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The Power of Unions — British Public Sector Workers Stage Strike!

July 31, 2014
By Christopher Balchin

On July 10, more than one million firefighters, teachers, civil servants, sanitation workers, and other public sector workers, representing six major unions in the UK, held a one day strike, closing hundreds of schools, libraries, and museums, reducing activities at many government buildings and airports, and disrupting sanitation collection.

I grew up in England, and reading about this massive strike, I felt like cheering!

Explaining why the strike was necessary, Public and Commercial Services Union Industrial Officer Darren Williams said: “Food and energy prices have been going through the roof and for the first two years of this (coalition) Government most of our members have had no pay increase at all.”

And a health and safety worker on a picket line said, “We have got members of staff who are going to food banks now. Our workloads have been increased as we lost staff as a result of cuts and everyone is picking up more work….It is hard to make ends meet now.  MPs [Members of Parliament] are having an 11 percent pay rise, and why are low-paid workers having just 1 percent?”

In fact, according to the website “Left Futures,” while public sector workers have had their salaries frozen since 2010, there has been a 16% increase in the cost of food, 22% in the average electricity bill, and 57% in the average gas bill.

Learning this affected me very much. I remember when essential services such as electricity, gas, the railways, telephone exchanges, and more were nationalized, run by the government on a non-profit basis.  No more.  Now these utilities that everyone depends on and needs in order to live, to light and heat their homes, are privately owned and run for the profit of a few.

Moreover, the government has simply refused to negotiate over pay, pensions, and spending cuts, and people are increasingly worried about what the future may bring.  A firefighter from Manchester protested, “Every three years we have to do a fitness test. Now I will face the same test at 57, and if I don’t pass I could lose three quarters of my pension.”  And in schools, primary teachers are now expected to work till age 68!

MP Peter Hain, speaking to striking workers in London, said:

“Government austerity policies have created a rise in zero-hour contracts” (i.e., a job that has no guaranteed weekly hours or income), “ ‘hire-and-fire’ work culture” (in which a worker can be fired with no notice), “and the slow erosion of workers’ rights, which are often taken for granted, but were earned through over a century of campaigning and work by ordinary people who wanted a better future.”

Mr. Hain is right. And the question is, why has there been this “slow erosion of workers’ rights”?—which today has escalated into an intense effort to destroy all unions, public and private.

This is What I Learned

In the early 1970s, historian and critic Eli Siegel, who founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, gave evidence in a series of lectures that economics based on profit had failed.  The profit motive, I’ve learned, is based on contempt and ill will—on using the labor of a person to reap as much profit as one can, while paying that person as little as one can get away with. Eli Siegel saw that labor unions were a powerful force working for the rights of working people, and showed that union power—that is, the ability of unions to obtain everincreasing wages and benefits–has been a major reason why employers can no longer count on evergrowing profits for themselves. Clearly, the more a worker is paid, the less goes into the pockets of owners or shareholders. This is why in recent years there have been such concerted and ferocious efforts to destroy unions. And it is why there have also been attempts to save the profit system by outsourcing work and services done by the public sector to private companies. Thus public dollars are given to private industry, where profit is the driving purpose.

The response of the British government to this massive strike has been telling.  Instead of asking why one million moderate-to-low-income people are willing to forfeit a needed day’s pay in order to try to be heard, they are now threatening to impose laws making it harder to call a strike, through restrictive balloting legislation!

But from Trafalgar Square, that home of protest from the very birth of the British trades union movement, the call by union leaders for justice was strong. There were passionate statements of solidarity with working people all over Europe.  Matt Wrack, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, told the crowd, “What we see today is just an inkling of the power that rests in the hands of working people if we only realize it.”

What can unleash the full power of unions today?  As a union activist myself I felt elated—and sobered—to know what Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss described recently in “The Sheer Fight:

As big a fight as any going on in the world—indeed, as big a fight as any in the history of humanity—is the fight now taking place between the profit system and unions….It is a fight between contempt (the profit system) and respect for humanity (unions). It is a fight that even most union leaders have not seen clearly. We need to see it clearly, because the fight is really a sheer one: For the profit system to continue, unions must be defeated. And if unions and the economic justice they represent succeed, the profit way will be done in, finished, kaput. When that happens…there will be a way of economics different from any that has been. It will be based, neither on profit for a few nor on ‘collectivism,’ but on an honest answer to the question Eli Siegel said was the most important for humanity: What does a person deserve by being a person?’”

I’m proud of my countrymen and the British unions for fighting for the rights of all people. And I want them and everyone to know what Aesthetic Realism explains–why their fight is so tremendously important.

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