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.
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.
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 . . .
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)