The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) conducted industrial action on Tuesday 21st, Thursday 23rd, and Saturday 25th June, in order to pressure employers into improving pay and working conditions of their workers and prevent significant job cuts. The reaction of the media was hysterical – it was neither faithful to the idea of keeping the public well-informed, nor was it fair to the trade union and workers themselves. In the end, this response became a small-scale ‘trade union scare’, which points to a wider demonisation of workers undertaking industrial action and trade unions as a whole.
I am able to understand why someone might feel mildly suspicious about the term ‘strike’ – a big portion of this attitude in Britain seems to have come from the events during the miners’ strike of 1984–1985. It was a chaotic dispute accompanied by violence, which echoes through our heads to this day. It is, however, immensely unfair to assume that every strike is inherently ethically problematic, which is what some media did in the case of recent rail action conducted by the RMT.
Kay Burley, the Sky News presenter, naggingly questioned Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, about what the workers running the picket line will do when someone attempts to cross it. Shortly after, she made a reference to the miners’ strike, to which Lynch responded: “Does it look like the miners’ strike? What are you talking about?” The interview felt aggressive — overall, it seemed as if Burley tried to provoke an emotional reaction from Lynch and make him appear in the wrong.
On another occasion, Richard Madeley from Good Morning Britain asked Mick Lynch whether he is a Marxist, because, supposedly, if he is one, then he is “into revolution and bringing down capitalism”. Lynch responded: “Richard, you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle sometimes. I’m not a Marxist, I’m an elected official of the RMT, I’m a working class bloke leading a trade union dispute about jobs, pay and conditions, and service, so it’s got nothing to do with Marxism, it’s all about this industrial dispute”. This question appeared bizarre, both because of its use of loaded language, as words such as ‘Marxism’ and ‘revolution’ have strong ideological connotations, and irrelevance to the matter.
Lynch was also intervewed by Piers Morgan on his talk show Piers Morgan Uncensored, where Piers seemed to have tried to undermine the credibility of the unionist by pointing out that his Facebook profile picture is The Hood, an evil character from the 60s science-fiction series Thunderbirds. Morgan insisted: “Well I’m just wondering where the comparison goes, because he was obviously an evil, criminal terrorist mastermind, described as the world’s most dangerous man who wrecked utter carnage and havoc on the public.” After this odd interview, many people on Twitter and Facebook decided to make their profile pictures The Hood in display of solidarity with Lynch.
Apart from provocative questions and statements of certain journalists, the most condemnable part of the overall discussion around recent rail strikes is misinformation, which is evident in framing the issue only in terms of salaries of train drivers. It can be found all over the internet and television. The average salary of a train driver is nearly £60,000 and so strikes are unnecessary, we are told. But it is worth knowing that train drivers were not included in this dispute for the most part. Strike action organised by the RMT included signallers, maintenance workers, ticket collectors, and cleaners, whose salaries are lower to those of train drivers. Additionally, most train drivers are represented by a different trade union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF).
Another example of trying to juggle data is citing an average pay of rail workers. This is what Grant Shapps did in one of his speeches, where he claimed that “The average train driver earns £59,000, the average rail worker earns £44,000, the average nurse, £31,000”. The £44,000 figure includes train drivers and does not take into account other workers involved in the dispute such as cleaners, making it unreliable in reference to the RMT strikes. According to the RMT, their workers’ median salary is £31,000, which is much lower to the average salary mentioned by Shapps.
These events show that there seems to be a prejudice against trade unions and strike action. There is a lot of emotive language and misinformation aiming to hurt the workers’ cause. However, the response of the media is somewhat understandable – the disruption in transportation was heavy and certain voices pointed at the effects that strike action will have on individuals. For example, the principal of Hereford Sixth Form College stressed that industrial action will affect exams and professor Robert Thomas said that it will lead to loss of lives due to a further delay in cancer treatments, as oncology services are at a particular breaking point.
Mick Lynch responded to professor Thomas’ argument by saying that rail workers are not responsible for problems within the NHS and emphasised that the union keenly wants a settlement of the dispute. Industrial action is entirely preventable if employers and workers come to an agreement.
However, it is also worth asking: how can workers respond to unjust circumstances and work conditions if their demands are largely ignored? It is iniquitous to offer someone a wage that does not keep up with inflation and meet their basic costs of living. It is also unfair to act disloyally towards employees who kept railways running during the pandemic.
The media discussion around rail strikes was mature enough neither to understand striking workers, nor to be honest with the British public. Strikes are not the end of the world and trying to portray them as such is a massive overreaction. Although Mick Lynch is claimed to have won this media battle, it is worth carefully thinking about the prejudices that striking and unionising workers have to face in moments like the recent industrial action.
Image: SoThisIsPeter, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons