Did that ‘historic’ public-sector strike really happen?

The one-day strike over public-sector pension reform looked more like a fancy-dress fantasy re-enactment of battles of the past.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

What did you do in the great strike of June 2011? Hard to remember, isn’t it, all seems such a long time ago. The shocking thing is that the ‘historic’ one-day stoppage over public-sector pensions, involving thousands of teachers and civil servants, occurred only last week. Yet ‘the biggest strike for five/10/30 years’ (depending on who you listen to) has already faded from memory, disappeared from the collective consciousness, leaving behind little more than some leaflets in the gutter and some mildly annoyed members of the public.

It is as if the strike did not happen. Which, without wishing to come over all Jean Baudrillard, in an important sense, it didn’t. Physically, of course, those workers did not work and those schools closed. But politically it was invisible. It has had no more impact on politics than a routine school closure for one of those ‘Inset’ teacher-training days.

Oh yes, there were the set-piece rhetorical battles in the media, all sides trying to conjure up the spirit of industrial battles past. The public-sector unions and their supporters in the media, led by the BBC, claimed it was the biggest walkout since the Israelites exited Egypt and warned of a coming ‘autumn of discontent’ when millions more would join the action; that makes seven consecutive seasons ‘…of discontent’ we have been promised since the spring of 2010. On the other side, the Lib-Con coalition government and its media backers claimed only three women and a small dog had been on strike, while at the same time trying to stir old memories with mock-furious headlines about the militant ‘Scar-girls’ (that’s three female union officials to you).

It all looked and sounded less like a modern-day industrial conflict than a fancy-dress re-enactment of the battles of the past, reminiscent of those duffers and fantasists who dress up as Civil War soldiers on a Sunday before returning to humdrum normality.

The loud arguments over exactly how many public employees danced on the head of a union badge pin and joined the day of action over pension reforms were really beside the point. The bigger question is, however many thousands of them did, what were they doing and why?

By what historical standard, for example, could this really be considered a strike? Strike, after all, is a word that conjures up ideas of force, fighting, striking a blow. The 350-year-old definition of striking is ‘to refuse to work to force an employer to meet demands’. The origins of the word might lie in the mutinous sailors’ practice of ‘striking’ – lowering – the ship’s sails and refusing to put to sea, an effective declaration of civil war.

A one-day strike by teachers and civil servants was always likely to fall short of that standard and be a gesture of protest. Worse, when the one-day strike is as isolated as last week’s, with no further industrial action likely for at least five months, it is an empty gesture. And far worse yet, that one-day strike was called apparently with no clear-cut message beyond ‘leave us alone you big bully’. So, not only did it lack the power to ‘force an employer to meet demands’, but it had no coherent demands to force upon the government anyway. Indeed, leaked documents revealed that the public-sector unions had already agreed to the government’s central demand for pension reform before the action.

This alleged strike was not a demonstration of strength or combativity by the unions. Their ambitions were far more modest than that – to raise a placard as a way of advertising their own existence and their members’ angst. It was not a blow for victory but a display of victimhood, with the cry from the public-sector workforce on the protests sounding like ‘woe is us’ rather than ‘beware of us’. As one newspaper report sympathetic to the strikers put it, the rallies on the day ‘felt more like groups of worried parents protesting against mobile-phone masts near their school than an enemy within trying to smash capitalism’.

This all reflects the widely discussed notion that the dispute between the coalition government and the public-sector unions is not really an industrial struggle but more of a PR battle for public opinion. In that ‘battle’, the image the unions are projecting is a pretty pathetic one that can only reinforce the perception of working people today as disempowered and alienated. Rather like those phone-mast protesters, that image is driven more by fear than aspiration. What passes for a battle cry sounds like a wail of frustration and a plea for sympathy rather than a cry for solidarity.

No, last week’s action was not a national strike and not really a strike at all by historical standards. But then, as previously discussed on spiked, this is not really to be considered a trade union movement either. Today’s unions are ghosts of their previous selves, more or less empty shells – and getting emptier still. They have little or no presence in much of the private sector and, even in their public-sector bastions, internal documents reveal that Britain’s biggest union, Unite, lost more than a quarter of a million members between 2007 and 2010.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the alleged battle lines – and despite the media rhetoric – the unions are not facing a hardline Thatcherite Tory government of the sort that fought a war against the miners. This coalition government is a spineless crew more suited to making precautionary u-turns than sailing into battle, with little apparent stomach for a fight or new anti-strike laws, its ridiculous character embodied by ‘tough-talking’ teenage Lib Dem cabinet minister Danny Alexander.

On both sides there is an overall sense of going through the motions of a dispute they do not have the heart for. Yet still the fantasy persists, nurtured by various arms of the media, that last week’s day off signalled the start of an historic struggle. The relatively small demonstrations in various cities were predictably staffed by old-time union and Labour Party activists trying to recapture the militancy of yesterday. Yet there were also a fair number of younger people, seemingly nostalgic for a long-gone trade union tradition that they have never known. Hopelessly attempting to revive the past can be another way of avoiding facing up to the challenges of the present.

We certainly need to fight for a better future. But the most striking thing about last week’s protests was the absence of any alternative to the politics of austerity – or even an acknowledgement of the need to discuss anything of the sort. Without that, it strikes me that no matter how many schools you can close for the day, you have already struck out.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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