Friday, April 02, 2010

Aaro on Strikes

Thanks to John Fallhammer in our comments, we have David Aaronovitch on the Today Programme. Now I realise that our man knew he was on a five-minute slot at the end of the programme and he'd be sharing talking time with John Humphrys and fellow guest Sean Rickard of the Cranfield University School of Management, but his 'cultural' explanation for the declining of striking strikes me glib froth. Yes, it's true that many unionised people are 'middle-class' now, and it's also true that they don't like trouble makers, but that's because they have mortgages, and even a strike for higher pay is a sort of bet that you'll make the money you lose back in the medium term at worst. However, it's still a bet. Losing a rented flat is enormously worrying, but you can find somewhere else usually; losing the home you've been paying for is a waste of the last several years on the housing ladder. And so on. Unions are weaker. They're strong when workers are qualified through apprenticeships and experience and very hard to replace. This is less true now. Also Germany (which in many ways is a good parallel for British industrial history) had fewer strikes than us: but that was, contra Sean Rickard, because management understood the unions: the British system was excessively adversarial.

However, all that said (and that was pretty much top of my head stuff, I could go on and on here), Aaro is a good radio voice: fluent, pleasant sounding, clear, articulate, and all of that. He comes over as agreeable, though I think Sean Rickard is more convincing (though in my opinion, also wrong). As for DA's point on Brendan Barber - I think striking for more money makes sense; I don't think that striking against lay-offs does, so much.

Your turn.


Blogger ejh said...

I think house ownership is a red herring here, at least in the sense discussed: most strikes aren't of remotely sufficient duration to threaten one's mortgage. I also don't really go for the becoming-middle-class thing, but more of that below.

What I think has happened is a particular historical process, and an underlying process of social change. The historical process dates from whenever you fancy dating it, but let's take it from the huge union defeats of the Eighties - Warrington, the miners, Wapping - after which nobody wanted to go on strike for a long time. (Which in itself caused a flight from union membership, because unions that don't prove effective don't attract members and bluntly, unions that don't ever strike are unlikely to prove effective. This is an uncomfortable truth for many people, but truth it is.)

Anyway, by the time people had recovered from the defeats of the Eighties at all, there was an exceptionally long period of economic growth which, as it happens, coincided a very great loss of faith in socialist and labour movement ideas generally, for all sorts of reasons but as much as anything else, connected with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. And by the time anybody recovered from that, we were living in a different world: most younger people had little idea what a union was or why people went on strike, including those of them who were progessive in politics or even radically-minded. (This was, and is, the hardest thing for previous generations of leftists, like myself, to get their heads around, though it echoes an earlier division between New Left and Old Left in the US.)

Now once you have a situation where the vast bulk of the population doesn't have any experience of unions or strikes, it's like a situation where few people use public transport, or few people claim welfare benefits: where people aren't familiar with something, and aren't using it, they're they're not likely to support it, to understand its problems or its workings, or generally to be sympathetic to it.

Now the underlying process is that over a long period society has become much, much more consumer-oriented. It's not that working people didn't but goods and services before the Seventies and Eighties, over and above their basic needs: of course they did. But not remotely to the extent they have done more recently, and not with anything like the same access to credit. We buy cars, electrical goods, houses, holidays (and pretty much all of these things using money that we do not yet actually have). Now just as this isn't entirely new, so it's not all we do: and yet its prominence in the mix, if you like, its significance in the lives of the greater part of the population, is very much greater than it was thirty of forty years ago. And this matters because the values of consumerism are very different to those of labourism. The basic value of labourism is solidarity, but consumerism doesn't even know that such a concept exists.

What will happen now, now that this crisis is really biting, I don't know. Perhaps those values will change. Chris Dillow wrote an interesting piece the other day (I'd read Chris more than I do, but his comment boxes, for some reason, are always full of arseholes) about how our values are shaped much more by what happens in our twenties than by what happens later in life, even though what happens later is, by definition, more recent. Perhaps the generation coming of age during the crisis will decide that unions and strikes are a better response to the problems of life than piling up debt to pay for cars and houses. Or perhaps they will decide that life is hard, we should all make do ourselves or put up with the consequences, and the enemies are people who are paid from the public purse. But me, I think we need more solidarity. And without an active labour movement, I don't think we're going to get it.

4/03/2010 11:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think ejh nails many of the key points, but I think it's worth thinking about how divestment/rolling back of vertical integration of various flavours has (sometimes by coincidence, sometimes by design) reduced the power of the strike.

The most obvious is the big privatisations... breaking up the railways means drivers for Virgin can strike, but it won't automatically be a national strike. RMT signalmen can strike and it is a national strike, but it's at arms length to the government (politically it still affects a Labour govt, but it's a long way from setting a wage agenda - coincidentally one advantage German unions have is that their ability to set the wage agenda is built into the current social compact.)

A private example might be Wapping... these days, many newspaper groups don't own their printing presses - those workers work for a different firm... if the print workers strike then the newspaper looks for another company to do the printing. Now obviously this is not always possible, but throw in the restrictions on secondary picketing and it's a lot easier for management to keep something of the concern going...

I'd even argue that you can see this in the BA strikes, it's not just the case that BA hires in strikebreakers (trolley scabs?) they have been hiring in whole turnkey planes, staffed and ready to go...

I really think this is a key disruption of union power... it's a lot harder to persuade workers at Virgin (say) to strike in support of their brethren at Southwest Trains when they work for different companies with different pay agreements... but if Virgin has spare capacity, they may well hire some of it out to help Southwest Trains break the strike - and workers have no legal ability to refuse.

Final elephant in the room (and why I had to use a train example after talking about BA) is the non-union workplace - which ejh has covered some of the reasons for quite well. However, I think technological change is also a factor... mass employment isn't so "mass" any more and that chips away at the value collective bargaining can provide - when everyone does different jobs, it's a lot easier for the employer to divide and rule in pay negotiations - there's not enough of one "work role" to make a bargaining setup with...

4/03/2010 10:43:00 PM  
Anonymous John Fallhammer said...

Having listened to it again, my thoughts are still disorganised, but I'll try to present some points.

First, the point that struck me upon first hearing the piece, which was particularly pertinent on that day, is that it's far more difficult to strike in legal terms than it was. For a good servant like Aaro, maybe it makes sense to distract people from the fact that the anti-union legislation the Tories brought in has been left in place by Labour.

I think there is an element of truth in the culture claim but it's far less pervasive than Aaro claims (from his position as a wealthy metropolitan media professional). I think there's a change in attitudes that's been driven by government and media propaganda rather than most people's lived experience. You do meet people that see themselves as free-floating professionals with individualized skill sets but most people are as cynical about work and employers as they ever were.

I'm less inclined to tie the decline in unionism to changes in political attitudes. The US has kept strong unions (in some sectors) for decades while socialism has been a swearword. I think ejh is right though that people don't see any point in unions that are ineffective, and that the threat of striking is a union's most powerful weapon.

I'd also question the point about solidarity. I would rather call the basic value of labourism fairness (with solidarity being instead the basic source of power), and fairness is an issue that is very important for most consumers. Even consumerism to some extent carries echoes of labour values.

The point about fragmentation of industries is good, coupled with the legal restrictions on secondary action, the casualisation of much employment, the ease of shifting many operations abroad, and sophisticated anti-union efforts by aggressive managements. There are, however, new concentrations of 'mass' workforces (e.g., in call centres), and I have the impression a lot of people in them would quite like to unionise if it was worth the trouble.

I'd also say that I found Rickard quite unconvincing, to the point of repellence.

4/05/2010 04:05:00 PM  

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