Of Strikes & Humans

by John Urquhart

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” — Steven Biko

This story was originally published on the Rose Community Group blog. It is also found on Medium.

Strike action is often seen only at the very surface; in the media it is usually reported simply in the context of two sides snarlingly facing off against each other. Just a lot of demands, counter-demands, and arguments.

But this gladiatorial portrayal ignores a great deal that is important. Conflicts between co-workers, about who strikes, about who doesn’t, and about who has the privilege to be able to do so.

Whilst those going on strike are usually at least somewhat financially supported by their unions, not everyone is. This means not everyone can afford to support a strike by joining one, even if that strike is to their personal long-term benefit.

This does not always prevent people from participating, as they may borrow money, or have a strong social support network. But arguably the greatest long-term impact for everyone involved in a strike — especially the management — is psychosocial.

Strikers are, in effect, forced to stand “against” their colleagues (and maybe friends, or even relatives) who choose not to strike. Management must stand against people they may well later be expected to lead. Further, they may be expected to be physically responsible for those same “opponents” in the workplace, in terms of health and safety.

Yet management are not really even materially in control of the outcome of negotiations in many cases, as they are of course middle-persons for owners or investors — but from the perspective of those on strike action, rightly or wrongly, management are likely to be blamed for any breakdown in talks.

It’s easy to see how this can create significant toxicity in a workplace. It could damage friendships, or even significantly change career paths — or end them. And what’s more, just anticipation of workplace negativity can (as I’m sure we all know) be very stressful too. For some perhaps even more so than the actual event.

Some may ultimately strike because of peer pressure — some may fail to do so for the same reason. And some may have no choice because they simply can’t afford to make one. But plenty of people in and around the strike are not really making any choices, or are making choices from a real narrow selection.

They’re forced into those choices because of the underlying political or personal reasons for the strike action, because of financial concerns, or because of peer pressure.

These burdens are difficult for everyone. But they needn’t be.
As a community, as a society, we shouldn’t need to be in the same political tribes to be good to one another. I don’t need you to agree with me about any given issue of the day to hand you a plaster for that scrape on your knee; I’d hope you don’t need to agree with me to get me a glass of water should I be thirsty.

Likewise, I don’t feel it should really matter where we stand on a specific strike action — not when it comes being compassionate.

We can, whatever our tribes, still care for one another: by just turning up to be kind with words — or with deeds: perhaps by making nice treats or cooking up batches of soup, and heading down to the picket lines to make people feel that little bit easier and happier. Not because we necessarily agree, but because they’re human and we’re human, and no greater reason is needed to stand together.