THE power of a union was clear today as RMT members shut down the rail network right across Britain in their battle to protect jobs, pay and safety.
A huge outpouring of solidarity was clear at many picket lines, with other trade unionists and members of the public showing support.
By contrast the mass media closed ranks against the strikers, echoing government lines about the impact of the disruption on other workers, supposedly high pay in the rail sector and the risk this action is supposed to pose to the future of the rail industry.
Sky’s Kay Burley even made a bid to revive Thatcher-era depictions of pickets as thugs and bullies in a lame attempt to rattle RMT leader Mick Lynch, her increasingly aggressive demands that he explain what picketing involves easily answered with an actual picket line in shot.
Most strike reportage depicts it as about pay alone, for two reasons.
One is that the public would be horrified to learn of the systematic sabotage of our railways that government plans to withdraw billions in funding amount to — the Tories are running public transport into the ground, setting a course for irreversible decline.
The other is that turning workers against each other is the standard Conservative strategy to run their race to the bottom. Public sector versus private sector, “skilled” versus “unskilled,” whoever is on strike right now versus everyone else — hence the crocodile tears for students, teachers and nurses, all of whom are also being screwed over by this government.
Presenting rail workers as self-indulgent while others are struggling is classic divide and rule. Tories — and right-wing Labour politicians — reject criticism of inequality and calls for wealth redistribution as “the politics of envy,” but the term better fits their own approach of trying to convince people to undermine their own pay, terms and conditions by refusing to stand with workers fighting for theirs.
The Tory tactic may not work, however. The cost-of-living crisis is hitting households hard.
There is widespread understanding that rejecting a 2 per cent offer when inflation is running at over 11 per cent is not greedy or unreasonable but about making sure workers can continue to put food on the table.
An extra 1 per cent is offered down the line if workers accept everything else management want: the ticket office closures, the attacks on pensions, a plan for a “seven-day railway” — which already exists — that is about ending compensation for Sunday rather than weekday work.
Ministers gamble that the erosion of Sunday rates across many other sectors will limit sympathy for rail workers here. But they could be wrong.
Just because employers — and the Westminster set — have accepted new norms for Britain’s economy and society on our behalf, it does not follow that the public agrees.
As we saw in the response to Labour’s 2017 manifesto — as had, in fact, been evident in opinion polls long before — majority opinion is in favour of a huge extension of public ownership over transport, energy, water and other areas, when this is a fringe position at Westminster.
Campaigning by retail union Usdaw has also highlighted widespread resentment of the normalisation of work at weekends and public holidays. That workers who give up these days should be paid extra is a demand that can attract mass support in sectors where it has been eroded as well as in those where it still applies.
At a time when ministers are planning more “deregulation” to let executive pay soar even higher, when inflation is driven by corporate profits and pay shrinks in real terms, the claim that there is no money to give workers a proper raise rings awfully hollow.
We should not only stand with RMT members till they win but work to highlight how the issues the strike raises affect workers in other industries and the importance of collective action to address them.
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