Going on strike

A 1971 strike in Knoxville, Tennessee
Industrial action is pointless, wasteful and destructive – and essential for a healthy society

Why do people still go on strike? Haven’t we got past all that? Didn’t we leave the pointless conflict of boss and worker back in the eighties? Obviously not. Cabin crew at British Airways are flexing their muscles (although their strike is off for the time being). Railway workers are staging one-day strikes. Civil servants are at it too. New Yorkers are into it too. We don’t seem to be able to transcend the wasteful non-communication of labour vs capital. Sooner or later (at least where unions still exist) push comes to shove and labour is withdrawn. Strikes do permanent damage to reputations, jobs and the bottom line and they hardly ever produce the effect desired by workers. Everyone suffers. So why do we keep doing it?

A strike (a dispute, a standoff, a work-to-rule… Any kind of labour-side argy-bargy) is a response to some kind of imbalance… an asymmetry. These asymmetries used to have simpler names: exploitation, inequity. They were about unequal access to resources – shitty pay, diabolical conditions, long hours. That’s why trade unions came into being. These days the asymmetries are subtler. Circumstances have changed and it’s usually about unequal access to information, poorly distributed knowledge or failed communication.

Capitalism is imperfect. Markets are powerful tools for producing and distributing value but they do it mechanically and arbitrarily. Capitalism, of course, actually depends on these asymmetries. Between the value of an asset to you and its value to me. Between businesses with pricing power and those who follow. Between those who make efficient use of capital and those who waste it. Without asymmetries opportunities never arise. Capitalism conducted without unequal access to one kind of resource or another is unimaginable.

In a capitalist system – let’s get this straight – value can only be created where there is a useful asymmetry to exploit. So, while these critical asymmetries produce economic value, labour must retain the last resort power to challenge an injustice, to rectify an inequity, to face down capital. Strikes may be crude and often counterproductive but any reading of the contemporary economy must acknowledge that they’re a necessary and proportionate corrective to out-of-whack capital. Strikes are an awkward holdover from the first half of the industrial revolution but, it turns out, they retain their value. Strikes are aggressive and negative and messy but they’re also direct, appropriate and authentic: we’re pissed off and we’re not going to take it any more…

The pic is from an excellent flickr set about Knoxville, Tennessee in 1971 by willie_901.