With a new wave of strikes fast approaching, workers and union officials have to decide on whose side they really are.
In two weeks time the UK will see the biggest coordinated day of strike action in decades; as many as 26 different unions representing everyone from chiropodists to teachers to tax inspectors may be out on strike in reaction to the government's plans to slash public sector pensions. Even the headteachers union (the NAHT) will be out, for the first time in its 114 year history.
But one union who won't be supporting the strikes are Voice. You may not have heard of Voice before, I haven't yet spoken to anyone who had heard of them before this week, but they represent around 30,000 teachers across the UK (for comparison the NUT represent around 375,000 members). One reason you might not have heard of them is Voice don't take industrial action. Ever. It's their 'cardinal principle'. In fact, it's their reason for existing:
Voice’s position is quite clear ... members don’t go on strike. It’s why we’re here.
Now, of course, no one really wants to go on strike. Who wants to stand around outside on a picket line from the early hours of the morning at the end of November, potentially getting up much earlier than usual to set up before your colleagues arrive, in whatever weather, whether rain, or wind or snow, and watch people like Voice (scabs) saunter past into the warmth? And to do all that for the loss of a day's pay and pension contribution. It's not an appealing prospect. And it does cause disruption, often to people who didn't really cause the problem, your clients, customers, students or the public. But it's that very disruption that produces an effect. Because a strike also disrupts management and employers; it costs them money and time. And that gives it power, power to force concessions you wouldn't otherwise be able to achieve.
Voice's General Secretary Philip Parkin seems, however, to have risen to direct a national trade union without ever having realised this. In a blog post yesterday, responding to criticism they had received online, he stated
One contributor to our blog site wrote that: “the nature of a strike is to cause disruption” – and here was me thinking that it was to draw attention to a cause.
But, as Phil Dickens responded on Libcom, a strike isn't about drawing attention to a cause:
If you want to draw attention to a cause, you need a protest or a stunt. Colourful banners and inventive chanting will make people look twice and give you the opportunity to say "here, look at this..." You can do that easily enough without having to lose a day's pay or to form picket lines outside your workplace on a cold November morning. But, as the demonstration on March 26 exemplified, that is pretty much all you will achieve. On that day, half a million people voiced their anger on the streets and drew attention to their cause in the most spectacular fashion. At the end, the government still said "We're not going to change the basic economic strategy."
Instead of protest, as a way to force concessions from the state and the bosses, anarchists argue for direct action. The reason for this is quite simple - peaceful protest doesn't work.
Voice have been quite upset, it seems, by the abuse they've received (from Philip Parkin's blog post again):
So why do some of them think it’s perfectly acceptable to abuse Voice and its members on Facebook and Twitter? Why do they think that it adds to the quality of the debate or brings a resolution closer by calling Voice members “scabs” – or worse – because they won’t be going on strike?
We respect the right of others to strike and they should respect the right of our members not to. Some refuse to do that but respect doesn’t mean – as some seem to think – expecting everyone to agree with your views and that all other views are wrong. Respect means having regard and consideration for others and their views.
Why don't we respect them? Because this isn't just some academic debate. People's future livelihoods are being destroyed and Voice want us to limit ourselves in the action we use in defence. Moreover, for all their claims that they respect the right of others to strike they are at pains to present themselves as the more responsible and conscientious party
We believe that those involved in education and childcare should make the best interests of children and students their first priority. Voice is respected for resolving problems by negotiation, not conflict. We do not undertake industrial action because we recognise its negativity and the damage caused to the interests of those for whom our members are responsible.
Scab isn't just a random insult, it's not just a form of low abuse. It's a term with a very clear meaning and Voice clearly fall under it. To scab is to undermine a strike, to cross a picket, to destroy the solidarity needed for effective action, to bolster the economic and moral position of the employer and to cover the work of those on strike.
Voice don't just encourage their members to cross pickets, and to make clear in advance to employers that they will be available for work—to clearly disassociate themselves from the rabble outside the gates—they tell their members—in a standard letter for members to use on the Voice website—to volunteer for extra duties.
I understand that I can be directed to undertake some extra duties if that direction is a reasonable one in all the circumstances.
The lesson, really, is quite simple. If you don't want to be abused for being a scab, don't scab.
Originally published on Bright Green.