Gregor Gall: Industrial action can serve the greater good
GOVERNMENT criticism of strikes conveniently ignores the workers determination to protect us all, writes Gregor Gall
The planned strike by Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union members at the Home Office the day before the London Olympics open sent the government into a veritable rage.
Politicians were obviously hoping for another politically useful example of the entire population uniting in pride and joy and showcasing Britain to the international community at a time of domestic austerity and public spending cuts. But the strike threatened to affect the crucial UK Border Agency and Identity and Passport Service functions and in doing so, it showed not all was well with the Olympian spirit.
Home Secretary, Theresa May, condemned the planned strike as “shameless” and “opportunistic”. Amongst senior Tories, the planned action occasioned discussion of dismissing the strikers On this occasion, the particular debate concerned whether the strike was viewed as opportunistic and, thus, irresponsible and reprehensible.
But behind the headlines and sound bites, there is an equally valid way of looking at such a strike, namely, whether it is strategic and, thus, clever and effective in protecting wider interests.
A strike affecting passport and immigration control hit a raw nerve after continuous delays in processing incoming passengers at the critical Heathrow airport. Indeed, the PCS union has previously pointed that the delays are the result of job losses pushed through by the present government.
So it is not just the timing of the strike but the reasons for the strike that get to the core of explaining the government’s fervour in condemning the PCS strike. The two key issues giving rise to the proposed strike were continuing job losses and privatisation of functions in the UK Border Agency and Identity and Passport Service in a dispute which has been going on since late 2010 and has already seen several strikes.
If the government had felt confident of its ground to attack the PCS strike as a classic case of protecting vested self-interest, namely, the jobs of PCS members, it would have done so and with relish.
But the government’s Achilles heel here has been that the strike is about the protection of the service for the wider population and not just about saving members’ jobs. And, it is this which explains why the PCS called the strike off at the eleventh hour as a result of gaining assurances from the government on the creation of 1,100 new jobs in the service.
Indeed, what makes the issues underlying the planned strike so significant was that the PCS was obviously having some success in making the hard-hitting argument that saving jobs and maintaining a decent service go hand-in-hand in a complimentary manner. When issues of national security and law and order are concerned, as they are here, the Tories find themselves on a very sticky wicket.
The evidence of passenger delays, and then hundreds of thousands of uncompleted cases at the UK Border Agency, showed that there is a very clear alignment of the interests of the providers of the service, the PCS members, with the recipients and beneficiaries of the service, the passengers and the general public.
But in a case which has not attracted nearly as much attention, PCS members will still undertake several strikes at the National Gallery in London over the period of the Olympics. Again the issue is not just job losses but the impact they have on reducing the safeguarding of valuable works of art.
Last year, a Nicolas Poussin painting was damaged by a member of the visiting public in a room without a gallery attendant. Again, these forthcoming strikes are the latest in a long line of strikes in this dispute at the National Gallery.
The aspects of the bigger picture to emerge in these cases are that decent public services require decent funding and that unions can act not just to protect the sectional interests of their members but also those of the wider public.
So the issue of the striking immediately before or during the Olympics should not been seen as opportunistic. This is not about trying to cash in on a once-in-a-generation event as some accused the transport unions of.
Rather, the strikes attempt to take strategic advantage of an opportunity to resolve longstanding disputes and important issues for both union members and the wider public.
Good trade unionism is that which is not merely reactive but also planned and conscious in attempting to gain strategic objectives where it makes alliances between its members and other citizens. The PCS actions are exemplars of this.
The wider relevance of this is that both national confederations of unions, the STUC in Glasgow and TUC in London, could learn key lessons about how to fuse together the interests of members and citizens into powerful alliances.
The STUC has traditionally played a wider role in Scottish society than the TUC has done in England.
This has concerned being the voice of civic Scotland, mostly notably against Thatcherism and for a Scottish Parliament. But being the voice alone is insufficient. Muscle and leverage are needed not only to make the voice heard but to force the government act as a result of hearing that voice.
Whether palatable or not, this necessarily now means organising collective action, including strikes.
The PCS actions will provide a good weather vane for the mechanics of how to do so, as well as what pitfalls might exist along the way.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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