Saturday, 21 April 2012

Bob Crow - and back to the 1970s

The generally-excellent BBC2 documentary, "The 70s", may prompt more than a reassessment of the decade that has been seen as less pivotal in British development than either of the two that sandwich it.  However, it is a salutary reminder of the continued power of the paranoid petty-bourgeois mindset that the closest parallels to contemporary industrial and economic narratives are those of the right-wing fantasists of the Freedom Association and the Adam Smith Institute.

There are two industrial disputes attracting the headlines, at least in London.  The first is a UK-wide one and would arguably have much more disruptive effects than the second.  This is a dispute between tanker drivers and their employers.  A reasonable assumption would be that the people who deliver fuel to petrol stations and other customers would be employed by the companies that supply that fuel.  In the current world, this would imply obligations by the suppliers to the people who ensure that they can earn money from their products, so of course they have outsourced the provision of transport services - thus enabling themselves to save money and to avoid any responsibility for any breakdown in either industrial relations or the supply of fuel.

Not surprisingly, in a competitive environment, conditions for those working in the industry are subject to constant pressure - and it appears that this has gone too far for them.  Despite the media's efforts to portray them as holding the country to ransom, there is a dignity in seeking minimum standards on conditions of service, pay and pensions - all the things that make for a decent quality of life and the very things that those who are fastest to criticise them possess with overbearing smugness.

In the scheme of things, their union, Unite, has been a model of conciliation - seeking not to strike but to force their intermediary employers to recognise that their obligations run to their employees as well as to their paymasters, and that their success depends upon a skilled and motivated workforce.  Hardly a revolution, although you'd be hard-pushed to find this analysis from any of the headbangers whose "opinions" are paraded with the authority of holy writ.

The second dispute is, unsurprisingly, involving the RMT.  I do not hold a personal brief for Bob Crow, as his style is aggressive, confrontational, anti-European and within a tradition of ultra-leftism that denies liberty and the rights of the individual in favour of a conformist solidarity.  However, from all the evidence (growing membership, unopposed re-election), Mr Crow is doing something right in the eyes of his members.  This is the free market at work in trade unionism, comrades, and therefore the message to the rightist dribblers has to be "like it or lump it".

Next week, some of his members working for Tube Lines have called a strike.  Now, it came as a surprise to me that Tube Lines was still in existence.  For inveterate observers of Government cock-ups, the PPP fiasco foisted on the London Underground by Gordon Brown, and resisted by Ken Livingstone, has to rank up there with the best of them.  When hard logic and the credit crunch bit, there was no choice but to derail the gravy train and bring the entire operation of the Tube back under the control of the monolithic, inefficient state in order to cut costs and keep the system running.  So far, so good.

Three years on, and staff working for the other PPP monstrosity, Metronet, have been brought back fully within the fold.  This means that they get common treatment on pensions and other perks as London Underground employees.  Staff at Tube Lines, however, don't.  Not knowing the relativities and terms and conditions, I cannot and should not comment on whether this would be an improvement or dilution to their lives, but they have expressed a desire to return to the fold and have been through the appropriate negotiating and legal hoops to hold a strike ballot, in which 44% of affected staff voted in favour, 11% didn't, and the others were too apathetic or indifferent to bother.

In a contested British election, this would have resulted in an 80-20% split - a huge mandate.  If Thatcher, Blair or Cameron could claim such an endorsement from those who had turned out to vote their pathetic whinings might be worthy of a little more attention and respect.  So naturally, the pseudo-democrats of the right-wing press turn their myopic bile towards a "minority" vote.  As I've said before, if you don't bother to exercise your rights then you have much less claim to feel hard-done-by if you don't like the results.  This is clearly shaky ground, so we go on to the next stage.

In this, the trade unions are accused of "holding the capital to ransom", occasionally with the subclause of "over a local issue".  This is the kind of addle-pated crap that the "Evening Standard" comes out with any time the reality of the world threatens to impinge on its Boris-worshipping, conspicuously-consuming, gravity-defying coverage of London's middle classes.  Of course union members have a right to strike, and they have most leverage where their activities impinge upon the ability of their employer to do business.  This is not a difficult proposition.  It's a basic freedom - labour is one of the factors of production, and if labour does not wish to treat with employers purely on employers' terms it can be withdrawn.

I always enjoy the "Private Eye" parody "From The Message Boards" as it attempts to send up the inanities and illiteracy that infest the comments section of the news websites - but you can't make it up where it comes to the sheer vitriol and ignorant hatred that the RMT garners.  It obeys the laws, introduced by Tories to cut down on strike action, and then secures a majority.  So the half-wits call for the strikers to be sacked, outlawed and for the leadership to go to North Korea.  A tolerant society at its best, no doubt.

The delusion that unions are holding the country to ransom is a conveninent fiction, given the low level of membership and the general economic hardship.  However, it fuels this retro-1970s obsession with the Communist threat (sadly deceased) and stops too much questioning of why there remains obscene payment to bankers and their acolytes despite their activites having plunged the country back into levels of national debt not seen since the 1950s.  It's a convenient fiction drawn from people whose socio-political mindset remains set in the myths of the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, and who use the spectre of people using their own power as a threat to rising house prices and the preservation of an illusory bourgeois solidarity.

So, rather than address two disputes whose roots are in the bungling, idiotic out-sourcing of what should be core activities of any business, the unions and their members are vilified.  It takes two to make an argument, but the Tories and their cheerleaders cannot see that their actions, and those of the New Labour project, have created a climate where the forelock-tugging and gratitude expected is no longer a given - as people see their security, rights and futures sacrificed to stop any real attention being given to the iniquities of a system that promotes smugness and failure.

Cameron has been quick to attempt to make political hay with Mister Ed and the Labour Party's links to Unite - sadly he can't with the RMT who were kicked out for supporting left-wing candidates against Labour in Scotland.  Miliband should be fighting back - the disputes are industrial in nature, and, unlike the odious John Griffin of Addison Lee, trade union donations are overt, and do not result in secret meetings with Ministers to press their case for commercial advantage and to, allegedly, avoid charges for breaking the law.  Cameron and Hammond are looking very sleazy - at some point I will blog on whether Cameron is, in fact, a moral and spiritual reincarnation of Harold Wilson.

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