Although I’ve been a member of a trade union, I can’t recall ever having been on strike. I might be wrong because I have a vague memory that there was talk of a walk out when I was in NALGO in my the dim and distant past, but I don’t remember using poster paint on homemade placards, marching on the streets or sloping off to the pub for an afternoon.
I drifted away from the unions before I was 20 years old, mostly because I’d moved into the private sector where trade unions were simply irrelevant. I did briefly join the NUJ but that was so I could also get a Press Club membership and they had a decent snooker table and you could get a drink pretty much any time of the day or night.
Strikes in those days were for people who got their hands dirty for a living, or so it seemed. Car workers, dockers, miners, train drivers and the like downed tools, worked to rule or went on a go-slow on pretty regular basis, but if your chief occupational hazard was ink-stained fingers and you were put upon by your employer, you just tutted and carried on pushing your pen.
Maybe we lacked firebrand leadership. Rover had “Red Robbo” in the 1970s, the miners had Arthur Scargill in the 1980s and the printers of Sogat 82 had Brenda Dean when they fought Rupert Murdoch at Wapping. I suspect that the nickname of my union general secretary would have been “You’ve Got a Point There Mrs Thatcher”.
Of course, just like political careers, those disputes ultimately ended in failure. The coal mines have gone, apart from those that have been turned into industrial heritage parks, Rupe is taking over the media with the help of his mates in government and the British car industry is now a bloke in a shed whose idea of mass production is one car a month that no-one but Top Gear wants or can afford.
All of which must sound like I have a pretty jaundiced view of trade union and collective action and it was certainly true when workers and management were at loggerheads over teabreaks. ‘Spanish practices‘ or the odd percentage point of a pay rise. It always struck me that the strikers lost more than they gained from their belligerence.
But I fully support the public sector workers’ action today. There is a fundamental issue at stake here: whether the government, or any organisation for that matter, should be allowed to renege on the contract it makes with its employees.
Private sector workers are complaining loudly that they’ve lost their final salary pensions and that the teachers etc aren’t living in the real world, but the answer isn’t to drag everyone down to the same level. That way the ‘real world’ will be a miserable place for everyone, other than for the bankers and politicians who I’m sure will do very nicely, thank you.