Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Strike: No time for abuse or intimidation #n30

It was a fairly innocent post on Facebook I made last night. Something I thought was pretty innocuous, really.
Caron Lindsay hopes that nobody gets grief for their decision to work or strike tomorrow. They should be respected, whatever they do. There's no place for abuse or intimidation in this.
That was the equivalent of throwing a match into a petrol tanker.

78 comments later, the majority of which I would say were broadly supportive, I'm quite incredulous.

Two things led me to make the posting in the first place. The first was seeing the use of the word "scab" in someone else's Facebook posting. I just don't think abusing people who, for whatever reason, choose not to strike does anything  to advance your cause. If I ever see it happening, it would actually put me off supporting that cause. I have agreed with very few wars this country has fought in my lifetime and if conscripted I would have been a conscientious objector. That doesn't mean I shouldn't have the right to be a British citizen.

Similarly, there should be enough tolerance within a Trade Union towards people who, for whatever reason, feel they can't support a strike. I'm told that they should just accept the view of the majority in the ballot and support their colleagues. The Collective is much more important than the individual's conscience or circumstances, so the reasoning goes. Back in the day, there was much more community support for these things. People who were striking were roughly doing the same job in the same place and they shared what they had and looked after each other. I'm not so sure that would happen these days. Look at local authorities, for example. Unison has members going down from heads of service to the lowest paid manual workers. How far does this spirit of collectiveness spread, then? Will the Heads of Service feed the kids of those at the bottom f the pay scale who are losing pay? I doubt it.

The other reason I made the post was because I'd become aware that some female workers were not going in today, not because they believed in the strike and wanted to support it - quite the opposite. No, they were staying at home because they were frightened of the pickets. It makes you wonder what union officials have been doing behind the scenes to encourage that fear. Can you imagine, though, being a woman trying to get to work and being surrounded by half a dozen burly men invading your space and  trying to persuade you otherwise?  It's not a pleasant experience.

In reality, pickets aren't allowed to abuse and intimidate, but it's not just about what happens on the day - it's working relationships afterwards. If your manager has gone on strike, thinks that strike breakers are scabs and then has to do your appraisal, well, you can see the potential for abuse of power.

The Government have produced guidance on what is acceptable behaviour from pickets. These are the things which are against the criminal law:

.Among other matters, it is a criminal offence for pickets (as for others):
•  to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour within the sight or hearing of any person - whether a worker seeking to cross a picket line, an employer, an ordinary member of the public or the police - likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress by such conduct;  
•  to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards any person with intent to cause fear of violence or to provoke violence;   
•  to use or threaten unlawful violence;   
•  to obstruct the highway or the entrance to premises or to seek physically to bar the passage of vehicles or persons by lying down in the road, linking arms across or circling in the road, or jostling or physically restraining those entering or leaving the premises;   
•  to be in possession of an offensive weapon;   
•  intentionally or recklessly to damage property;   
•  to engage in violent, disorderly or unruly behaviour or to take any action which is likely to lead to a breach of the peace;   
•  to obstruct a police officer in the execution of his duty
On the other hand, it makes me equally angry to see those who are striking described as greedy, or selfish. You don't find so many fat cats cleaning hospital wards or being classroom assistants, you know. Yes, they will probably end up with better pensions than those in the private sector, but they are striking because they are worried about their futures. I'm worried about their futures. The lowest paid will not have to pay more for their pensions, for sure, under the Government's plans but you don't have to be earning that much before the increased contributions start to rack up. You really can't blame people for being angry, especially when they see the richest and most powerful troughing massive pay rises. 

If the Government were doing and were seen to be doing more to tackle that massive inequality, to make many public sector workplaces more pleasant to work in, with sufficient resources to do the job properly,  inspiring managers and a can do culture then I think it would go a long way to easing people's perfectly understandable fury. That's the message I expect our ministers to really push inside the Government.

If I still had a job, I wouldn't be striking today because I think there is an inevitability that there would at some point have to be some adjustments to pensions - we are living longer so it makes sense that the same amount of money isn't going to go as far.

But when it comes down to individual choices, to work, or to strike - these must be respected. Argue about the issues by all means, but don't make scapegoats of people who may be really struggling. Personally, I want people to take part in strikes because they support them, not because they'll be publicly humiliated if they don't. When I see things like "the early picket catches the scab" written on social networking sites, it makes me feel that tolerance and empathy are not part of the trade union movement. When I see people being intimidated in that way, it makes me want to protect them. One of the fundamental jobs of a liberal is to make sure that minorities are not abused in any way by a powerful majority.

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