Union trouble

Royal Mail strike billboard by www.flickr.com/photos/elenatari/

What’s with the unions? Can’t they see that working people in a globalised economy need smart, strategic representation, not belligerence?

Strikes are uncool. Strikers are uncool. They’re aggressive, negative, out-of-date. Strikers are defensive, anti-change, stuck in the 1970s. Everyone knows that. Strikes only happen in the backward industries: the dirty, blue collar industries. They’re counter-productive, anti-social, self-destructive. Even the left don’t like strikes any more: they’re an inconvenient reminder of where we come from: they’re the dirty-fingernailed id to our lighter-than-air post-industrial ego.

Wired metropolitan information workers like you and me just can’t identify with the strikers and their combative, one-dimensional, 20th Century model of work and life. Even progressives secretly suspect that strikers are just a bit slow. Why don’t they just get with the programme? Re-skill, learn to promote themselves, stop whinging and escape from the miserable zero-sum game of wage discipline, downsizing and workplace reform? Come on guys. Get a blog!

Of course, the unions don’t help. They’ve shown no readiness to update the class warrior image: they’ve made nothing of their extraordinary resources: twelve million members, vast assets and a guaranteed income to die for. The unions could, by now, have morphed into a powerful modernising institution, defending not doomed jobs in doomed industries but the future welfare of their members and their families. Why aren’t unions helping to prepare working people for change?

Why aren’t they building capacity, training and enabling? If the unions had ‘brand values’ they’d be all about defence, resistance, retreat. But the unions are really the natural owners of aspiration, improvement, progress. Generations of short-sighted leaders have allowed the unions to be pushed into this negative, bottom-rung position where it’s hard for them even to deliver their basic functions: defending the exploited and representing the voiceless.

Unions, in the space of one generation, have gone from glorious emblem of solidarity, organisation and resistance to shoddy irrelevance. The communications union, authors of the current mess at the Royal Mail, could have been leading change in their industry: they could have been in the driving seat, taking proposals to management, pushing reform of the business as a means to improve the odds for their members.

But what they’re doing is what they’ve always done: it’s a kind of industrial era Tourette’s. They know that a strike can only damage their interests but they just can’t help it. They’ve allowed themselves to be so thoroughly painted into a corner by decades of intransigence and avoidance of change that this kind of beat-yourself-up behaviour really is their only option. It’s heartbreaking and disappointing and it serves working people very poorly indeed.

(Picture by yousoundhollow)

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