With the strikes by workers at British Airways and the looming possibility of a national rail strike after Easter, things are hotting up in British industrial relations; and today 95 academics, led by Professor Ralph Darlington, have written to The Guardian newspaper to condemn the ‘macho’ tactics of BA Chief Executive Willy Walsh, which in their view are aimed at breaking the union rather than resolving the dispute. In a Radio 4 interview this evening Professor Darlington notes that the BA management tactics are ‘symptomatic of something happening on a broader front’ and that we are now in a ‘life and death struggle’ for the future of trade unionism in this country.
Strikes can be inconvenient for the wider public, no doubt about it; my son and his girlfriend lost their planned holiday in Amsterdam last weekend because of the Unite union’s industrial action at BA. Where the public’s overall sympathies are in relation to both the BA dispute and the threatened rail strike is hard to say. In my view, one’s basic commitments in these matters are not arrived at intellectually but go very much deeper; whatever the detailed rights and wrongs of particular disputes, one is, finally and in one’s gut as it were, either for the bosses or for the workers.
But we can at least be quite sure what William Morris’s attitude to these strikes would have been; for he expresses it memorably in his fine letter to the Daily Chronicle on the miners’ strike of 1893: ‘The first step, therefore, towards the new birth of art must be a definite rise in the condition of the workers … this change for the better can only be realized by the efforts of the workers themselves … The struggle against the terrible power of the profit-grinder is now practically proclaimed by them a matter of principle … What these staunch miners have been doing in the face of such tremendous odds, other workmen can and will do’.
So: Morrisian best wishes to our own staunch cabin crews and railway workers!