To Fire the Thames
By JOHN COLE s it possible for a trade union to take industrial I action and gain general public support for it? Or are strikes, by their very nature, unpopular with most people except the strikers? And what about lesser sanctions—go-slows, work-to-rules and overtime bans — arc they more or less popular than the old-fashioned strike? What is the public reaction to them—a cheer, a yawn or a yelp of rage?
There is some evidence that the public always turn against any group who hurt them, however just the cause. Many manual workers have long since given up any hope of public support. A few months before I read A Mateh to Fire the Thames, which tells of the remarkable support given to the sorely pressed London dockers in their great strike of 1889, a contemporary Lon- don docker gave me his own theory of public re- lations. With a vivid misuse of four-letter words which the Press Council would deprecate, he argued that workers who had been maligned in the newspapers as much as the dockers—as he maintained, unfairly — must ignore public opinion, and fight their battles in a direct trial of strength with their employers.
There is some truth in his belief that however good their case on a particular issue may be, the dockers nowadays have many critics who con- demn them unheard. It is easy to see how the change between the Nineties and the Sixties has come about. The dockers whom Cardinal Man- ning helped were struggling for the means to keep body and soul together for themselves and their families. They were natural subjects for the human compassion of everyone With the smallest streak of philanthropy in his make-up.. They were the nineteenth-century equivalent of the beneficiaries of World Refugee Year, pitied by people from the Bow Group outwards in either direction. But while the British middle class. which is still the most consistent opinion-former in our society, is not lacking in feeling for the underdog, it holds no great brief for fairness to those who have climbed above the bottom rung. A bank clerk who might have sympathised with a docker striking to keep starvation at bay. only clucks with impatience at the strike of a man whose earnings seem better than his own. The fact that the strike may not be about money, but against the fear of redundancy or victimisation, will seem to him irrelevant. He is 'fed up with strikes.'
The reason for this is also easily seen. Since the war, the strike weapon has been used too often and too frivolously (and in many cases against union advice) for its use to be considered dispassionately. Thus, while most British news- papers would support the theoretical right to strike, again and again one sees editorials eon- demning strikers who have a reasonable measure of right on their side..The issues, too often, have not been properly understood or considered. The logical mind naturally revolts at the damage done to everyone by many strikes. The hackneyed metaphor of warfare, after all, is not far from the mark. Leader-writers, not themselves en- gaged in the long, weary negotiations, feel in- stinctively that there must be a better way of settling a dispute than this, and blame the ap- parent aggressor. The fact that this is sometimes
'When I was that age 1 was contemplating like condemning Britain for declaring war on Germany in 1939 does not occur To them.
The public image of the strike is not helped by the fact that in post-war Britain it has appeared to be used most frequently in the Prosperity Belt along the London-Birmingham-Manchester axis, by motor workers and others, constantly striving to make a good bargain better. The underdog— to most half-interested observers at least—ap- pears as the top dog The work-to-rule and go-slow have not been pioneered by the white collar organisations which are using them this month. The choice of this weapon in their case has been dictated by the ab- sence of a tradition of militancy among their members, which would make it difficult for them to organise a full-scale strike. They have also learned the lesson taught by those manual workers who have used this limited form of in- dustrial action—that it irritates or injures the employer, while causinii less hardship to the union members.
But there is another side to the coin. If public sympathy can be enlisted for industrial action at all, surely it is for those with such a strong sense of injustice that they inflict short-term injury on themselves by sacrificing their wages, in the con- viction that their long-term aim is just or neces- sary. How many people who believed the teachers had been unfairly treated by the Govern. men last year, suddenly found themselves on Sir David Eccles's side from the moment that they heard the proposal that teachers should hit back by refusing to supervise school meals? How many felt able to take their strike threat seriously, or their sense of injustice seriously either, when they heard the fantastic proposal that the strike would merely consist of selected teachers receiv- ing their pay from the NUT instead of the Government?
The striking miner, tightening his belt and scraping together a little coal for his fire from the slag-heap, had a certain dignity and moral earnestness. Does the civil service typist, 'meticu- lously' cleaning her machine each morning, carefully restricting her speed to fifty words per minute? Already she is the subject of newspaper cartoons which are less than friendly. Inevitably, such action leaves its supporters appearing to be pin-prickers. It will be interesting to see how the public image of white-collar trade unionism emerges from the next few weeks.