I’m just back from supporting the striking public sector workers outside the local housing office. Whatever the media coverage may be, it’s a significant day when about 1.5 million people, from five different unions, withdraw their labour. The demands are ‘bread and butter’ – frozen pay and stolen pensions – but the sentiment I heard most loudly this morning was ‘enough is enough’.
I was at the homeless services department (which the Council prefers to call ‘Housing Options’). It’s a place where attacks on front-line workers and their unions collide with thirty years of neoliberal housing policy. The Kafkaesque world we have created to manage the victims of The Market (which I describe here) is the daily life of those who work in it. What I was discussing with some of the striking workers this morning is how difficult it is for even the best motivated people to maintain their best intentions in a system where fairness and kindness have been ground down like the cartilage between two joints.
A picket line is a place where you have to confront the full range of human hope and frailty. I sometimes take if for granted that everyone understands the basic principle that you don’t cross a picket line. I’m beginning to realise that several decades of being in retreat have eroded some of the labour movement’s tenets and they need to be rebuilt. There have always been people who cross picket lines and I have always felt that deep down, they know what they’re doing is wrong, but it’s a very complex dynamic. It’s easy to condemn and shout ‘scab’ (and there’s definitely a place for it), but given where we are today, I think we need an appeal that goes beyond moral indignation.
Which brings us back to the Orwellian termed ‘Housing Options’ department. It was the biggest lie and the biggest truth when David Cameron said ‘we’re all in this together’. Nowhere is that more apparent than when low-paid, under-staffed, over-stressed workers administer a bureaucratic system for rationing a scarce necessity to their desperate fellow citizens. Everyone is impoverished in that exchange, except those who directly benefit from maintaining a housing shortage and suppressing wages.
It’s hard to watch people rejecting solidarity (and infuriating to listen to their weasel excuses), but indignation, righteous though it is, won’t change things. When I was at NAHT conference recently, Carolyn Federoff from the American Federation of Government Employees spoke powerfully about the need for housing and other public sector workers to recognise their common interests with those they work for – not the government, but the people who come as ‘claimants’, but should leave as ‘entitled’.
P.S. Carolyn also described the US trade union leadership as ‘male, pale and stale’. One of the reasons I like Americans is their ability to sum things up in a few words!