Cameron or Boris. They have less legitimacy than him.

  14. John reid says:

    So,Sam, you basically haven’t listened to word that either me or ex Labour wrote, but are happy to take on board ex Labours points with some humorous comments about his suggestin that you haven’t a clue about what you’re talking about,by saying with an authority that you aren’t as naive as you portray yourself ,so he must be wrong, and that you must be right,because at least one person who has such a po faced view as you has commented here too,

  15. Fred says:

    Complete blinkered lefty class war, you owe me a living tripe.

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