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There’s been a conspicuous little piece of spin emanating from the PR department of No 10 in recent days regarding the public sector strikes. That notion being that the people on strike are irresponsible because their actions are likely to disrupt public services. “[Those on strike] want to make economic recovery harder, to provide a platform for confrontation, just when we all need to pull together,” said Michael Gove. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of criticism that economists and activists have been levelling at George Osbourne’s austerity measures – the charge being that it was austerity which plunged the US into depression in the 1930s and the more obvious charge that cutting the benefits and social safety nets of the people in the communities where the rioters come from is only going to make them more likely to riot. However, Michael Gove’s remarks demonstrate a more basic kind of ignorance of which, as a former union man himself, he must surely be aware.
The ignorance is that public sector workers shouldn’t go on strike because it will cause disruption. That’s kind of like saying you shouldn’t put your foot on the accelerator because it will make the car go forward. The whole purpose of striking is to cause some basic element of disruption in order to crystallise dissent in the public consciousness and to voice worker outrage via appropriate, dramatic means. One charge that seems to be impossible to level at the Government, at least, is one of inconsistency – its message throughout is that protest is acceptable, but only on the Government’s own carefully defined parameters – parameters designed to make sure that dissent has no impact whatsoever. This could be quite clearly seen to all present at the student demonstrations on the 30th November, as attempts at new occupations were disrupted by a characteristically heavy-handed London Met, to spare the Government further embarrassment. The message, now, is similar – any action intended to influence policy will be branded irresponsible. “Think of the poor mothers that have to look after the kids at home!” they say – if only there was as much concern for mothers that have to do that every day because they’ve lost their jobs.
Such seeming hostility to strike action per se requires an ignorance of history. Strike action has a long and noble tradition, borne out of increasingly exploited labour workers in industrialised countries. Equally nowadays, workers providing a public service are more than entitled to pause that service for a short time if they begin to feel squeezed. Considering the countries which opposed strike action in the 20th Century should give us some pause for thought, among them such democratic bulwarks of responsible governance as Maoist China and Stalinist Russia, who viewed strikes as subverting the cause of their ultraviolent brand of revolutionary socialism. A more liberal translation of Soviet propaganda might allow for such phrases as “making recovery harder” and “providing a platform for confrontation just when we all need to pull together.” Glorious work, Comrade Gove. Conversely, states which recognised strike action were ones which had much stronger labour movements and means for democratic change – the UK and the US, for instance. The recognition of strike action is nowadays such a well-formulated expression of worker grievance that it’s embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
There’s been an awful lot of bile and reaction fluttering around as a result of the burgeoning protest movement in Britain and a lot of it is displaced. It is the government, not the disenfranchised population, which in a welfare state like the UK owes the burden of proof for Government cuts and it is furthermore the Government, not the Unions which require the burden of proof when it comes to strike action. If the Union workers feel they want or need to strike, that’s not only their prerogative, it’s also their right under both English and international law. Those flinging around accusations of irresponsibility and disruption should perhaps pause for a moment of quiet reflection and ask who the truly irresponsible and disruptive people in Britain are today. Perhaps it’s the Government who, despite warnings from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research about the ineffectiveness of its much-cherished austerity measures, decided to go through with them anyway? Furthermore, when public services are hamstrung by right-wing governments it’s necessary to ask who the real beneficiaries are, if not the population as a whole. The answer to that, like so much else in this debate, should be obvious to us by now.