This has been a year of increased visibility of strikes in the media, by both public and private sector workers in a range of industries. From teachers to telecommunications professionals, workers are getting angry, they’re organising, and they’re taking their work to the streets when negotiation in other venues doesn’t work, not just in the United States but across the world. The response to that hasn’t been unilaterally supportive, though, and it illustrates the insidious way in which capitalism shapes so much of public thinking.
The response to strikes is often frustration and irritation, not with employers, but with strikers themselves. People complain about service interruptions and viciously attack people on the picket line for causing an inconvenience. They blame the strikers for poor conditions, including their own work environment, and seem enraged that people would have the audacity to protest when they aren’t satisfied with their treatment in the workplace. There is a sense that people on strike are being uppity and unreasonable, that they somehow owe everyone their labour in any conditions and should stop being so demanding; they are not entitled to safe, healthy, congenial workplaces, or if they are, they need to work that out on their own time.
This ignores the complex series of events that leads to a strike. Workers don’t wake up one day and decide to go on strike on a whim. First, they struggle with poor conditions in the workplace. They may try to address issues as individuals before slowly starting to band together. They work with union representatives. They push for contract negotiations. The union may meet with representatives of their employer multiple times in an attempt to hammer out the details of a contract that will satisfy the needs of both parties. Workers are willing to negotiate a deal; they don’t fixate on a list of demands and refuse to budge at any cost. They structure leeway and breathing room into what they want and prioritise the list of issues they’re concerned about to make sure the most important thing gets settled first.
If all of this fails, if the company doesn’t negotiate, refuses to come to the table, offers ridiculous terms, attempts to muscle the workers around, then they warn that they may strike to resolve the situation. It’s not coming as a surprise when workers finally do vote to strike, organise a picket line and start protesting their employer. The employer has had ample warning and has allowed the condition to deteriorate to the point where striking is the only option for workers, because there’s nothing else, and now they have to see it through to push for the concessions they want and need.
The thing is that people on strike would prefer to be working. Being on strike is stressful, especially if you don’t have the protection of a union to help cover expenses. You’re losing income, and if you’re passionate about your job, you’re not able to do what you love. Teachers, for example, love working with students and want to educate people. They know that time lost in school is tough, and they are just as unhappy about having to be on strike as students, parents, and members of the general public are about there being a strike. People don’t want to be on strike, but they know it’s their only option in the face of a situation that has built to a head and apparently cannot be resolved any other way.
They worry about the things piling up while they’re gone, literally and figuratively. When garbage collectors go on strike, they know that neighbourhoods are quickly going to acquire a buildup of garbage that will begin to smell and present public health problems. When nurses go on strike, they worry about their patients and the paperwork and procedures they’ll need to follow when they get back on the job. Telecommunications workers are concerned about routine maintenance and a backlog of work they’ll need to do when they return to work. All of these people want to be back at work, want to be doing their jobs, want to be helping the members of the public they serve.
But they still want fair working conditions. They still want to be safe at work, they want to be respected by their employers, they want to have benefits and pensions and reasonable wages. They don’t want to be exploited, and they want members of the public to understand what they do, and at what cost. It’s important to them that the general population understands what it is buying with a service, or products bought from a particular firm. They want people to know what public employees do and how they play an important role in society, and sometimes they only way to educate people is to show them what happens when the workers go away and services go undone.
And that is hard, and it is annoying. But the people to be angry at aren’t the workers asking for better conditions. Anger would be better directed at the employers who allowed poor conditions to persist and refused to negotiate when workers provided an opportunity to do so. People should be asking why employers were unwilling to flex, and why they were abusing their labour in the first place, what it is that makes companies think they are entitled to use people like disposable machinery rather than human beings.
Instead, the blame is turned on the workers, who have more in common with the people yelling at them than their employers. It’s a brilliant triumph of capitalism, to turn the lens away from the people responsible for perpetrating the conditions that lead to strikes and onto the people asking for better treatment. The fact that many people continue to buy into these myths, that public employees are the enemy, that people on strike are unreasonable and ridiculous, that complaining about strikers will make a strike end, is a telling illustration of how pervasive capitalist thought is in this society.