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Rail strikes: industrial action is about power - and it’s about the only way working people can exercise it

Like the right to vote, the right to withdraw our labour should be celebrated unconditionally - we don’t have much else

It’s pretty good, democracy, isn’t it? Like, when you think about it, it makes sense that we have at least some say over the way our society is run, how our taxpayer money is spent, what new lifeboats are called etc (remember that!?).

Ok, so our influence as everyday voters might be somewhat less than those with pockets deep enough to spend the price of a starter home outside London on dinner with Theresa May, Boris Johnson and David Cameron - one of the big raffle prizes at last night’s Conservative Party fundraiser, which went for £120,000.

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The right to vote

Is it right that someone who can, say, donate tens of thousands of pounds directly to the ruling party’s coffers over a number of years should then, in a completely unrelated turn of events, be awarded lots of lucrative taxpayer-funded contracts? Who can say. But that’s democracy, baby.

You won’t often catch me quoting Winston Churchill, dear reader, but perhaps he was on to something when he said that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

So it is right that we celebrate democracy, despite its flaws. It is still a means by which we, the people, can exert some influence over our lives - however diminished and crowded out that influence may be.

We all agree then, across the political spectrum, that the right to vote, the power placed in the hands of the individual by access to democracy, is a good thing. Right? Glad we’ve got that ironed out.

So given our universal agreement on the whole ‘voting not perfect but definitely good’ thing, let’s talk about the right to take industrial action - or strike.

We have precious few avenues through which we can assert control over our own lives. Lives that are defined more-or-less entirely by work and the things it allows us to do (ie live).

As individuals we often have little choice but to nod meekly as bosses offer whatever they see fit to offer, knowing the alternative is taking a chance in an overheated labour market within a low-skill, service-heavy economy.

For many people, too many people in fact, there is no alternative to this. The power imbalance between company and worker is too vast to overcome.

In normal circumstances this state of affairs is bad enough. But under current conditions, with inflation sky-rocketing largely driven by corporate profits, it is egregious.

Unions, despite their flaws, exist to to level out that power imbalance, by bringing us together around a shared set of goals, and fighting like hell to get them.

Despite what ministers might say through broad grins, having spotted yet another opportunity to pit worker against worker, no union takes industrial action lightly.

Assuming they even wanted to, the cavalcade of restrictive anti-trade union laws that have passed through both Houses in the decades since Margaret Thatcher and the Ridley Plan mean it really isn’t an easy feat to secure the legal right to strike - so when it happens, you can rest assured there’s good reason.

Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that those same restrictive trade union laws prevent workers in industries like rail from planning more targeted strike action which would still allow people to travel, potentially for free, on strike days - as happens in the Netherlands, for example.

While disruption is obviously the intention of strike action - it demonstrates the crucial role workers play in society - nobody relishes it. I’ve spoken to lots of trade unionists and, can I just shock you? They’re people who live in the real world and don’t relish the difficulties that industrial action causes for other people who also live in the real world, including their families and friends.

The right to strike

If you’re reading this, chances are you will never be in a position to club together with a load of your mates and bung a political party £50,000 in hopes they make changes to legislation which will directly benefit you (and if that is you, stop reading this, it isn’t for you).

The ways in which you will be able to exert any influence or, dare I say it, to Take Back Control of your life, will probably be limited to putting an X in a box every few years.

You have that right, but you have others too. As part of a trade union you have the right to withdraw that thing which They need and We have - labour. In the right time and place, bandied together, that can be much more powerful than voting, with a much more tangible and direct impact on our lives.

Just ask the numerous workers - from warehouse operatives in Manchester to hospital porters in London to scaffolders in Scunthorpe - who’ve fought and won above-inflation pay-rises through the help of trade unions in recent months.

Yes, the strikes are an inconvenience. But so is a real-terms pay cut. So is plutocracy.

So while nobody should celebrate the disruption that strikes bring, I for one will absolutely be celebrating the fact that we live in a country where we have the right to strike, and the very real power which that affords to normal people, in a world where we have so little of it.

If I told you I support your right to vote, unless you use that vote in a way that inconveniences or displeases me, you would rightly conclude that I do not really support your right to vote.

And, for what it’s worth, I bet the unions would have let us call it Boaty McBoatFace, too.