What drives 750,000 people to the point of ruining everyone else's day by striking? PJ Byrne reflects on the "anger deriving from a wounded sense of self-worth" that drives so many people to strike.
Summer is very nearly upon us, and for many it is a happy time of year, one we associate with pleasant memories of carefree youth and halcyon days gone by. I for one remember, as a child, lazy Sundays fishing on the creek that flowed out of the marsh alongside our house; as a teenager, spending hot and breezy afternoons skippering a rickety, thirty-year-old catamaran on Long Island Sound; and, as a law student, flying back to America to watch the Fourth of July fireworks by the water with my family.
We all have comparable, though doubtlessly very different, memories and experiences of summer, and have been having them for hundreds of years – and, sometimes, people have described these in even more saccharine terms than I have just done. Take, for example, sixteenth-century poet Alexander Hume's ode to "A Summer Day": "The flourishes and fragrant flowers / Through Phoebus' fostering heat, / Refresht with dew and silver showers / Cast up an odour sweet... All labourers draw home at even, / And can to other say, / Thanks to the gracious God of heaven, / Which sent this summer day."
Unless, of course, those labourers happen to belong to a public sector union. As some of you might know, major unions in the UK are planning co-ordinated strike action this summer, which looks likely to go ahead. At least officially, this is being done to protect the unholy trinity of unionised life – holiday, pay and pensions – and it looks like they are going to try to spoil the party while they are at it. Strikes are planned across the government, which most of us are bound not to notice, except perhaps those of teachers and, in particular, transport, where tube workers are threatening to interfere with Wimbledon. Interfering with tennis is, of course, insufferable, and raises the question: during such a lovely time of year, when so much is going on, how can 750,000 people – all of whom have jobs in which they voluntarily consented to be employed – be grumpy to the point of wanting to ruin everyone else's fun?
I will admit here that my treatment of union grievances might seem flip at first glance. However, "grumpy" is a very good description of what is going on, though it contrasts sharply with what the unions want us to think – namely, that the proposed strikes are about economic justice. In a recent speech Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, described the strike as the latest iteration of a red-hot class war, a "fight... (against) bad employers... (and) the Eton classroom bully-boys running the government (who) want to cut... so the rich can keep on feasting". He was even brazen enough to conclude his remarks with a line from the long-obsolete Communist Manifesto: "we still have a world to win". But striking workers at the local Jobcentre are hardly the heirs of a centuries-old "struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie". What on earth are they upset about, then?
More likely, it is a sense of hurt feelings from a workforce that is both "dwindling (and) demoralised", a sector of society that has failed to adapt to the new reality of austerity – and doesn't want to, either. This phenomenon is not new, and in fact was the subject of extensive treatment in Francis Fukuyama's landmark work The End of History and the Last Man, where Fukuyama points out that relative self-perceptions of worth, even among people who are well-remunerated, are central in politics. "In political life," he writes, "economic claims are seldom presented as simple demands for more; they are usually couched in terms of 'economic justice.'"
To him, these claims do not necessarily arise out of deprivation – poverty is relative, he says, pointing out that the poverty line in the United States "represents a standard of living much higher than that of well-off people in certain third world countries" – but adds that "this does not mean that poor people in the United States are more satisfied than well-to-do people in Africa... for their sense of self-worth receives many more daily affronts" from those who are better-off still. Fukuyama describes the emotion arising from these affronts as "thymotic anger" – that is, anger deriving from a wounded sense of self-worth – that exists because people "believe, consciously or not, that their dignity is ultimately at stake in disputes over money."
I am inclined to agree with Fukuyama's analysis. That thymotic anger is in play with these strikes is clear enough by reading the unions' P.R. material, all of which strains desperately to prove the utility and necessity of public services on the one hand, and the quality of the labour that provides them on the other. Take this, for example: "cuts [in public services] have led to increased errors, backlogs in post and half the calls from the public going [un]answered last year"; put differently, "our work is necessary and essential, our profession delivers value when it carries on this work, and by cutting our budgets you do not accord our work its true value". Or this: “whenever Jobcentre Plus staff have been allowed the same flexibilities and funding as private sector companies... they have been able to compete with, if not surpass, the performance of contractors," in other words, "we are just as capable as you are, and can beat you at your own game. How dare you suggest otherwise?"
What we are left with is a simple truth, that human beings require dignity and recognition, and a complicated problem, that a large and well-organized group of public servants with hurt feelings will forever make limitless demands for compensation that British taxpayers cannot possibly meet. But how to resolve this? It would be ridiculous to suggest that society goes on subsidizing the self-esteem of nearly a million people if other solutions are available; one of these, of course, would be to dispense with significant pieces of the public sector, and reintroduce our union friends into our private sector world where work is valued not on the basis of the political power we wield, but rather on the value we deliver through the use of our energies and talents, and in particular, competition between employers in the labour market.
But this is only half of the solution. Bending others to our will through the use of political power is a convoluted and roundabout way to dignity; instead, developing our individual powers by pursuing creative or productive endeavours with "an emphasis... on the practice of life" (Fromm, 1955) is much more likely to lead us to happiness.
If you're wondering where to start, I suggest a quiet, contemplative walk on a glorious summer day.