I got the tube today, oh boy.
I didn’t particularly want to. But I did, and in doing so, I crossed a picket line.
Some readers on reading this will be somewhat envious and a little baffled. Envious, because I got a tube, on strike day. Baffled because ‘so what’? I doubt many of London’s commuters regarded striding past the bedraggled people at their local tube station wearing a slightly different hi-vis to normal as a moral quandry.
But my friends, I am part of the Labour tribe, and for us, walking past a worker in an armband marked ‘Picket’ is making yourself a direct heir to gutless cowards being driven into pits in metal reinforced buses. Even if you don’t agree with the strike, or don’t understand why it’s needed, or think that the whole thing is a gigantic error, you don’t cross picket lines.
To be fair to me, I didn’t want to be a scab. I tried not to, I really did.
First, I arranged to travel into work late. Then, I tried to get a train to work. But South-East Trains rose magnificently to the challenge the strike presented to their reputation as the worst transport company in the world. On a Strike day, they cancelled all their local train services. One can only admire, really.
Then I tried to get the bus. But the bus wasn’t coming for half an hour, having been replaced by a service that did not stop anywhere near me. It was pouring down, so when it did come it would be rammed, would possibly sail by, and I would be decidedly wet and extremely late, which is not a good career move. Sadly, the market for mordant, long-winded speech-writers has not yet reached the pre-crisis peak.
So I gave up, and got the tube, muttering ‘scab’ at myself all the way. I even got a seat. Distractedly muttering under your breath is a useful life skill for a London commuter.
Moistly recumbent, I wondered why I was thinking this way. Faced by large amounts of inconvenience, I’d chosen to add a dollop of annoyance. Why?
The strike was going ahead. If every tube was full to the brim, it would make not the slightest difference to its success. The whole purpose of the strike was to discommode, and by so doing, put pressure on management. I had been very effectively discommoded, and lo, all was well.
Further, why did I feel obliged to not use the services of a company undergoing strike action in the first place?
Let’s say Beer company X recognises a union, who go on strike. Beer company Y does not, and faces no strike ever. If I don’t buy the products of beer company X, but do buy the products of beer Y, I’m giving the non-union recognising company a massive competitive advantage. As it’s impossible to know whether a product is entirely, partially or not at all union-made, I’m basically scabbing every day.
Let’s not even talk about buying clothes made in Bangladesh or phones made in China.
The best argument is that you don’t cross a picket line simply because you were asked not to.
Someone who works for a company says that they have been mistreated, and is asking for you not to patronise that firm while they withdraw their labour. You are being asked to respect their sacrifice.
It’s about manners. Left wing manners, but manners all the same.
On the left, we call good manners ‘solidarity’ because manners sounds a bit bourgeois. Whatever you call it, it’s a good argument.
If a strike was a permanent withdrawal of Labour until the resolution of a dispute, I’d agree with it. Strikes used to be like that. In that scenario, working for that company, or patronising it, would help prevent the strike from ever succeeding.
Ye, neither strikes nor manners are what they were, and so the response to them changes.
Withdrawing labour for a day or two is not designed to bring a negotiating partner to their knees. Instead, the argument is that the cost of the dispute is greater than the cost of settling. Call a day of action, or two, and the implicit argument is ‘we can do this again and again’, and so you would be well advised to negotiate.
The strike then, no longer exists as a weapon that might destroy a company, but as a method of temporarily inconveniencing the company.
Nor is the sacrifice others are asked to respect as high. On Friday, Union members will be back at work, even though the dispute is unsettled. No-one in their right mind would boycott the tube on Friday, so why on earth do so today?
I think the changing nature of the strike changes the manner of the request. Instead of ‘We are in dispute with a company. Do not help it prosper while it refuses to settle with us on reasonable terms‘, the request becomes ‘We are in a dispute with a company. Do not help it prosper while we demonstrate this discontent today, but feel free to do so the rest of the time, whether or not the dispute is settled‘.
This second request is much less compelling.
Imagine you were a TfL contractor, a rather more important role than mere customer when it comes to scabbing.
Observe the strike, and you lose your contract for good, while the employees are back at work the next day. That’s bad manners. I don’t think it’d be fair to expect a contractor to endure that level of uneven sacrifice, so I wouldn’t have any problem with them crossing a picket line, strike or no.
As the nature of a strike changes, the nature of the obligations it puts on others also changes.
So what of my own tiny bit of strike breaking?
Since this strike is about discommoding TfL temporarily, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to find a middle way.
The RMT and TSSA are striking today and tomorrow, because (quite reasonably) this demonstrates the anger of their members without endangering their jobs.
So I shall boycott the Tube on Saturday and Sunday, because it demonstrates my sympathy without endangering my job.