Kieran Hunter looks at the public reaction to June’s 48-hour London Underground strike
‘England fans hit strikers for six’ declared a headline in The Sun referring to the fact that the inconvenience attendees suffered getting to Wembley due to the tube strike did little to impact upon attendance, or dampen enthusiasm about, England’s 6-0 victory over Andorra. Revelling in this, The Sun published pictures of England fans holding up signs declaring that Bob Crow, RMT general secretary and organiser of the tube strikes, ‘is a ******’ (1).
The public response to the two-day strike across London’s tube network in mid-June has largely been a reaction to their immediate experiences, rather than one of solidarity with the striking workers. In many ways, as one commentator has observed, the reaction was not particularly different to the reaction to the heavy snow that brought the London transport network to a halt earlier in the year (2).
‘But what did you think I’d say?’ said Mark – a twenty-something from Walthamstow who works in advertising sales – justifying his frustration with the strike. ‘The [free evening] papers are obviously against the strikers, but I know there’s obviously another side to the story. But I just want to get home, it’s been a long day and this strike is going to waste about three hours of my life on buses because the Victoria line’s down.’
However this immediate reaction gave way to a more considered response: ‘I’ve been told I’m not getting a pay increase this year and my targets are impossible. It’s a bit hard to sympathise with them when we’re all going through this and they’re just making things worse for us.’
Mark’s view was shared by many commuters striding down the steps to the entrance of Liverpool Street tube station and being greeted by a jobsworth manager, two policemen and a sign outlining the major delays and cancellations of the tube network. This was compounded by the fact that the demands of the RMT union were far from clearly understood. Whilst fundamentally about trying to safeguard what the RMT estimates to be as many as 4,000 jobs, demands also included the restatement of two Victoria line workers and a 5% pay increase. As Glenroy Watson, RMT branch chair, told the Right to Work conference, ‘Remember it is not about a single issue, it’s about multiple issues here… please don’t listen to right-wing rags like the [Evening] Standard or… certain unions.’ (3)
Whilst it’s right that PR spin shouldn’t have been the key concern of Crow and the RMT, this lack of clarity about what the strikes were about did little to earn the sympathies of commuters. One reduced it to a ‘personality clash between Boris and Bob, where we’re the ones who suffer’. And, certainly, when given the opportunity to discuss the strikes in the media, Crow would more often than not use it to demand a meeting with London Mayor Boris Johnson, rather than try to gain public understanding.
At the RMT demonstration outside the Liverpool Street, the lack of public support was often blamed upon the media’s biased reporting of events. The striking tube workers were extremely apologetic that such action was necessary and went into great detail justifying it. As one woman, who had been an RMT member for several decades, said: ‘I know the inconvenience this causes. One of the reasons I take such pride in my job is that I know we provide an important service to Londoners. But the union has decided strike action is necessary and so strike action is taken.’
But, given the recent successes at Visteon, Lindsey and Waterford, why don’t more people draw inspiration from the militancy of the RMT and go on strike too? ‘They should. Hopefully this might, in a small way, encourage others to follow.’
‘We’re not all lucky enough to be RMT members’, explained Charlotte – a 29-year old research analyst – semi-sarcastically as she tried to plan an alternative route to meet her friends: ‘My boss told me that this year the pay rise I was promised 6 months into my job was no longer going to happen. He even consoled me by saying that deflation might mean my existing salary would go further! And what can I do? Not a good time to tell him to F- off, you know?’
This, however, is precisely what Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, says he would do on behalf of his members if anyone asked them to work for free, referring to the recent proposals made to staff by BA CEO Willie Walsh, since taken up by 7,000 employees (4). Crow’s militancy and uncompromising approach to getting the best deal for his members is widely seen to explain why the RMT is bucking the long-term decline in union membership: RMT membership has risen from 50,000 to over 80,000 in the seven years since Crow has been general secretary. (5)
Crow, however, is often described as a ‘prehistoric relic’ still clinging to an era of class struggles, where Communism could still be seen as a viable alternative. He is not ashamed to call himself a Communist, claiming in a recent Guardian interview, ‘If I were a worker and my trade union leader was a communist and he was getting me good pay rises, [I’d say] bring on more communists.’ (6)
‘It’s all well and good for them,’ says Robert, a 23-year old project manager at a B2B publication, ‘but they’ve got to get real. The bankers have squandered all the money and the government’s continually fucking up the economy. There’s just no money out there.’ Attempting to reclaim the moral high-ground from the arguments used by the strikers, Robert’s arguments are dressed in altruistic language: ‘If they get pay-rises, someone else is going to suffer. Less welfare or something. It’s just greedy really, I mean they’re hardly going to starve if they don’t get this [5% pay rise] are they?’
This commonplace attack of Bob Crow’s demands is epitomised by Stephen Pollard in The Times: ‘He [Crow] lives in a different world, one where employers sit on piles of cash, keeping it from workers through sheer bloody mindedness.’(7)
The extent to which this attitude is shared by the public is striking. In a recent poll two-thirds of Britain’s workers claimed they would accept a pay cut in order to keep working during the recession (8). Those demanding more for themselves and their families are as often characterised as ‘greedy fat bastards’ – akin to the bankers who are often blamed for the recession in the first place – as they are heroic workers struggling for a better life. This, worryingly, means proposals such as the ability to sue trade unions for the damage they cause during a strike, or further restricting unions’ ability to strike are being given a serious hearing. (9)
The broadly negative, or at best apathetic, public reaction to the RMT tube strikes – and more broadly to other recent workplace struggles in the UK – is of course hugely frustrating to those of us who refuse to accept the ‘reality’ that no alternative to capitalism is possible. But this is the situation we face.
Whilst modest in terms of our ambitions, we must understand and tackle this situation on its own terms: Challenging the culture of austerity where people are prepared to make do with less and those demanding more are seen as pathologically greedy. Inspiring people with stories of movements, such as those at Visteon and Waterford, where workers overcame their sense of fatalism, and fear of the consequences, to work together and take matters into their own hands. And refusing to buy into the rhetoric from corporate executives and the state that there is a ‘limited pot of money’, therefore collaborating in managerial discussions about how best to make cuts and ‘share the pain’.
Taking a lead from Bob Crow and meeting such management requests to blur their responsibilities with those of their employees with a healthy ‘Fuck off’ is a good place to start.
(1) Rhodri Phillips. England Fans hit strikers for six. The Sun. Thursday 11 June 2009 http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/2475809/England-fans-hit-strikers-for-six.html
(2) Tim Black. Committing the sin of demanding more. Spiked. Thursday 11 June 2009 http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/7002/
(3) Glenroy Watson. Speech at the Right to Work Conference. Saturday 14 June 2009 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4_UspkDhTs
(4) BA says over 7,000 staff volunteer for pay cuts. Daily Telegraph. Thursday 25 June 2009 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/transport/5638254/BA-says-almost-7000-staff-volunteer-for-pay-cuts.html
(5) Simon Hattenstone. Bob Crow interview: ‘If anybody says it’s nice to be hated, they’re lying’. The Guardian. Saturday 20 June 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/jun/09/bob-crow-profile
(6) As above.
(7) Stephen Pollard. Arthur Scargill without brains or charm. The Times. Wednesday June 10 2009 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6465966.ece
(8) Myra Butterworth. Two thirds of workers would take pay cut in the recession. Daily Telegraph. Sunday 31 May 2009 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financetopics/recession/5416606/Two-thirds-of-workers-would-take-pay-cut-in-recession.html