1970s >> 1978 >> no-892-december-1978

Striking a balance

Anyone who wrestles crocodiles for a hobby might care to test their strength further by going along to any main line London station in the middle of, say, a railwaymen’s work-to-rule and asking the seething commuters what they think about it.Because workers who strike and thereby cause their fellow workers a lot of trouble in getting to work, or buying essential food, or keeping their homes lighted and warm, are an example of those people—others might be corrupt politicians, hardened criminals, revolutionary socialists—without whom, we are told, the capitalist social system would be a cosy, sympathetic, fulfilling experience.

There is, of course, no argument about strikes causing problems. Sometimes they mean widespread inconvenience—like power cuts when electricity supply workers are taking action—or danger, as when the firemen went on strike. At other times the results are less immediately apparent—for example the effects upon prisoners’ existence of the prison officers’ campaign for higher pay.

Now there is no reason for anyone actually to enjoy the effects of a strike; sitting in the candlelight when you would prefer to be watching Bruce Forsyth, or waiting in the rain for the phantom ‘bus not to arrive are hardly satisfying ways of spending time. So it often happens, that the frustrations of the people who directly suffer through a strike—like those commuters at the stations, late home from work — are vented exclusively against the strikers, who are seen as lazy, greedy and careless.

This propaganda line is set in a long, dishonourable tradition. During the general strike, the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, who was widely admired as having one of the most efficient brains in the world, wrote in the government’s mouthpiece, the British Gazette,

The real victims of a general strike are what is called the common people—the men and women who have to labour hard day by day, for their own livelihood, and that of their children . . .

Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, saw it in starker, more threatening, terms, writing in the same newspaper:

The general strike is a challenge to Parliament, and is the road to anarchy and ruin.

The same type of argument was used almost fifty years later by Ted Heath when the combined effects of the miners’ strike and the work to rule by electricity workers and train drivers provided the political excuse for the three day week in industry. And more recently the hospital works supervisors were subjected to mounting pressure about the effects upon patients of their dispute. On October 23, the Daily Telegraph reported a consultant surgeon saying that “It is impossible to say that any given patient has died as a result of this dispute” but few days later, on October 27, the same newspaper was more definite: “At least 30 people have already died needlessly, in pain and considerable discomfort, because of the Health Service works supervisors’ dispute — and the death toll is rising daily, medical experts confirmed last night.”

Which gives the final touch to the popular image of the striker—lazy, greedy, disruptive and, if need be, a killer as well. Yet many workers who might accept this image themselves come out on strike. Is there, then, another side to the picture?

The first thing to be said is that strikers are not the ungovernably omnipotent figures they are made out to be. Strikes often fail, with much damage to the workers who have taken part in them. One historical example was the general strike and then the long resistance of the miners until they were literally starved back to work. More recently, in 1971 the Union of Post Office Workers called the first national strike in their history, transforming the friendly neighbourhood postmen into another threat to the livelihood and the constitutional safety of British capitalism. Four months later the postal workers, defeated, settled for a little more than they had been offered before the strike began. And last winter the firemen — again, this was their union’s first ever national strike—beaten by a combination of a lack of support from the TUC and the use of troops as strike breakers, went back to work on the government’s terms.

There was a lot of sympathy for the firemen, who ran a skilful publicity campaign, but it is questionable whether this feeling would have long outlasted any deaths in a fire for which the strikers could have been blamed. Yet to be successful a strike has to be disruptive, or even dangerous and much of the negotiation which surrounds it is about how effective, in these terms, it might be. And if, after the negotiations, a strike is called, who is to “blame”? The strikers? Or the employers? Neither have given way; both have been prepared to see disruption and danger rather than surrender without a fight.

It is worth looking at a couple of recent examples, to put the matter into some sort of balance. For some weeks now social workers in a few areas—Liverpool, Newcastle, Tower Hamlets—have been on strike for what amounts to a demand for higher wages. This has provoked a lot of derisory comment on the lines that capitalism is unlikely to be brought to its knees by being deprived of social work. “Forget the social workers, let’s get on with it” wrote a Liverpool Tory MP. “Social workers?” said one Newcastle mother in The Guardian, “I don’t care if I never see one again.” On the other hand there was evidence that the strike did cause some problems, even some suffering. Said The Guardian on October 13:


  A social workers’ strike has forced a judge to send two juveniles to prison . . . The boys’ solicitor said after the case: “Social workers say they care for people. One wonders how they would like to spend up to 22 hours out of 24 locked up in a cell under the tender care of the prison officers.


And New Society (26/10/78) reported on the strike in Liverpool:


Whatever others may say about social workers, and about their strike, the clients are in no two minds. “They should definitely get more. They’ve helped me a lot with me nerves and helping to get me out of here,” says one young mother in a block fit only for demolition . . .


The attacks upon the social workers ignored the fact that it has not been just their strike which has denied their services to the “clients”. The Labour government has been responsible for an economy drive imposed on local authorities which has resulted in serious cuts in social services; this has been going on for years and it has no discernible end. On 26 October last, for example, The Guardian detailed some of the effects of the economies planned in Birmingham, among them the closure of nineteen establishments for children, including three residential nurseries and a home for handicapped children.


Health Service
These cuts are being enforced on the grounds of economy—to balance a budget. For some reason this is aceptable to many people, while the efforts of social workers to balance their budgets, by getting higher wages, is not.


The resistance to the hospital supervisors’ claim was also based on government policy—this time on the official limit on wage rises, to which workers in places like hospitals are specially vulnerable. “Just not on,” was the response from David Ennals, the Social Services Secretary, to the supervisors’ claim for a 15 per cent bonus. When the dispute was over the Sunday Times accused Ennals of agreeing to a settlement which had been available to him before the dispute began, which indicates that he, too, was ready to gamble with patients’ lives.


Whatever the truth of this, it is clear that any suffering caused to sick people originated in the government’s policies, to which the workers’ action was a response. These policies are still operating and in the case of the Health Service are responsible for a seriously declining standard of treatment and facilities :


   Standards of care in the health service have drastically worsened through lack of money, more work and shortage of nurses, the Royal College of Nurses said yesterday.
A delegation from the college yesterday told the Secretary for Social Services, Mr. David Ennals, of untrained staff being left in charge of hospital wards, neglect in basic nursing routines, and inadequate supervision of learners . . .
Mr. Ennals is accused of exploiting his staff. “It is an indictment of those responsible for the health service that a response is only forthcoming when there is a threat of strike action . . .” (The Guardian, 31/10/78)


So if (and it is a very big “if”) the nurses were to strike, and patients were to die as a result, who would be to blame—the nurses struggling for a living wage or Ennals who has exploited their reluctance to struggle? And who is responsible for the people who are already dying, through lack of facilities in the health service, much of it aggravated by the Labour government’s economies?


Policies like pay restraint were designed without any reference to human needs but to protect the interests of the British capitalist class, on the established principle that profit is good and loss is bad. When they draw up such policies, governments are aware that, directly or indirectly, people will suffer burdens additional to those which capitalism ordinarily imposes upon them. But little, if any, account is taken of this.


Strikes are not acts of bloody mindedness; they are an unavoidable result of the class division of capitalist society, which sets the non-owning majority against the owning minority. This struggle is about the division of wealth; it is not a matter of morality, of strikes with “justice ”on their side or of employers in the “right”. Like all struggles, strikes are a matter of power; if the workers can exert the greater pressure upon the employers they will win, as they have done in some recent, famous cases. But when the situation is reversed—as it was in 1926—the employers will ruthlessly assert their superiority and grind the workers to defeat.


How long capitalism endures is a matter for those who suffer under it and who are misled by it—the working class. They have the power to establish a society of harmony. We are talking here about a massive movement of ideas—no less than a majority revolution to overthrow one social system and replace it with another, an historically unique act. Beside that, wrestling crocodiles is gentle exercise with far fewer rewards.