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This is neoliberal Britain. What option is there other than striking?

Iain MacWhirter’s arguments against industrial action by public sector workers appears to leave them with no option but to be preyed on by the CBI. Surely people must have a right to protect themselves? Surely we all have a responsibility to explain what people should do when we’re telling them what not to do?

Iain MacWhirter is, in my opinion, one of the best commentators on Scottish politics we have had during the devolution years. He has grasped the importance of major issues such as the significance of house prices, the deregulated banking madness, Labour’s loss of ‘liberalism’ and many others earlier and more fundamentally than most of his contemporaries. He also has a surer feel for the real dynamics of political parties than most. But he seems to have one major blindspot, and it is telling for all concerned. For some reason he simply can’t bring himself to agree with organised labour.

This was brought to the fore once again yesterday in a column in the Sunday Herald. It is at least interesting that over the last year or two he has moderated his comments on public sector workers and now accepts that in fact they aren’t really looking forward to ‘gold plated pensions’ but a modest-but-secure retirement. There are just two massive gaps in his analysis which have much to tell us.

But first, a quick contextual note for those who haven’t been ‘freelance’. Freelancing is a tiring existence, even for people who are very successful at it. It can offer good financial rewards but it offers no security whatsoever. There is no sick pay for a freelance writer – injury or illness make for a grim outlook. There is no pension scheme, no sense of anyone helping you to prepare for the future. It isn’t an easy life, and in my experience a lot of people who make a living in this way seem to normalise insecurity as a state of existence. The major problem about this is that for most, insecurity is not matched with the capacity to earn a very decent income; it is matched by a struggle today as well as the prospect of a struggle in the future.

But even given this context, there are two missing pieces in the arguments which must be answered if the ‘trade unions must join the real world’ mantra is to be given credence. The first is simply an inversion of causality which distorts the whole picture. It is repeatedly suggested that public sector workers are unionised because the public sector is a better employer. The possibility that the public sector is a better employer because the workers are unionised seems to be excluded. In setting the position of ‘most workers’ against the public sector it is at least as sensible to conclude that we need the private sector be be unionised in exactly the same way as the public sector to improve the lives of all. Instead, the public sector is taken to be a cosseted exception to ‘reality’.

Well, my experiences of some of the battles and campaigns to secure decent terms and conditions for public sector workers does not incline me to believe anyone was cosseted. Rather, it seems to me that public sector workers had to fight for what they got and then fight again to protect it. The only major differences I can see are (a) there is more democratic accountability in the public sector, (b) the public sector has a much bigger and less fragmented workforce and (c) the public sector really matters in a day-to-day way that the private sector doesn’t. On this last point, how long could you go if Poundland or your local paintball purveyors were to close? Years, you reply? Certainly longer than without bins being emptied and doctors being available. So accepting that there are three important advantages that organisers in the public sector have over organisers in much of the private sector, still removing worker representation from the equation seems unwise. If the public sector is better, why is it better? And if worker organisation is part of that, why is that the failure? Why should workers not organise and accept declining standards by way of equalisation? Is the converse not a more persuasive argument? Help the private sector unionise.

Because that is the other massive, fundamental, fatally-flawed part of the argument. If workers are to give up the only practices that seem to offer them any protection in what MacWhirter regularly and rightly identifies as an economic system not fit for humans, what is the alternative? This is the real problem. Yesterday’s column deploys many, many paragraphs to explaining why workers shouldn’t exert their rights but offers only a sentence and a half on what they should do instead:

“Perhaps the trades unions need to die to be reborn in some new form, perhaps drawing on the experience of the Occupy Movement, and the Arab Spring. Some believe social media could be used to develop a new form of workplace organisation…”

“Some new form”? What can that possibly mean? The Occupy Movement? Wonderful, admirable, but defined by its lack of concrete success. ‘Arab Srping’? What is that not meant to be a model for these days? Justice-by-facebook? Even he doesn’t seem to take that seriously. The big problem is that MacWhirter calls for workers to give up their only demonstrably effective means of protecting themselves in the free market and in its place he proposes nothing.

Make no mistake – I am not a ‘strike obsessor’. I have read too much loose analysis which suggests the only thing standing between Britain and a socialist utopia is one good general strike. That’s nonsense, an oversimplification of significant proportions. I am not even sure right now what a general strike would achieve (although I would support one, simply as a means of dispelling the idea that we’re all going to take things sitting down). But in contemporary Britain what can it achieve? Swapping the Tories for Labour might mean less bad economic and social policy, but Milliband has offered nothing to suggest he would rebalance the economy in favour of workers and so it is hard to see how anything would improve.

That’s the problem the MacWhirter case faces. Unions are by no means perfect – I would be critical of many aspects – but they are easily the only option we have. In his column it sounds like he sees unions on one side and ‘hard-working private sector employees’ on the other. That’s just the wrong way to see it. On the one hand is an army of phenomenally well funded, connected and powerful people lobbying for ever-more deregulation of employment laws. On the other, what is there? Kids camping in George Square? Facebook status updates? A truly representative Labour Party? No, there isn’t. There are only trade unions. If they don’t fight with all their might in anyway they can, the CBI will unilaterally redefine what it means to be a worker. And not in a good way.

I don’t think confrontational industrial action is ideal. Then again, nor do any of the union organisers I know. Industrial action takes money out of the pockets of people who can’t afford it. But it is their only tool – they have no lobbyists and no democratic option. They have, at last resort, the ability to withdraw their labour. I wish there was another way. I wish the feral right-wing lobby would show the kind of restrain MacWhirter expects the trade unions to show. I wish there was a political party at  a UK level willing to make a serious challenge to neoliberal doctrine. But then, I wish a lot of things that aren’t so.

Workers are facing the most viscous assault on their rights and their prosperity in memory, not in theory, in practice. In their families, in their homes, in their lives. A theoretical debate about the overall structure of political decision-making is for people who can afford such things. The expectation that somehow a low-paid public sector cleaner who has had three years of pay cuts should think only of theoretical solidarity with every other employee in Britain is unreasonable. Removing the only remaining right to self defence of workers – even if that means of self defence is flawed – without offering a realistic alternative is economic brutality.

This isn’t radical. This isn’t extreme. For people who have modest means and who have faced swinging cuts to their quality of life to turn to their only remaining recourse of withdrawing their labour is accepted in most parts of the civilised world. Asking them voluntarily to give this up with no promise of hope seems to me some sort of awful democratic violence against them. As workers we are powerless enough. To ask us to forego our only remaining power on the basis of wooly talk of social cohesion that has been torn apart not by us but by the other side is not fair. Not fair at all.

Robin McAlpine