Thank the London Tube Strikers, as History Proves it Can Be a Good Thing

By James O Malley on at

Londoners have been slightly inconvenienced over the last 24 hours as Tube workers have gone on strike. We’ve had to squeeze on to buses, walk further than we’d like to, and got to work later. But there’s a good reason behind it: Workers on the London Underground have banded together and are acting as one to stand-up for better working conditions - following in a noble tradition of standing up for the rights of workers.

In school, certainly in earlier years when learning history is compulsory, we’re taught the history of Britain through the lens of royalty. We have lessons on “The Tudors”, maybe “The Stuarts”, and definitely “The Victorians” - but it would be equally valid to view history not as a story of Kings and a handful of Queens, but as a succession of struggles by working people to win concessions from the powerful. You can go back through world history and draw a straight line through progressive causes from the French Revolution to the Great Reform Act to the Suffragettes and US Civil Rights Movement, all of which were important historical moments due to a bottom-up challenge to the powerful by ordinary people. The reason the world is much better today than it was 100 years ago isn't just because of technology, but because of politics too.

Have you ever wondered why you get a two-day weekend? Or why women have to get paid the same as men? Or why your working conditions aren’t as dire as those faced by working people in the Victorian times? These things weren’t granted by the powerful out of the goodness of their cold, black, hearts, but were hard won by individually powerless workers banding together to stand up to those with their hands on the levers of power.

The Tube strikers are part of the same tradition: They are standing up, against management, for their working conditions which look set to be shaken up with the introduction of the “Night Tube” later this year.

So before you start to complain about the strike, why not consider what trade unionism has done for us? Here’s a handful of examples that show why strikes can be important.

Not So Horrible Working Conditions

In the 19th century working in a factory was horrible. In the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, London employees were expected to work 14 hour days for terrible pay, with risks of losing pay through “fines” if work wasn’t judged to be up to scratch - and perhaps worst of all, the risk of significant health problems from the use of white phosphorus, which can cause “Phossy Jaw”. If you get Phossy Jaw, your jaws can abscess, glow in the dark and rot away - and even cause organ failure.

Oh, and did I mention the people working in the factory often included teenage girls?

A huge dispute kicked off when an activist called Annie Besant (who would later go on to be one of the major voices in British secularism and a key figure in the Indian independence movement) wrote an article criticising the factory. When the bosses tried to get employees to sign a paper contradicting Besant’s claims, 1,400 workers walked out - and refused to return until working conditions were improved.

The strike caused such a shitstorm that it was a major point in industrial relations in Britain as factory owners realised they couldn’t work employees to death. If you’ve ever wondered why your workplace treats you relatively okay, it is thanks to trade unionism.

Equal Pay for Women

In 1968, the women who worked at Ford’s Dagenham plant made less money than the men. They were tasked with sewing car seat covers, and were officially set to be on a pay grade lower than their male colleagues, classified as “lower skilled” rather than “more skilled”. So what did they do? They organised.

The strike lasted three weeks, in which time production of new cars ground to a halt, and to get them back into work Ford cut them a more generous deal, promising to get them on to the same pay grade as the men the next year. But it was more important than that; the strike also directly led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970, legally enshrining the fact that women should be paid the same as men.

This was later dramatised in the film Made in Dagenham.

Education for the Poor

The longest strike in British history lasted 25 years, between 1914 and 1939. The Burston School Strike started when a couple of teachers - Annie Higdon and Tom Higdon were sacked from the Burston Church of England school over a dispute with the curriculum and conditions.

Though the 1902 education act guaranteed working class kids an education, the school apparently taught the poor kids to essentially know their place - and in any case, the school was cold and had poor sanitary conditions.

So the Higdons did the obvious thing and, umm, started their own school - and 66 of the school’s 72 pupils followed them to the makeshift institution, which started life on the village green and was supported by donations by other trade unionists from around the country.

Whilst the strike didn’t lead to any immediate reforms, obviously schools today are much nicer places for all students, even those from the poorest backgrounds, thanks to this sort of agitation in the past.

Sex Strike for Peace

A strike is essentially a last ditch measure, something that is done because all other options have failed. If agreement can’t be reached, as we have seen with the London Underground and its workers, the latter have walked out to show how inconvenient things would be if they weren’t there.

Liberian women knew this too, and in 2003 brought the second Liberian civil war to a close through a sex strike. Seriously. It turns out that once the men doing the fighting face this threat, they lose their enthusiasm for violence. And the coordinated action of thousands of women were able to make it happen.

Why You Should Support the Tube Strike

So given the historical context, can you really blame the people of today for doing the same as their ancestors and standing up for better working conditions? Sure, things are better today but that doesn’t mean that they are perfect. Why should we accept the status quo, or even expect it to continue? As we saw with yesterday’s budget, the powerful are happy to turn the screws and put further pressure on those at the bottom?

One of the most common arguments with the current strike is that Tube workers are already relatively well remunerated - but this isn’t an argument to bring down their wages, this is surely an argument for people in other jobs to work together to fight for better pay and conditions. If being a tube driver is so great, why didn't you apply to be one?

Ultimately, strikes are an important part of living in an industrialised and democratic society. It is the tool of last resort that means that individuals are not swept away in the face of political and technological change. It is perhaps inevitable that eventually driverless tube trains and autonomous vehicles will replace the need for the vast majority of tube employees (meaning that we’ll need some sort of universal basic income), but in the meantime why should we begrudge people standing together and fighting for better conditions? Historically speaking, a couple of days of inconvenience is a price worth paying for a fairer society for all of us.

Image Credit: Wikimedia