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The hundreds of thousands of public sector workers who joined marches, pickets lines and rallies across England and Wales on 10 July have cast into sharp relief the attitudes of those who would divide us, those who cannot see past their own narrow interests and those who have – to varying degrees – an awareness of the qualities of interrelation, solidarity and the common good which are integral to the civilised functioning of complex modern societies.
Fire-fighters concerned about their pension conditions, teachers overloaded with non-teaching demands, low-paid workers such as school dinner ladies, teaching assistants, care workers and local government employees, struggling with the cumulative pressures of three years of frozen pay and the rapidly rising cost of living, are among those who have reached a point where they can no longer remain silent.
The government – predictably – has attacked the means by which unions seek to be effective in support of their members. David Cameron has threatened a 'crackdown' by challenging the mandates which resulted in a million workers withdrawing their labour. The Prime Minister wishes to impose a threshold of 51 per cent of eligible union members as a condition for the legitimacy of strike action. The turnouts for local and general elections and the percentages by which members of parliament are returned might just give him pause for thought.
The broadcast media – which make the most immediate impact on public perception – have arguably misrepresented the general response to Thursday's action. The BBC sought out people queuing at the Dartford Crossing to ask what they thought about the strikers who were not manning the toll booths. Traffic jams do not make for reasoned responses and those chosen for broadcast were largely unsupportive.
Significantly, none of the interviewees were asked about the causes of the strike, nor did any of them show any interest in this important factor. Many parents who had either to find extra childcare or take a day off work were similarly disgruntled. None of these people seemed to have reflected beyond their own – understandable – difficulties although some parents recognised that their children's futures were not going to be best served by demoralised and burned-out teachers. I waited in vain for an interviewer or commentator to point out that 40 per cent of newly qualified teachers leave the profession within four years.
Any failure to connect the causes of present inconvenience to the future cohesion and well-being of our society should worry us. Firefighters struggling to meet fitness requirements in their 50s so as to qualify for their pensions are likely to be unequal to the rigours of saving our lives. Care assistants, who make the later years of so many citizens bearable, may not be there in the future if they have to turn to pay-day lenders and food banks to survive. Our bins may not be emptied, our streets kept clean or our children fed at school. These are pragmatic arguments which call on self interest. Common humanity – sometimes called solidarity – additionally asks if this is really how we want to live and whether we are happy to see our neighbours treated in this manner. These are the discussions which the media and politicians should be facilitating.
However, despite the angry voices raised in government and the disproportionate media coverage of the myopically indignant, there is a good deal of tacit support based on this understanding of our common lives and futures. Public sector workers who are not members of a union marched with their union colleagues and it was evident that there is no public appetite for demonising low paid workers. To stand by a picket line for only a few minutes was to see a significant level of sympathy for a large body of essential and long-suffering workers.
I have been a trade union member all my working life. The Fred Kite model has long been dead and although it may suit the government to keep the 'I'm All Right Jack' caricature alive, an increasing number of people are realising how deceitful this. If the Prime Minister was genuinely concerned about a just and cohesive society, he would realise that unions are are an essential component of a healthy democracy. A larger and more flexible mind would see that enabling them to poll their members in the most effective way is a far better road to take than that of prohibition and ludicrous thresholds which hardly a political interest in the country would be able to cross.
Co-operation with unions and the Electoral Reform Society to enact measures such as online voting and the scrutiny of secure workplace ballots would raise the level of participation from union members. But there has been no mention of such reformed legislation from the Conservatives. It is hard to escape the conclusion that outdated rhetoric about 'union barons' and 'holding the country to ransom' suits David Cameron better than actually doing something constructive.
The Prime MInister would do well to heed the warning of the IMF – hardly a hotbed of anti-capitalist revolution – that the increasing imbalance between capital and labour puts the very existence of capitalism at risk.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet