Today I took part in my first ever strike action as a member of a union. I was part of a somewhat ‘pink and fluffy’ picket at my place of work this morning before heading into the city centre to join maybe 15,000 people marching for pensions justice. I’ve had a few discussions with friends about whether striking is a good thing. There’s something about the pensions issue in particular which makes it seem more of a self-interested protest in comparison with other objections to funding cuts, slashing services or a general lack of consultation. While I don’t think the current pensions system is unaffordable, and the idea of working longer for less pension seems unfair, I actually don’t feel personally that motivated to strike about my future income.
But I was determined to join the strike today. One major reason is that I have joined the union at my place of work – a decision I didn’t make lightly. I think trade unions generally offer an important support and voice to members but I had imagined that university lecturers are less oppressed than most and have rather more practice at getting their voices heard. In actual fact, the union is one of the few ways that ordinary staff do get represented in key decisions at my place of work, and I value the hard work they do. Having joined the union I feel I have signed up for any strike action that is democratically agreed, even if I might not choose to vote for it myself. While there may come a case where my own personal objections cause me to stand strongly against union policy, today was not one of these. My own relative youth and lack of insight into pensions implications was not enough reason to cross a picket line. I know for some people, joining a union is like getting insurance. For me, it’s about solidarity.
My other major reason for joining the strike today was the opportunity to stand up and disagree with government plans for public services. On a wider level I have so many objections to the cuts and decisions being made which favour banks and big business over hard-working individuals and quality health and education for all. Today’s choice felt rather stark: if the unions and striking public sector workers are on one side, and the government and senior management who oppose striking are on the other side, I know where I want to be. If I had any faith in the government I guess my decision might be more difficult.
Our picket lines were probably some of the friendliest in the country. In contrast to previous occasions we were smiling and waving at people crossing the picket line. We gave out cookies and a cute child gave out some leaflets to people who found it hard to resist such an offer. I gave out a few leaflets myself, but with a cheery “Can I give you a leaflet of reasons why we’re striking? Thank you,” rather than anything more challenging. In our concern to keep to the regulations and avoid upsetting anyone we maybe toned down the protest too far, but perhaps we will attract a few new members and keep management guessing about just what we might do next.
The march in Birmingham City Centre looked like being cancelled earlier in the week when reports surfaced that the council were demanding £10,000. I’m not sure quite how the negotiations worked out: there didn’t seem to be that many stewards but it was enough and appeared to go very smoothly. It helped that we were a good natured bunch of teachers, health workers and others who, whistles, trumpets and drums aside, were clearly wanting to protest peacefully. We got a fair bit of support from onlookers and some vehicles beeping their horns (which I have taken to be positive throughout the day although some of the vehicles in town may have been exasperated at the delays we caused). My own group decided not to stay for the rally at the NIA but adjourned to the pub instead, striking a balance of our own.
As I arrived home I was surprised and strangely disappointed to find that our bin bag had been collected as usual. While refuse collection staff may be members of at least two of the unions striking today, the individual choice to strike or not is perhaps harder when the impact of the loss of a day’s pay is likely to make more of a difference. As a lecturer I may pontificate over whether it is more correct to describe someone as ‘refuse collection staff’, some other fancy term or a bin man (or woman?), but I do so as someone paid to pontificate rather than paid to collect rubbish (no comments alluding to essay quality here). I may value the education I have and justify my higher salary this way, arguing that they wouldn’t be able to do my job. But weary and stiff after half a day out in the cold today, I wonder if I could do their job either. I know that some staff in low paid jobs do not earn a living wage, and I have protested before in solidarity with them. £17,000 a year may be above the minimum wage, but £3000 a year as a pension doesn’t sound gold-plated by any stretch. While I know I could do a lot more to work for justice, I am proud to have been part of the same protest as these guys from Salford today. Whether they are proud to have been in the same protest as me is another question.