The prospect of industrial action by the UK border staff who are members of the PCS to coincide with the Olympics has been greeted with predictable abuse from the media and government, with threats of sackings (by Jeremy Hunt, someone who should have been sacked a long time ago, ironically) and to tighten the anti-union laws to make future action still harder. So far, so predictable. Any union taking action at any time has to deal with huge amounts of vitriol, even from the leader of the Labour Party. Even journalists violently hostile to the games have been savaging the PCS leadership (although apart from the predictable union-bashing the afore-linked piece is an extremely good one)
There haven’t been many people willing to publicly defend the PCS. After all, they are threatening the Olympics. And we can’t have that, can we. The corporate-dominated festival of reaction whose only even vaguely diverting features are a couple of semi-interesting bike races and a kids football tournament that pales into insignificance compared to the Euros. Even by its own standards it just isn’t that big a deal I’m afraid.
London faces lockdown and a virtual state of emergency for the duration of the jamboree. So much for ‘the people’s Olympics’…..
But the establishment is desperate for it to be a success, as vast sums of money have already been squandered on the games (I can’t wait to see the assessments of the ‘legacy’ in a years to come, I’m going to stick my neck out and say they won’t be particularly favourable) but more importantly right now they are have a crucial political function to perform. The coalition is desperate to present Britain in a positive light. People might then forget (at least temporarily) the terrible economic situation and the vile nature of the cuts those least well off are having to endure to the services that they rely on. There has been much of an ‘Olympics bounce’ and a ‘feelgood factor’. (In fact the recent fall in unemployment can be partly attributed to the extra staff being taken on for the period immediately before, during and after the games.) When a government is in trouble, they frequently reach for the flags and give them a good waving. The Olympics is nationalism on steroids and yours truly isn’t enjoying it one bit.
So the PCS have voted to strike (a decision they clearly haven’t taken lightly) in the most unfavourable of circumstances. But they should be defended, and the hypocrisy and political motivations of their opponents exposed.
The same-old arguments have been wheeled out to criticise the move:
- “This isn’t the time for a strike”. It never is though, is it…… I can’t remember a Tory ever saying that any given moment was the right time to take industrial action. And when a government minister says it’s the wrong time, they usually mean it’s the wrong time for them. They don’t want to be embarrassed. Which is precisely why it’s a good idea. Strike action is meant to cause chaos. That’s the whole point. If this action goes ahead it could damage the running of the Olympics. But the PCS are striking over mass job cuts and privatization. Which is more important? Running around a track or people’s livelihoods? The stakes have been made high by the way that the Conservative government has behaved during this dispute. It is the Tories who have forced the PCS’s hand and provoked a response of this nature, and we should never forget that.
- “The union leadership hasn’t got a democratic mandate to do this”. Much has been made of the low turnout in the strike ballot, and admittedly it wasn’t great. But right now that’s par for the course in any election and on that basis that Boris Johnson, a man with previous when it comes to attacking the unions (he’s a bit of a maverick though isn’t he, so it’s all just a bit of fun I’m sure……) has no mandate to be London mayor. Most local councillors would have no mandate. This government wouldn’t have a mandate. Tim Montgomerie, the editor of Conservative Home was on twitter today telling us it was ‘different’ with strikes though, as the ‘public interest’ had to be factored in. And who decides what’s in the public interest? Tim Montgomerie of course! Surely the opposite is the case, and it’s in the public interest for the PCS to win this dispute and strike back against the politics of austerity? When a Tory says its ‘different’, it’s just a euphemism for ‘I disagree with this strike so I want it stopped’. It wouldn’t matter if 50% of the membership had voted for the action. They would just have raised the bar further or wheeled out another shitty argument.
It’s also been very interesting to contrast the response by the government to the PCS and G4S in recent days. The PCS are violently denounced as ‘wreckers’ and ‘unpatriotic’ for threatening action. G4S have already turned everything they touch to shit and yet the government (although the rest of the media has shown no such restraint) have been nothing like as abusive and threatening as they have been with the trade union. Funny that, because if the Tories are so concerned about the Olympics as a PR exercise, one would have assumed that they would be more furious with G4S. And yet they haven’t been. I can’t imagine why.
I’ll finish with a comment on PCS gen sec Mark Serwotka. He has been quietly impressive in the last few days (although I still think he’s wrong on his union’s non-affiliation to the Labour Party). He has stuck to his guns, made his arguments and patiently responded to the smears, vitriol and misrepresentations that have been thrown at the union. Everyone he is shown debating and answering gets very rattled and resorts to clichés and abuse very quickly, which shows how he is winning the argument. His debating skills are extremely impressive and he seems to understand that sometimes unions have to stand their ground and fight, and this is one of those times. I’ve never been an advocate of strike action for the sake of it as people’s lives, families and futures are involved but this government is behaving in a morally repugnant fashion, and right now fighting fire with fire seems to me the way to go.
If this action does go ahead, the PCS will have the full support of Mambo Towers. I’m sure that’ll prove to be the difference between victory and defeat.