Sneering at the workers

Don’t call people stupid for voting for Brexit, cried the Daily Mail. The Daily Express came up with the term Project Sneer to condemn anyone who suggested that working-class voters might have been duped when they voted for Brexit. They are “not thick, not racist, just poor,” wailed the Spectator.

This didn’t last long though. The tabloids have decided working-class people are stupid after all. So stupid, it seems, that they can be led passively into taking industrial action by union leaders hell-bent on destroying the country. Yes, folks, the union barons are back again and they are planning to wreck Christmas with a wave of strikes.

Even Number 10 got in on the act, accusing the unions of ‘contempt for ordinary people‘. However they define ordinary people, it clearly doesn’t include railway workers, post office staff, pilots and cabin crew.

The very term ‘union baron’ is an outdated slur. ‘Baron’ implies autocratic and unaccountable power. These days, union leaders are elected by their members and have to stand for re-election every five years. Furthermore, they can’t just call strikes. They have to win a ballot first. Which is where the ‘ordinary people’ come in. Even if a union leader has fantasies about bringing down the government or ruining Christmas, he can’t do it without getting a majority of his members on side.

Let’s look at what happened in the ballots for industrial action in the run up to Christmas.*

% Turnout % ‘Yes’ vote ‘Yes’ vote as % of all entitled to vote
Virgin pilots 80 88 70
Southern Rail drivers 77 87 67
Weetabix 70 90 63
BA cabin crew 60 79 47
Post Office 50 83 42

All were backed by large majorities of those who voted and most by a majority of those eligible to vote. All were above the 40 percent threshold in the yet-to-be-implemented Trade Union Act passed earlier this year. There is no question, then, of the legitimacy of this industrial action. If we can make the most far-reaching change to this country since the Second World War on the say-so of 37.4 percent of those entitled to vote, then surely even 42 percent is enough for a 5 day strike.

None of this is to say that the arguments of those taking action are right or wrong. I don’t know enough of the detail about any of these disputes to make a call and neither do most of the other people commenting on them. What is clear, though, is that these groups of workers know exactly what they are doing and are aggrieved enough to vote for industrial action by significant majorities. They are not being duped into it by evil ‘union barons’.

As for the arguments about it being Christmas and the strikes inconveniencing people, if you feel that you are being taken for granted, the best time to remind people of the value of your work is when they are most dependent on it. Lots of people work extremely hard to make sure we all get our Christmas gifts and get to where we are going on time. Some of them are simply reminding us that, if it’s really so important, we should be prepared to pay them properly for doing it.

For much of this year, pro-Brexit MPs and newspapers urged people to take back control. But when they try to exert a degree of control over something that directly affects them, like their pay and working conditions, they are met with condemnation, vitriol and threats. Being hard up and angry is fine, it seems, provided people don’t actually try to do anything about it.

 

* I couldn’t find turnout figures for the Swissport baggage handlers or Argos drivers. Both strikes have since been called off after improved pay offers from the employers.

 

Update: 

Simon Jones wonders whether the EU referendum got people back into the habit of voting to change things:

We’re currently seeing a wave of industrial disputes – railways, airline staff, Post Office workers, airport baggage handlers, Weetabix factory workers. While some suggest this is some wave of 1970s style union militancy, the fact is that the majority of these disputes are over ‘old-fashioned’ pay and conditions matters, and they are overwhelming supported by affected staff in secret ballots. Perhaps the Brexit vote has convinced ‘ordinary workers’ that they can change things by voting?

And did it all start with Strictly?

I heard an interesting theory put forward recently (by comedian Frank Skinner) that Strictly Come Dancing led to Brexit. In the 2008 series, journalist John Sergeant was possibly the most hopeless contestant to ever appear on the programme. However despite the frequent condemnation of the dance judges, the public voted week after week to keep him in the show. Skinner suggested that it was perhaps the moment that people realised they could ignore “experts” and get the result they wanted through voting in sufficient numbers.

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7 Responses to Sneering at the workers

  1. Pingback: Strikes, Strictly and Brexit | Ariadne Associates

  2. Good post Rick!

    May you and the kittens have a happy Xmas.

    Oh, and try some Bishop’s Farewell (made by Oakham Ales). It’s luvverly!

  3. “What is clear, though, is that these groups of workers know exactly what they are doing and are aggrieved enough to vote for industrial action by significant majorities. They are not being duped into it by evil ‘union barons’.”

    This is a very important point and one that often gets overlooked. The overwhelming majority of people, like you and me, do not want to protest, strike or complain. They would be perfectly happy with stable, well-paid jobs where they are treated fairly. The mere fact that these workers, all of whom know a lot more about their situation and industry than us, have decided to strike should give us a clue that something is seriously wrong. In order to evade this obvious point, the right wing press have to invent fairy tales about them being duped, militant revolutionaries, permanently aggrieved people who are looking for something to complain about, etc. – all of which are a subtle form of dehumanisation. As soon as we accept that the people who are protesting basically have the same needs as us, it’s much more difficult to condemn them.

    • Dipper says:

      I know a senior trade union official quite well. He seems to spend quite a lot of his time evaluating whether the members are genuinely as up for strike action as the branch secretaries say they are. Making sure you know what your members are thinking and prepared to do seems to be a very basic part of being a trade unionist and you will soon get found out if you get this wrong.

  4. Londoner says:

    A vote for strike action doesn’t necessarily mean that colleagues will then support it when the union call them out. The current Post Office strike shows that very well – despite all the alarming headlines earlier this week about ‘3500 staff’ being affected a large majority of CWU-represented staff have actually been working, both in post offices themselves and in the cash delivery arm. Only 35 crown offices out of 300 therefore had to close for a few days. I think a previous commenter is right – many senior union officials will indeed understand what the appetite is for strike action but in the case of the Post Office, the low turn-out in the CWU’s ballot should have acted as a bit of a warning to the union.

  5. David says:

    Seems to me there’s been an awful lot of sneering here as well in recent times.

  6. Paul Evans says:

    All good points Rick. There is a much more important one that the strength of the ballot though.

    If you vote for a strike, you have to justify it to your friends, family, and to yourself. YOu lose a day’s wages. Once the ballot has happened, the workers concerned – both in and outside the union – can’t be compelled in any way to enforce the strike. Picket lines are now regulated to ensure that they offer little other than silent protest.

    For a strike to hold, it needs not just a majority ballot among union members and a strong union presence in a workplace. It also needs to sustain support from workers who aren’t in the union who can be expected to also withdraw their labour. The democratic barrier is one that most politicians would find unthinkable.

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