Sunday, 4 December 2011

Using the s-word: debate between a Trot and a former Tory

I've written such a long reply to DCMD's comment on my "Using the s-word" post that I have to publish it as a post. The debate does raise interesting questions about the role of trade unions today, but I'm mainly posting it because I do take debate very seriously. The passages in quotation marks and italicised are from DCMD (former Tory); the other parts are mine (Trot).

"We are both agreed that ‘scab’ is an unpleasant word. You originally claimed to have used it because 'that’s the word we have'. You now state that you thought long and hard before using the word and that you would readily use it again."

Hello, DCMD, to reply to some of your points:

I didn’t, as you say, think long and hard about using the ‘s-word’; I said I hesitated before using it... What happened was on Tuesday night I wrote two blogposts, one addressed to residents not in the affected unions, asking them to support the strike by visiting picket lines; one addressed to workers in the affected services, asking them to support the strike by... striking. I wrote both quickly fairly late in the evening. I came to write the headline for the second article, I hesitated over using the word ‘scab’, but I decided I would use it because... that’s the word we have. I haven’t said I would ‘readily’ use it again, I said:
I also think that, regretfully, I would use the word again [because that’s the word we have] and risk giving offence again.
That’s very different, DCMD. All debates start out like this, with both sides thinking they have heard the other side saying something that it turns out they did not say. (You are and I are so far apart politically that it might seem pointless to discuss this at all, yet I do think it is important to account for what we say even to people who we wildly disagree with.)

"This admission exposes the intolerance of the militant wing of the Trade Union movement."

You accuse me of an admission; I’m ‘admitting’ nothing because I haven’t done anything wrong.

"Rog talks above about intimidation by management, but in your narrow view of the world, premeditated intimidation by the union is acceptable because, presumably, it is for the perceived greater good."

Picketing is about unions putting to workers who might cross a picket line the purpose of the strike with the aim of persuading them not to cross the picket line and break the strike. I’m not in the business of intimidating people. Yes, picketing is premeditated; it is not intimidation. You are right about it being for the greater good... of the workers.

"Calling someone a ‘scab’ serves no other purpose than to humiliate and ostracise that person from the rest of the workforce. Unions are supposed to stop bullying in the workplace, but are quite happy to use bully-boy tactics to enforce their view."

To scab, to break a strike, these are verbs, these are what the scab or strike-breaker does when they cross a picket line. You do not see the harm that does to the interest of the greater number of workers who have gone on strike (and to the strike-breaking worker's own longer term interest). Scabbing or breaking the strike of a union of which you are a member makes absolutely no sense. Unions exist as collective bodies, with a common purpose. If you don’t share that purpose or you undermine it, you nullify the body you are a member of.

The picket, as I described above, is not bullying. It is (a) still legal; (b) sometimes effective in that the worker who might otherwise cross the picket line after hearing the arguments for why they should join the strike joins the strike. This actually happens; I’ve seen it happen.

"It is risible to talk about union democracy."

No it isn’t. Far from it...

"Whilst a majority of those who voted supported the strike, the turnout for the ballot was very low. The only conclusion we can draw is that most people were apathetic about the strike otherwise they would have positively voted for it."

There are many reasons why a turnout will be low. It is noticeable that the turnout in the unions representing higher grades alone or the more ‘professional-type’ unions had higher turnouts than the big, general unions.

Some workers can simply be too tired/busy to vote; some, as you say, could be apathetic. Some might think that a one-day strike is merely a token and that their unions don’t have a serious strategy to win the dispute.

Some workers might feel that the Government is kicking working class people from pillar to post on so many fronts that they will have their way on this one as with the others. Ie, the workers feel defeated in advance of the battle. (You probably think this is a good thing.)

I think most people expected that there would be a majority for industrial action. I certainly did. In that case, people can leave the voting to others. And so on.

No union should be satisfied with the turnout, and I know that they are not. I know that union reps worked hard to increase the turnout. The result is that the ballots for industrial action were won. Any attempt by government to legislate for super majorities before a ballot can be considered won would be outrageous. (I’m sure you’ve seen the argument about Cameron being elected on a minority, etc. I don’t want to go into that now; you haven’t brought it up, so I won’t go and look up chapter and verse on it.)

"But even if the union had won a majority vote on a 100% turnout, that does not mean you can forcibly impose your will on those who dare to hold a contrary position."

Who’s forcibly imposing their will (besides the Government)? Picketing is not designed to forcibly impose the unions’ will on people. It’s not, let me reiterate, about one force imposing itself on another, but about trying to persuade workers – including members of the union – that crossing the picket line is not in their interests. It is not in the workers’ interest, generally.

"How dare fat-cat trade union leaders like Dave Prentice (£127,000 salary package) tell other people when they can or cannot work."

Dave Prentis earns too much. I agree. Trade union leaders should earn no more than the average wage of their members, they should be elected annually, and so on. I have a longer list of demands to make for union democratisation than you, I imagine.

But your indignation against Dave Prentis is a bit of a red herring. Dave Prentis was not the only person asking people not to go to work on Wednesday. The call to strike was made in the first place by the union members who work, day in day out, alongside those breaking the strike.

I do think there is a case for hardship funds for people who are in real dire need to draw on; the unions should set aside strike funds and raise funds from non-striking sections of the unions; and pay strike pay where they can. But it is usually feeble of strike-breakers to plead poverty – there are plenty of strikers who are in just as bad a situation as those who break the strike.

"If you genuinely believe in democracy, then you believe that other people are entitled to hold a contrary view to yours, and can act according to their own beliefs."

Yes, of course I believe that. But I also don’t believe in just shrugging my shoulders and saying que sera, que sera. I am an actor in events, if I can persuade people to do something different I will try.

Democracy: who decides what views are heard and represented? I’m not just going to leave people to make up their minds based on what they read in the Daily Mail - or even the Guardian!

"When Conservative Councillor Kate Salinger defied the party whip in the vote for increased allowances, she was widely praised by the left for standing up for her principles."

I can’t speak for the rest of the ‘left’. For myself, I didn’t praise her. I think she did the right thing: what did she do right? Stand up for her principles? No, her principles are neither here nor there if I think she did the wrong thing. What she did that was right was say that the allowance rises were bad. She was right about that.

"Of course, you are allowed to have principles when opposing those evil Tories. You are not allowed to have principles when standing up to the Brothers."

Yes, people have principles when ‘standing up to the trade unions’ (crossing a picket line); often they are the wrong principles, however. Selfish, short-term principles. Or simply not thinking things through. Or not understanding the arguments.

Let people have whatever principles they like! Just don’t expect me or the ‘brothers’ to accept the status quo!

"Prentice and his disciples..."

- I take it you mean the millions of trade union members -

"...are a throwback to the 1970s."

You mean, to the days when there was effective trade unionism in this country.

"They have failed to recognise that the world has moved on..."

- You mean, That Margaret Thatcher’s government smashed the unions, enacted strict anti-union legislation; that Blair’s government kept it in place and boasted about doing so.

"and militancy has had its day."

Well, perhaps it will return. I certainly hope so.

"We can argue until the cows come home as to what (and who) caused the recession;"

Now, that is a topic really worthy of debate...

"the reality is that we are where we are"

Who is this ‘we’ you keep going on about? You surely don’t believe that the recession is affecting people equally. A few people are still in a very nice place, while most are at least fearful for the future; some are already living very bleak lives and are soon to be joined by hundreds of thousands of their fellow countrymen and women.

"and most people understand this."

Look at the opinion polls. It is not at all clear that people agree with you. Which is a great - and pleasant - surprise given that they have the media and politicians continually drumming into them that we must accept austerity, the cuts, ‘there is no money’, we have been living too high on the hog, etc.

"The public understands that the country is broke."

Ah, you think so too. It isn’t, it’s the sixth largest economy in the world (I think - certainly enormous).

"They understand also that the pension system is at breaking point."

It isn’t. Look at the figures for the teachers’ pension, for example. There is no crisis in the local government pension scheme. Its value as a percentage of GDP is set to fall.

"According to official statistics, average life expectancy has increased by 8 years over the last 3 decades. That is a phenomenal increase"

- and good news...

"and you don’t need to be an actuary to understand what this means in terms of pensions."

You know a lot about pensions. Could you recommend a book, before I do?

I don’t believe that we can’t afford to pay people a decent pension. I don’t believe that people will need to work till they drop. Look at the wealth in this society; think how much knowledge we have. Is it beyond our ingenuity to organise our affairs such that we can enjoy restful, comfortable old age? For all. I don’t think so.

"Gordon Brown plundered the private pension industry to the tune of £5 billion a year, affecting millions of private sector workers, how many strikes did Unison call in protest?"

I have to look your reference up.

Unison represents public sector workers. It would be good if the level of solidarity across the public and private sectors were so great that Unison would strike for private sector workers’ pensions but it isn’t.

(Given that you don’t think workers within Barnet council, for example, should show solidarity with each other, I take it you are just using this example to call the unions hypocrites, but I still think the accusation is unjust.)

Unite and the other unions organising in the private sector should call strikes and protests, that I agree.

The public sector unions have made an effort to argue for good pensions across the board; the civil service union PCS has been in the forefront of a campaign called ‘Fair pensions for all’. Their argument is that pensions should be levelled up across the public and private sector, not down.

"The strike on Wednesday was a spectacular flop."

No, it wasn’t. Most schools closed. There were other effects – we are making our assessments. A lot of disruption was avoided in the NHS, where high levels of cover were agreed between unions and management.

"The country did not grind to a halt,"

- it was never likely to; who said it would?

"and where people suffered inconvenience it was relatively minor. Many union members were not on picket lines but out Christmas shopping - no doubt showing solidarity with shop workers. Dave Prentice’s response was a classic diversionary tactic. Instead of apologising for failing to understand the mood of the public..."

- I don’t agree, there was a lot of public support for the strikes. -

"he feigned outrage to launch a pathetic attack on Jeremy Clarkson for making what was clearly a joke about shooting strikers."

I don’t think he feigned outrage. Clarkson’s delivery was jokey, but there is nothing funny about the subject matter. Trade unionists are killed in many countries for their activities.

We have had a good, long debate about this in NUJ circles: most of us are more outraged about the media’s poor coverage of the strike – though not surprised by it - than we are about Clarkson, reprehensible though his remarks were.

"How many times do we hear from hard-line left wingers who say they will celebrate when Margaret Thatcher dies?"

You’ve never heard it from me, so don’t go laying that at my door...

"Such rank hypocrisy is positively nauseating, but is par for the course for those who resent democracy and freedom of expression."

If you’re keen on democracy and freedom of expression, I hope you will be campaigning to open up the mass media to reflect a wider range of opinions than is currently possible. Then perhaps the unions and their millions of members would get a fair hearing. We might be able to do without picket lines then...


David Duff said...

Sorry, but I really couldn't be bothered to plough through all that etymological head-banging, a bit like reading Fowler for Fun!

I'm with you, Vivki (that'll make you reconsider!), let people use the words they want to use and let us judge them by those words.

But of course, that means you will have to put up with all sorts of naughty words, some of them four-letter ones like 'scab' and . . . well, you know the rest.

Vicki Morris aka Citizen Barnet said...

Welcome back, Duff, you old f***

Mrs Angry said...

well said, Vicki. Goodness me, looks like you might even have turned Duff. In the wrong direction, but still.

David Duff said...

Ah, now I know, VIcki, why your last post was so inordinately long - and tedious - you've caught a bad dose of the Mrs. 'A's!

Mrs Angry said...

Duff: pot. kettle.

dz bodenberg said...

I thought this was a good post, and, god, I've seen (and not read) much longer posts on blogs.

I'm somewhat bemused by the press (and tory) attacks on the strike as being a waste of time and ineffective as it didn't cause a standstill. It's like they're saying "come on, do it better next time. How about a real general strike".

But that's obviously not what they mean.

dz bodenberg said...

By the way - "Citizen Barnet" - it may be more appropriate than the previous blog name, but it makes me think of a hairdressing workers' cooperative.