heathen, infidel, scab

I broke a strike on Wednesday. I’ve never done that before.

I’m breaking a lot of habits at the moment (for example, the habit of ‘not blogging’ that I’d fallen into). Even writing on this blog about Wednesday’s strike means breaking another habit: I usually make it a rule never to write about my day job.

But on this occasion I want to. It’s worth explaining, I think, why I’m a member of the National Union of Teachers but didn’t take part in the London-based strike on Wednesday.

For a start, it wasn’t for the money. I don’t feel good about breaking the strike and so I decided in advance – at the excellent suggestion of one of my students – that whatever money I earned that day will go to something worthwhile. Probably the strike fund (if only to keep on decent terms with some Union members).

It also wasn’t because I think the government’s current offer on pensions reform is any good. It is a big stinking heap of horseshit. Admittedly there’s a whopping great generation of homeowning baby-boomers about to enter the longest and most luxurious retirement any generation has ever, or ever will, be lucky enough to enjoy; but I’m not persuaded that this has to be paid for by the next generation of teachers, many of whom (certainly those in London) can’t even afford to get a mortgage and so will be doubly screwed with accommodation costs when we retire, half-dead, at 68. There’s a million other ways to pay for that generation’s retirement over the next 100 years and we have to find a fairer one.

Plus, even despite the economics there’s a question of contracts at stake. Nobody is saying that the baby boomers should have their obscenely generous pensions cut, because they are thought to have worked through their careers for those pensions and to remove them now would be to short-change them. But the government acts as if, since it would be a travesty to short-change that blessed generation, it’s the next generation that must be short-changed instead. (There’s been a lot of fuss made about the ‘Granny Tax’ since the budget, but actually the removal of income tax breaks for people over 65 is one of the few really fair things this government have done).

Either way, the fact that teachers in the UK get (or used to get) brilliant pensions was a pretty major factor in my decision to become one, and the same is true of many of my colleagues. It doesn’t matter how old you are – to employ people and commit them to a job based on certain terms of service, and then change those terms later on, is a dickish thing to do. So to change the rules on teachers’ pensions once many people of my generation have dedicated ourselves to that profession is outright nasty.

So why didn’t I strike on Wednesday?

Because striking wouldn’t have helped any of this situation, even if every school in London had been shut completely.

What the Unions seem to have missed is that Tory ‘modernisers’ like Gove and Maude actually want the unions to strike so that they can be discredited in some kind of moral battle in the minds of Middle Englanders. They want strikes so that they can face them with aggression – and probably violence, like Thatcher did – while making Ed Miliband look even weaker than he already is.

The government have deliberately put an insulting offer on the table, made token tactical concessions after last year’s strike in order to look like they’ve been reasonable, and then been pretty clear that what’s on the table now, crappy as it still is, is the best offer we’ll get, in the hope that the NUT and other unions will take the bait.

So, while it’s possible that some of the industrial action last year had some small effect on the negotiations (though probably not as much as the union leaders would have us believe), Wednesday’s strike was just playing into Michael Gove’s hands, and as a result would have achieved nothing good.

Whereas for my students on the other hand, a day of teaching lost with so little time to go before their exams in May could very easily have made the tiny difference between getting the grades they need for college/university and not getting them – with whatever future consequences that might bring. For me, it certainly would have been too big a potential loss to have risked it just so I could stand behind the NUT’s leader while she threw her toys out of the pram (having failed to get us a better deal in the pension negotiations).

So. I weighed up what would be gained from striking against what would be lost, and didn’t let religious dogma get in the way.

That’s right. Religious dogma.

When I told my colleagues I wasn’t striking, and explained my reasons, pretty much every single one of them said the same thing: “but what about the principle of solidarity?”

So I should make my position on this clear: ‘solidarity’ amongst groups who are doing the wrong thing is bullshit. Doing the wrong thing – ‘but doing it together’ – is not admirable. It’s foolish. It’s that kind of uncritical herd-like behaviour which drives lemmings off cliffs, countries into wars, and humans into death camps. The principle of solidarity for its own sake is not to be admired.

I have a lot of respect for Trade Unionism as an ideology; that’s why I’m a member of one. I think it’s a necessary and important counterbalance to the tendency of employers to exploit their workers, and the conditions that workers would have to suffer if they had no possibility of grouping together to improve those conditions does not bear thinking about.

Trade Unionism – like any human political ideology – can be useful when it is guided by what James and Dewey would have called a melioristic motive: that is, when its values are genuinely guided by an empirically-informed attempt to improve the world, to make our experience of life better and more satisfying. In other words, the principle of union solidarity has value when following that principle will make a real improvement to our lives.

But in my view, the point at which ideology becomes religious dogma is when it loses that meliorism and starts to consider its values as having some intrinsic value – not as a means to some end, but as ends in themselves. When the principles, for example the principle of ‘solidarity’, become more important than whatever end they were originally meant to achieve.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to know when that has happened, because people find it hard to recognise when the original melioristic end has become unattainable. But when the original melioristic end does become unattainable, it vanishes from view; the principles alone take on the appearance of ends which can apparently justify any means. At this point a religion is born, and sane individuals start behaving in ridiculous ways in order to follow the principle without really understanding why.

Nevertheless, they still hold these principles to be the most morally necessary thing possible, and are proud to express disgust at those who don’t. They even create new names for them: ‘heathen’, ‘infidel’, ‘scab’. And they follow this principle and this logic to the end.

Like lemmings.



  1. Hello,

    I found your argument about the strike very interesting, especially the point about solidarity.

    I think the point you make about solidarity works to a point. I believe that if you do not think that your union should strike then you should not vote for a strike. You should not vote for a strike in the ballot just because your colleagues or the leadership of a union support it, all in the name of solidarity. Blindly following them with your vote just because you’re a member of the same organisation is as silly as you suggest in your critique of solidarity.

    However, I think the problem with your argument then comes with the strike itself and the ‘decision’ of whether to participate. So let’s say one votes against the strike but when the votes are added up the strikers have it. The union has collectively decided upon industrial action. I believe that whichever way an individual member voted, they should now recognise the strike as the legitimate behaviour of the collective. This is surely how collective organisations have to work. It is also the underpinning of democracy.

    Consider an election whereby the citizens who didn’t vote for the victorious party didn’t consider it to be the government, or its leader the Prime Minister. This could be taken even further. One could say that because one didn’t vote for a party, one doesn’t believe that party should be in power and therefore doesn’t recognise the laws made by that party whilst in office as legitimate. The individual could then make a case for breaking those laws. They refuse to ‘participate’ in the laws which have been made. Many would argue that despite the individual’s own feelings, if there was more support throughout the country (or whatever collective we’re discussing) for another party (or course of action) then the individual, as a citizen (or member) of the country, they have to recognise that they ‘lost’. Consider the members of a board of a company who all vote over whether to invest more money into the organisation. 5 vote in favour, 2 are against. Should the 2 who voted against not put their money in? If they still don’t want to then they may well be asked to leave the board.

    Consider that an individual votes no to a strike and when the votes are counted the no votes have it. If the individuals who votes yes then engaged in a strike, the no voters would surely think this proposterous. Indeed, this would be a wildcat strike.

    I believe that there is an argument to be made about trust in the system by which the views of the organisation, country, group or whatever are determined. One might, for instance, have little trust in the system by which votes are cast or counted. I believe this could constitute a reasonable case for arguing that one should not participate in a course of action jointly decided upon, because the system by which the views have been ascertained is inaccurate or biased. But as you make no reference to this in your blog, I don’t think this is the point you’re making.

    My point is that any member of a collective organisation which is founded upon democratic principles surely has to stand by the decisions which are collectively derived. Otherwise the organisation ceases to be a democratic collective.

    Now, there are many arguments against collectives and collective behaviour. But any democratic country or organisation is to some extent, a collective. The argument you make against collective behaviour, “the principles alone take on the appearance of ends” is a problem with democracy. Democracy, which is a means, can lead us to very bad places, like the 1930s in Germany, but we still recognise it as the least worst system we have. We’re not going to dispense with democracy because of Hitler. Democracy itself becomes a principle, even though it is a means, not an end.

    The major difference between organisations and nations is, of course, one can leave an organisation much more easily. I think that if an individual does not want to stand by a collective decision, then they should leave the collective in which they participate. Every individual is a member based upon the idea that, when democratically determined, they will be supported. How can one rely on group support when one does not engage in group support oneself, even when it democratically determined by the group?

    I’d be interested to hear what you think to my points. I hope you’ll take my comments not as a personal attack of any kind but simply as the initiation of a discussion about strike action with someone who enjoys poltics, philosophy and well-mannered debate, like yourself.


    • Hello James,

      Sorry for taking so long to get back to you – I only just saw your comment the other day now that I’ve started blogging again, and your point is very well-made.

      I think the problem that this raises is a problem which liberals like me have always struggled with: to what extent is democracy, and the will of a group, a good thing – and to what extent can it be a justification for terrible mistakes, or worse, become a tyranny of the majority?

      The answer I’d give to that is that democracy is generally very useful, but that every individual has to decide, even after every democratic group decision, whether they can go along with what the group have determined. But I’d question your claim that a democratic decision is really a collective one. It isn’t: the decision made is a nominal or numarical majority of individuals. And this means there is always a danger that the majority might be wrong, and if they are, and you go with them for the sake of democracy, then democracy itself has become the problem. This doesn’t mean that democracy is wrong – just that it isn’t always going to be right, and individuals need to take responsibility for their own decisions when that happens.

      It will also depend on just *how* wrong the largest group of individuals are. There are times where I might say, ‘I disagree with this, but I accept that it’s what has been decided, it doesn’t really harm anyone for me to go along with that majority, and so it’s better that I go along with it.’ And there are cases like that, and aspects of UK law with which I disagree but still abide by.

      However, there are also times when one must say, ‘hang on – the majority aren’t right about this. And in this case – and with a full consideration of the possible consequences for disobeying – my own judgement has to take precedence over the majority.’

      So I don’t mind not smoking in public places, even though I think it should be legal, because it doesn’t harm anyone too much. But suppose it were made compulsory for me, as a teacher, to beat any student who didn’t wear the correct uniform – I just wouldn’t do it.

      This doesn’t mean dispensing with democracy – it means recognising that the results of democratic decisions must still be subject to individual conscience.

      It also means recognising that disputing democratic agreements made by any organisation, whether they are right or wrong, doesn’t necessitate leaving the organisation. Just because one disagrees with a decision made by a majority of members of the group, doesn’t necessarily mean that you disagree with the basic principles of the group. disagreeing with one strike doesn’t stop me from thinking that being a member of a trade union is often a good thing.

      So I didn’t go on strike because, in that case, the majority was wrong. They were. And I wasn’t prepared to go along with it.

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