This week has seen continued strike action by members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (“PCS”) employed by the National Museums of Scotland.
The action is the latest escalation in a standoff dating back to 2011 between PCS and the Scottish government over a change to terms and conditions. The change does not affect staff employed before 2011, but will remove weekend allowances for staff who joined after this date.
Predictably, this has been used by the right wing press as a club with which to beat both the strikers and the Union: rabble rousers unaffected by the cuts, nonetheless sparring for a fight with their boss.
But such collegiate spirit should in fact be praised. The nature and reality of most employment relationships—particularly in low or unskilled employment—is that there exists a power imbalance in favour of the employer. This imbalance is intensified in the public sector by the effects of austerity and by the prolifgation of zero hours employment models to the extent that quite often when an employee enters into wage negotiations his only options are between agreement and destitution.
The sole counter-weight to this power imbalance is for workers to think and to act collectively; to consider the interests of the worker body corporate and to use the strength that such unity brings. Where the sole or primary motivation for a worker is his own self-interest, then the employer will find it easy to divide and rule; but where workers unite, the employer’s hand will be weakened, and talks can proceed in a genuine spirit of negotiation.
Quite aside from the sole issue of collectivism, there is also the longer-term issue of gradual drift. Reference is made to the cautionary anecdote of the apocryphal amphibian: place a frog in boiling water and it will leap out; place a frog in cold water and slowly heat it to boiling point, however, and the frog will sit there until it is boiled to death. Similarly in industrial relations, tear up a collective agreement and the employer faces a reaction; but gradually, every-so-softly pick away terms and conditions one by one, and the employer may get away with it.
To avoid being boiled alive, workers need at some stage to become aware of their situation and say enough is enough.
Neither, however, should the strike action be viewed in isolation. The industrial dispute the PCS members are involved in is but one battlefield in the ongoing resistance against the government’s program of austerity.
The word “austerity” itself is a misnomer. Its use is deliberate and designed to evoke the dignity and endurance of Britain in the postwar years; a self-abnegating yet cleansing catharsis; a form of public procurement Purgatory where the people must today work off the sin of their earlier extravagance before they can ascend to the heaven of budgetary surplus.
The reality, however, is that 21st century austerity bears little resemblance to the 1950s model: firstly, it is not austere: reduction in government spending will be offset by tax breaks to the wealthiest, the highest earners and big business in the form of cuts to inheritance tax, top-band income tax and corporation tax respectively.
Second, it is not shared throughout society: the result of the government’s attacks on Trade Unionism (2014 TUPE reform, proposed Industrial Relations reform) and individual employment rights (the introduction of Tribunal fees in 2013, its refusal to take action against on Zero Hours Contracts), along with welfare cuts have placed the burden of “austerity” solely on the shoulders of the weakest in society whilst allowing those already well off to continue amassing great fortunes.
And third, profligacy has not waned: London is home to 10% of the world’s billionaires; MPs shamelessly vote themselves pay rises; tax credits subsidise the wage bills of corporations and allow them to continue paying derisory wages; the housing shortage along with an uncontrolled rental market has created a massive and ongoing transfer of wealth to property magnates from both the tax payer (in the case of social tenancies) and those without the means to get on the housing ladder (in the case of private tenancies). It is also worth mentioning that the majority of these property magnates gorged themselves on knock-down social housing during right-to-buy gold rush.
The word “austerity” is a fig leaf for an ideologically driven package of reforms aimed at chiseling away the unit price of everything. Over the past 30 years, the traditional “small c” conservative pragmatism has been swept aside by something more streamlined, more visceral: an insidious monotheism venerating “market forces” as the omniscient and omnipotent deity.
In reality, “market forces” are just a race to the bottom. While they can be useful to strip away inefficient and bloated business practices, they will eventually, inevitably lead to the diminution of wages and working conditions.
So while ostensibly the PCS strike this week appears to be about NMS staff employed since 2011, the reality is that it has broader implications not just for all NMS staff, but for workers throughout Scotland.