Friday, 19 June 2009

Three Strikes and you're out

In recent news, we have been hit by a few strikes of late, namely from the RMT tube strike (that admittedly doesn’t exactly affect the whole country, but living in London makes it easy to forget that the tube network isn’t everywhere) and the postal strike that seems to have jumped out on us today. Working for an insurance company that maintains a trade union client base, you would hope that I might have some sort of insider knowledge into the workings of a strike and the dynamics of a trade union, but unfortunately, I am woefully ignorant and probably about to make myself small-scale flame-bait with ill informed opinions.

What I want to know is what is the point of striking and does it actually achieve anything?

The concept of a strike is simple. A work force is disgruntled with the way it is treated, therefore it refuses to do anything until an agreement is reached. This is a good example of a simple democratic “we are not slaves and you can not treat us as such” process and is a very effective way of avoiding being maltreated as an employee. Trade unions make this whole process slightly easier, more secure and less of a risk for the workers and despite them not having nearly as much power as they did in the pre-mining Thatcher strike breaking days, they’re still a force to be reckoned with and some of the unions have a reputation for being particularly militant.

Putting strike action into context at the moment means putting it alongside the ever present news of the ever present doom-and-gloom fuelled recession and enormous record breaking job losses. All in all, an unusual background with which to be dissatisfied with having a job.

Allow me to put forward a few examples:

The RMT Tube Strike
The name “Bob Crow” has become a curse word around London, and I suspect beyond. I don’t really know what his job is like, I don’t know how well he performs his abilities, but he certainly seems to enjoy a good strike. The last strike I remember happening was over a pay rise demand that was actually granted to them before the strike was about to commence, and they went ahead with it anyway. This breaks the fundamental concept of the strike in the first place if you’re going to strike even after you get what you want. It’s almost like the confused teenager that doesn’t know how to stop sulking even after he gets his own way.
The most recent strike was almost as bizarre, almost as if the demands had been written by two people with differing agendas. On the one hand they wanted an increased focus on health and safety, yet on the other they wanted two drivers that were fired for breach of safety regulations to be reinstated. Much as it must have been fun to see the reaction of commuters when the doors on the wrong side of the train opened, it’s not exactly going to win you employee of the month.
A lot of people will complain that tube drivers are overpaid anyway. I wouldn’t entirely agree with this. They have horrible hours, they have horrible working conditions, there’s a certain amount of danger attached to the job through accident, slow deterioration of health or attack from giant moles, and in the middle of all of that is what I can only imagine is mind numbing boredom. At the same time, demanding more pay at the moment when people are being sacked left right and centre is most definitely not going to win the hearts and minds of your passengers, many of whom will earn less than half of the drivers themselves if they are even employed in the first place.
In fairness to the drivers, I did get the impression that many of them weren’t interested in striking, as many of them turned up to work after a while anyway. This could be an example of a union trying to justify its position without really caring about what its members really want, but I don’t know.

The Postal Strike
I do feel that postal strikes have somewhat lost their impact. Aside from businesses not getting a collection or a daily drop off, I’m not sure anybody notices when Royal Mail strike. Also, any impact it has on business that it might have is instantly mitigated by the fact that everyone knows about the strike and everyone knows things might take an extra couple of days and nobody really cares.
I actually find myself sympathizing for the workers on this one. Whenever they go on strike, the create a massive backlog of work for themselves, meaning they have to work twice as hard the following day. I remember our old postman coming into the office the day after a strike muttering to himself about how it was a stupid idea to strike and he didn’t want to and how he then had to work overtime.
In my woeful ignorance I’m not actually too sure why the post office are striking this time around. At a guess I would assume it’s the threat of massive job losses and huge reform or even the threat of re-nationalization, and in fairness if I was about to be nationalized into the public sector at the moment I’d strike as well, but I would be curious to know how not turning up to work really affects the potential job losses factor. I suppose the people that work extra hard the following day get a gold star or something.

The Writers Strike
This is a bit of an unusual one. I realise this happened quite a long time ago as well, but the reason I bring it up is because it’s had one of the most insidious slow-releasing affects of a strike I’ve ever seen. Rail strike: No trains for the day. Postal strike: No post for a couple of days. Writers Strike: all current seasons of TV shows come up twelve episodes short and the films being released in two years time will be awful. The reason I’ve noticed this is because I’ve recently seen two films of vastly contrasting quality; Star Trek which was written just before the strike, and Terminator Salvation, that was due to be written just after the strike started.
As far as an impact goes, a lot of people noticed that their favourite shows had suddenly finished off earlier than expected, or that their favourite oh-so-witty talk show host suddenly wasn’t so witty, and now we’re getting an echo of that impact in the cinema over this summer and probably through to Christmas. As for how effective this was at achieving their aims, I’m not sure. I know that pre-strike, writers were being denied vast sums of royalty money from DVD sales and the like, but I also know that you don’t become a writer in order to make your millions.

A final note
I don’t disagree with striking, nor do I disagree with standing up for yourself if you’re being abused in some way, but I’m just not sure that it works. Going back to themes that I’ve found earlier in this blog, it’s probably the case that I can’t see the bigger picture, and that even a small victory as a result of a strike can result in a large impact on a work force, but sometimes demands are just unrealistic. A threat of a strike also doesn’t appear to be much of a threat most of the time, more a passive inconvenience.

Additional Notes
I might write about these films later if I can muster the apathetic bile I felt for Terminator. In short, if you want to see both, but can only afford to see one through limitations of funds or time, see Star Trek, even if you hate Star Trek.

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