From birth to passing, the labour of all those who materially shape our lives is becoming more visible – increasingly recognised as interdependent and inseparable from the conditions that we all need to thrive.
Midwives, nurses, doctors, paramedics, teachers and support staff, higher education workers, postal workers, bus, rail, road, sea port and airport workers, fire fighters, border guards (solidarity but also, no borders), civil service workers, driving instructors, warehouse and distribution workers, and even workers of the Arbitration, Conciliation, Advisory Service (ACAS) which mediates between employers and unions in disputes, have voted to strike.
This ‘refusal to be poor anymore’ or to be complicit in preventable harm to the people we are in community with, be it through vocation, service or location, is an uprising for dignity, safety and belonging.
Decades of government policy prioritising market and profit over public health is resulting in premature death by design.
The fight response to this loss and traumatic threat to our lives is strike action.
Strikes are a collective unfreezing, a staying put, a re-association with our bodies and labour, and an assertive reclamation of ground. Strikes are fear overturned. Strikes sum up collective energy and courage and become solidarity embodied. It’s not just a vote, it’s not a petition, it’s not a meeting – although all of these can form part of the process – you have to be where you’re not supposed to be – not at work, and put yourself on the (picket) line be it virtual or outside the workplace.
Strikes remedy fragmented resistance across workplaces by uniting it and making us visible to each other, sometimes for the first time. Strikes are the commons of labour in its most active and social form – that of relationship-making, caring for each other and identifying with each other’s needs.
Strikes generate safety by bringing collective protection to those with the targets on their back – workplace reps – by us all having their backs.
Strikes are the evidence that we really can be all for one and one for all. Strikes tell management – from the supervisor right up to the secretary of state – what is ‘reasonable’ and what is not and not the other way round.
I took strike action for the first time in my life last year, having spent the last 20 organising or advocating for it with other people. It was a rollercoaster. Our employer was a union and our dispute was over victimisation of our union rep. Everything I’d learned and preached, I practised. The same tactics we’d seen management use against the members we represented were used against us. Our full time official wasn’t always on our side.
Our union meetings were transformed from semi-attention paying desk lunch zoom rigmarole to complicated, intense and deeply honest interactions. Management shut the office on our strike days, but we still picketed. Every morning we naturally gravitated into a large circle and shared stories, food, experiences and got to know each other, literally seeing each other in a completely different light for the first time.
We won our dispute but we also won a sense of belonging. It wasn’t just our relationship with management that changed but our relationship to each other and the overall purpose of our work. We took a big risk together and it paid off. We felt in our bones what it meant to be a union.
Trade unionism emerged as a response to trauma. Unions were founded to counteract the dispossession and punishment enacted upon communities and individuals impacted by enclosure, feudalism, deportation and the colonialism-fuelled push of their bodies into factories and workhouses.
Today, those racialising and classifying legacies are still shaping the present in terms of both access to work and agency to shape union organising agendas. It’s no surprise to anyone active in unions that they also inhabit the ableist, sexist, racist and heteronormative power dynamics of the capitalist system we have been conditioned by and that it’s always three fights – against the bosses, the bureaucracy, and burnout in the movement for collective liberation.
Withdrawal of welfare and the intensification of disablement and collective punishment of disabled people, as well as deeper extraction of peoples labour means a constant struggle for time, agency, our own bodies, resources, access to family, housing, and choices. Everything we need to be well is undermined by economic injustice.
Trade unionists are conditioned by the trauma we are trying to end. The survival responses of all humans facing threats to our safety, dignity and belonging range between fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociate. These responses can become ‘conditioned tendencies’, shaped and reinforced according to the different intimate, social, institutional, cultural and historical context we find ourselves in.
Workers, including union staff – albeit with very different experiences and constraints compared to members – all experience variations of fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociate in response to pressure. ‘Checking out’, doing deals that appease, keeping heads down, quitting or fighting like hell are all present and mutable over time.
The fight response is the one I as an organiser and many people I worked with embodied and identified with and still do. But in isolation, unsupported, or quashed, it and people can become depressed. Strikes reanimate and support this trauma response, and enable more choice.
But generalised strikes – which we are seeing today – implicitly address the conditions outside the workplace as well as within, especially if the employer is Government.
The new Minimum Service Levels Bill is an attempt to wrest back managerial control from organised labour through diktat; ‘get back to work’ and ‘if you don’t like it, there’s the door’ writ large in public. Not only is it forced labour but it also aims to destroy core union infrastructure and solidarity culture via sequestration of funds, singling out and repressing workplace leaders, and both collectively and individually punishing members who refuse orders. But it won’t work. Union infrastructure isn’t only funds, offices, paid leaders and staff with expertise; infrastructure is also relationships of solidarity.
It’s infrastructure that those in power who have been raised and ruled by, and continue to rule by a culture of narrow self-interest and protection of accumulation, do not embody. Practices of solidarity, mutual care, and leaderful resistance are a renewable energy that cannot be legislated or batoned out of existence.Strikes are rehearsals of freedom as Ruth Wilson Gilmore invokes. They are an experience of the community we need, toward the community we are, and the community we want to be: one where everyone has the material, social and spiritual conditions to lead lives of dignity, safety and belonging. Join a union and a picket line now!
Independent Workers of Great Britain (grassroots union)
A day of co-ordinated action and protest has been called by the Trades Union Congress for February 1st.
Keep up to date with strikes in your local area which you can support.