Unions fight back: But at what cost?

Most of us are familiar with the description as well as the firsthand frustration of a strike action, if not then; you have lived a lucky and somewhat sheltered life. Basically, workers form a body, which consists of others who are equally dissatisfied in an effort to promote collective action against what they deem as ‘unfair’ conditions. The tube drivers are trying to prevent their working hours from increasing. If the night train experiment is implemented, it means that train drivers will have to work Friday and Saturday nights. It will certainly have a comfortability factor for those either going to or going from work at ungodly hours. I could definitely think of a few grateful club goers, bar and hospitality staff and cleaners that would appreciate the shorter journey.

London's underground comes to a standstill

London’s underground comes to a standstill

Perhaps the machinations of our mainstream media are to intentionally taint the perception regarding trade unions on behalf of the government. It is a possibility. Some would argue quite simply that, strikes are not as relevant in our modern society. Those in favor would propose that trade unions are very important to a democratic structure as a means of resistance and representation. Trade unions in our country are widely considered necessary and are clothed with the ‘responsible’ label. They encourage social cohesion and togetherness within their ranks when on a mission to demand change and refuse negotiations.

Power to the people?

Power to the people?

Those who actively engage and participate in elections within unions and strike ballots are often misrepresented as minority issue groups who claim to represent the majority.The head of Unite; the largest union in Britain, Len McCluskey, is not perceived to be a legitimate leader. Owing to the fact that over 90 per cent of the membership did not vote for him yet he became leader. Some have suggested therefore that, this highlights quite clearly that the voice of the trade unions is not that of a united majority. It is also suggested that his rhetoric is at times militant and willfully infuriating.

The already strenuous becomes tumultuous as unions announce strikes that jeopardize our daily routine; this is what they want undoubtedly. They raise disruption and engineer public grievances all in an effort to impede government plans. People hasten to highlight this notion that the unions abuse the obsolete laws pertaining to organised union strikes. There is an obtuse notion that outlines the adverse effect of unions. It is alleged that these strikes, particularly the current tube strikes, empower the ‘militant minority’ and effectively cause a nuisance for the moderate factions.

Strong words have been flying around on radio and television. Some feel that the reason for this current tube strike is based on a devastating assumption that complicated and toxic ideological forces blur initial intentions. The issue with such strikes is that everyone suffers, while the unions throw their weight around. So ultimately the question most put forwards is the lucid matter of permission. Should we continue to stand idly by and accommodate the strikes or perhaps the rules need tailoring. The government in this case is not trying to cut vital services, the train drivers have refused to accept the generous offers on the table. The unions have stirred the drivers to decidedly violate the contract they signed. The law says that the union must have a ballot, which is organised appropriately and legally. It seems as though the tube workers are simply refusing to do a little ‘overtime’ despite their generous pay and holiday package. Now, we all have responsibilities and commitments once we leave the workplace right? Therefore the argument employed by the unions on this occasion is ill-equipped unfortunately because we all need a ‘work life balance’ especially the diligent workers in our National Health Service (NHS). Does that mean we should all go on strike? It appears that our current rules on strikes allow immunity for the organizers both unions and employees: as long as the industrial action is properly organised and within the legal bounds then they can avoid a ‘lock out’.

Strikes and Picket lines continue to be an important part of human democracy.

Strikes and Picket lines continue to be an important part of human democracy.

In such a time as this we should ask: what would the great Karl Marx do? You see he believed in the power of strikes, he gave merit to its unification purpose as a manifestation against the struggle of exploitation. More poignantly Marx did not give esteem to the outcome of strikes but to the nature of strikes, because essentially to him every strike action was a triumph both principally and politically. Things have changed a lot since that era, nowadays unions seemingly represent a minor faction of the workforce. The membership is dwindling and many are not as active. Some still question why the state gives ‘legal exemptions’ to trade unions, which by most accounts represent a minor faction of the workforce. Most of us have suffered both directly and indirectly from their actions particularly, when they bring public transport to a standstill. We the public feel powerless and frustrated and in the spirit of fairness, perhaps this is how they are made to feel also. The public sector is then put under pressure and it is just an uncomfortable cycle.

The current London tube strikes have forced commuters to cram themselves onto buses; cycle or walk in order to get to work, but there are positives that people can take out of this tube strike. It shows that the unions and the people still hold some power over central authorities. Regardless of the barrage of criticism which is being directed at London Tube workers by sizable parts of the media, the fact that London tube workers are standing up to something that they never, in the first place signed up for indicates that there is still room for workers to join together in a world of big business, zero hour contracts and diminishing workers rights. However, this begs the question; why aren’t other Unions following the Nation Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and doing everything in their power to improve the lives of their beneficiaries?

RMT strikers

RMT strikers

The reason that the tube workers strike is such a large problem is because of how important they are to London . Workers throughout the private and public sectors rely heavily on London tube train drivers to get them to work every morning and take them back home every evening, so in negotiating terms, they have an extensive amount of power. According to aslef.org.uk, London tube train drivers are paid a yearly wage of £48,133,00 which is considerably higher than the average wage of a London worker which is £34,945,00. Again, it is tough to understand the motives of the men and women who have decided to strike when they are very generously paid, although the strike action is not because of their wages. However, would it be so inconceivable to ask why other Unions, such as The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) don’t go to the negotiating table for their workers, workers who are certainly not paid even close to the amount that tube train drivers are, despite being, unquestionably, more important to our lives.

Nursing students in training

Nursing students in training

The common thought throughout Britain when the subject of nurses is brought up is how underpaid they are for the commendable job that they do and it is clear to see why. The starting wage for a nurse working in the United Kingdom is between £14,294,00 and 15,013.00 and although the typical wage for a nurse living in London is higher at £25,521,00 it is still below the London average. Although RCN has recently warned that “work intensification and job related stress, made worse by reduced staffing levels are becoming common features of the NHS” the future of nurses pay packets still appear increasingly bleak.

Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt MP

Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt MP

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has already informed nurses that any “recommended pay rises are unaffordable” but surely it would be foolhardy to take the work that nurses do for granted, however, that is what our current conservative government seem intent on doing. According to NHS Confederation, in 2014 the NHS was employing a total of 377,191 qualified nursing staff whilst there was a total of 15.462m total hospital admissions in the same year. That means that each nurse was responsible for an average of 24 people per day on every day of the year.

Whilst workers strikes are without doubt an annoyance to the people that rely on them they are essential in a democratic society. Love them or hate them, unions are still the number one way in which workers are able to organize strikes and until they become illegal, they are here to stay.

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