There’s been some uproar on twitter in the last few days about a blog post by Lisa Ansell. The general tone of this has taken is that she is pro scab. I don’t think that she is, I think that she raises some important issues that whether we agree with them wholeheartedly or not they need to be considered.
The best way to outline those issues is to write a little about where I’m coming from. I’m 36, I remember the miners strike. I grew up in a place called Chasetown, a place that only exists because of mining. By the time of the 1984 strike mining was important but not the major source of employment, my own dad was a welder at a drive shaft manufacturer in Aldridge, the BRD. I remember lots of my friends dads worked there as well, in fact my girlfriends dad, two uncles and granddad worked there. I’m not from a mining family. We lived next door to a man called Jim, he was a miner and a scab. I used to spend time with them when I was young, this ended when the strike began and Jim kept going to work. He lost a lot of friends over that decision, miners and non miners alike. Scabs are bad, I’ve known it since I was 9 even if I didn’t understand it at the time.
I understand it now, and I feel more animosity to Jim and his ilk than I was capable of as a child. He’s a broken old man these days, paralysed down one side by a stroke and clinging to independence with a mobility scooter but I can’t get past the part he played in the destruction of the industry of the West Midlands and the country as a whole. The defeat that was the miners strike had implications way beyond the mines. The de-industrialisation of Britain would have gone down very differently if the miners had won. Put simply, the miners lost and the whole working class lost with them.
So as a class we’ve got what we’ve got now. Precarious employment for most, no employment at all for a significant minority, especially the young and little prospect of that changing for the better any time soon. In fact things look likely to get a whole lot worse. The security that public sector workers once enjoyed has evaporated, the pensions they get are under attack. The mainstream media portrays them as lazy and overpaid and screams furiously that public sector pensions are better than those private sector workers get. It’s seldom mentioned that they get paid less and contribute more and never mentioned that if the aim was justice the call would be for better private sector pension provision, not the dragging down of every worker to the bare minimum level for survival. If they’re lucky.
The response to these attacks? Strike action from public sector workers. Action that should be supported by every worker, whether they’re in the public sector or not. The inescapable fact now, just as in 1984 is that the fate of every single member of the working class is tied to the fate of every other member of the working class. Solidarity. Not a word, a weapon as the saying goes. It’s more than that though – All we have is each other.
That’s the constant, true in 1984, true now. Lots of other things have changed though. The patterns of our lives are very different. Few of us turn up to work through a gate with 2000 other people each shift change, some of us don’t even go to the same place each day to work. How many children are at school with friends whose parents work with their parents? The community workplace connection is gone. It went with the industry.
It’s in the context of 2011 and November 30th that I read Lisa Ansell’s blog post. I recognise a lot of sense in it. The support networks that existed in 1984 have largely gone, families spread over around the country as a consequence of battles long since lost. Shouting “scab” now is not what it was. The issue of personal debt means that the sad fact is there isn’t a union in this country that could strike off for the best part of a year. Some people genuinely couldn’t afford to lose a single days pay without incurring serious hardship. And yes, I’m well aware that they’ll lose more if the action is lost. Solidarity. We need to build it and it won’t be built by shouting at those that aren’t playing the game the we way we think it should be played or by abandoning the weak and vulnerable. It’ll be built by reconnecting with each other. By understanding each other and framing the fight in a way that we can win it. That’s not to say that I don’t think anyone should ever be called a scab, they exist but Lisa Ansell isn’t one, and she doesn’t seem to me to be their friend.
I think she’s wrong about the relevance of the left. I think we belong to a tradition that comes with an insight and value set that can be central to maintaining and improving the lives of ordinary people. Our lives. How we apply that insight and those values is what’s important. We aren’t apart from the working class with a magic blue print that would save the world if only people would listen. We need to recognise the limitations we and others have, overcome them where we can and work around them where we can’t.
Scab isn’t a desperately useful word for achieving that in 2011 and the fight that’s been started with Lisa Ansell by some to my mind is an example of how not to do it.