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Is it me, or are we becoming immune to strike action?

by Black Sheep, 6th January 2023

Is it me, or are we becoming immune to strike action?

I’ll admit it. I’m old enough to remember the miners’ strikes… the chants of “Arthur Scargill, Arthur Scargill, we’ll support you ever more” and all that. Not that they did of course. But it was a big deal, and it made for great TV viewing, certainly for wide-eyed schoolboys, what with the fisticuffs, the police horse stampedes, the coach stonings and the union slang.

‘Dad… What does scab mean?’

Then things took on a darker edge. I can still remember shuddering at the thought of the lights going out for Christmas. That was when I really started to take a dislike to this Scargill fella with the bird’s nest hair.

Not that I was right wing, or anything. I mean, it wasn’t long after the Winter of Discontent, when everywhere you looked there was ‘industrial action’. Which I thought a curious phrase, when all they did was mill around bonfires being anything but industrious. But anyway, not to be left out, the lorry drivers soon went on strike too. And I was alright with that. You see, our school was heated by oil, and when the tankers didn’t turn up to replenish supplies, we were sent home for days on end. Right on, truckers. If I’d have had a car I’d have hooted my horn for them.

But three years on, as the prospect of Arthur Scarface ruining Christmas loomed large, it had me incensed. ‘How dare you?!’ I yelled (a phrase since stolen by a Swedish kid, of course). Just who did this red-faced, tub-thumping Northern upstart think he was, I demanded to know. ‘Take your pick axe and get back down your pit you lazy, good-for-nothing malcontent,’ I stropped, in a middle-class, schoolboyish way.

Over time I came to realise that the miners’ strikes weren’t nearly as black and white as they seemed. Scargill was no more the Grinch than Thatcher was Father Christmas. In fact there was a good argument to say Maggie was Scrooge and Arthur was Bob Cratchit. Either way, the whole episode left an indelible mark on me such that, ever since, the prospect of industrial action in any walk of life always brought me out in a cold sweat. Until Covid.

Stay with me, coz it’s all relevant. But I have a theory about the pandemic, and it lets the Chinese off the hook. I believe it was a transgenic construct of The Brexit Party.

Think about it. After we voted to leave the EU, everything bad that happened was blamed on Brexit. Teresa May? Brexit. Donald Trump? Brexit. Teresa May struggling to eat some chips and losing her commons majority? Brexit. The Beast From The East, Prince Philip crashing his Land Rover, Notre Dame burning down, Boris Johnson winning an 80-seat majority, Greta Thunberg getting angry? All Brexit’s fault.

Then came 2020. And suddenly, the very existence of the word Brexit was under threat. Instead the headlines were full of new words and phrases we still didn’t fully understand if we were honest. Things like PPE, social distancing, furlough, the WHO (not the rock band), contact tracing, Zooming, Matt Hancock, AstraZeneca, anti-vaxxers. And, of course, lockdown.

And ever since, everything bad that has happened has been blamed not on Brexit, but on the pandemic. And specifically lockdown. With some justification.

But here’s the thing. Unlike Brexit, it wasn’t really anyone’s fault. We had to do something, right? (Okay, maybe not, but that’s another story.) And we had to put up with the hard times. Like losing our jobs and livelihoods. Eating outdoors, even when it was cold. Wearing flippin’ face masks. No doctors’ appointments. Waiting forever for an ambulance. No nurses available in A&E when you finally got there. The trains not running. The post turning up a month late. Your driving test being cancelled. 

Now, the more astute of you will have spotted where I’m going with this. Because those last few irritations are still very much with us. It’s just that instead of Covid, it’s industrial action causing all the chaos. Which brings me back to people huddled round bonfires doing very little.

Sadly, for those nurses, ambulance drivers, rail workers, train drivers, posties and driving examiners shivering outside, in this post-Covid world of ours their strike action has resulted in nothing less than service levels considered to be the new normal.

I’m sorry guys, you may be refusing to work, but we're not bothered. We’re used to it. We know full well not to wait for an ambulance if we can possibly help it. We half expect to spend the night in A&E before being seen. We avoid the railways at all costs, and work from home instead. We don’t send letters any more. We don’t go to the Post Office to send parcels, we use courier companies. And we frankly don’t care if our teenagers have to wait until they’re older until they get a driving licence. The roads are safer for it.

What makes things worse for the unions - or rather, the workers on strike, given union leaders still get paid and get to keep their jobs - is the Government is all too aware of this. Hence their hard-nosed, fingers-in-their-ears approach.

In fact, it’s worse than fighting a losing battle for the unions. It’s becoming a massive own goal. By carrying on not carrying on, they’ve hacked off the Tories so much the Government are tabling a bill to make strike action illegal. And as for Post Office and rail workers, they’re trashing their industry so badly, demand for their services is plummeting. Which will only end one way.

Today’s Arthur Scargills may not like to hear this, but the real risk to their members’ jobs and livelihoods isn’t so much an intransigent government as the nation’s collective shrug.

After the trials and tribulations of the last three years, we’ve all become quite adept at keeping calm and carrying on. Maybe this is what Chris Whitty meant by herd immunity.

A mutton for punishment, Black Sheep welcomes all comments. Email blacksheep@borderpublishing.com to air your points of view.

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