I blame the Union!
I realised this sometime ago, before I’d even started this blog, but was reminded about it lately. Don’t know if it was the postal-strikes or what, but I was forced to stand up for a Union’s actions to someone complaining about a strike. Public understanding of basic Union concepts and issues is at an all time low and even if many people will never be convinced of the connection between their interests and strikers, there ought to be some bare-minimum attempt to explain striking to the public.
The same could be said of all Union matters, really. I’ve encountered young workers with no concept of why a Union might be relevant to them. To today’s youngest workers, Unions are old-fashioned, they’re irrelevant, only really lowly workers go on strike, some even see them as trouble-makers, few have much idea of the benefits that they have received from trade unionism in Britain. Leaflets advertising unions make little reference to the historical relevance of a union, present very little data about the struggles that have brought us modern trade unionism and a vaguely livable minimum wage. They often present the Union as a kind of optional benefits club; no wonder Union take-up is so low!
But more worryingly, there’s the issue of customer value which is derived from strikes. I’m sat on a train, knowing that if the driver is incapacitated, the guard is highly trained to deal with all ensuing emergencies and is paid to a level which matches that responsibility. Most of those around me only see a customer service worker with a ticket stamper, which, had the RMT not fought Northern’s predecessors, would by now be the norm across most of the railway. The financial welfare of the signalling staff operating this line hopefully means a load has been taken off their mind and they can focus on the highly critical task in front of them.
When I see striking staff, rarely do I see any attempt to reach out to the public with this message, to win public support. Instead, its usually all about hiding away, hoping the company takes the flack, which they don’t, because people see the Union as the problem, not the company. No attempt is made to bring the public on board, despite the proof that well paid, comfortable staff = better customer service.
Thankfully this hasn’t always been the case during University strikes, where some Student’s Unions have done a brilliant job of standing up for staff strikes, but this isn’t always the case. York Uni has seen it’s SU issue statements condemning staff strikes, despite clear evidence that the ‘industry’ is loosing its best staff due to low salaries compared with the private sector.
Strikes benefit everyone when they win, and even when they result in a trading of concessions (a score-draw, in a way) they still have some benefits to others.
In our consumer-minded society, where people pass the checkouts without half a thought for the life of the person working behind, and where few are prepared to recognise that they too are workers, we must create an understanding of the effect our lives have on others, and their effects on us. It need not be about consumer-power, though I expect people to boycott strike-products and services. It just needs to be about workers engaging others, not as workers, but as beneficiaries of their work. No wonder the collection buckets never fill up on picket lines if this is the state of employee-customer relations!
Without Unions, we would not have a minimum wage, and it certainly wouldn’t be £5.55; America has had much less Union influence, and now has a minimum wage in some states of $5.50/hour, equivalent to just over half the British rate when lack of public transport has been brought into the equation. I hear the notion that we should vote because others fought for the right, why don’t I hear that argument used with Unions?
On top of this, I’d like to make a proposal: The TUC should set up a subsidiary to oversee the creation and implementation of a similar scheme to the FairTrade mark, which companies would be able to put on their products and signs, but which would be able to be removed if violations of its terms were persistent. It could have two or three levels, but these need to follow basic standard demands of Unions. But with a recognisable mark of approval from a Union-driven body, customers would be able to make the right choices based not just on Global South worker treatment, but on Western workers treatment.