'Strikes benefit no-one' said Nick Gibb, the education minister, referring to today's public sector strike. He is wrong. Traditionally when strikes occurred, they made a point. There was always a clear reason for them, and it was only because the employer ceased to talk that withdrawing labour was resorted to in order to pressure the employer back to negotiations. This often worked. But the act of striking meant more than that.
I've always enjoyed the political drama of strikes, the picket lines and marches. But the main point of any strike, and what made it worthwhile, was the chance to talk to fellow workers and the public about what you wanted to achieve. They gave you a unique opportunity to engage in argument and win support.
The main feature of today's 'strikes' is silence. Often a picket line isn't even there. It will consist of a dusty placard saying 'On Strike' or it will be a small group of people asking passers-by to please 'Take a leaflet?' On marches there's razzmatazz. There are bands, balloons and that wild whistle blowing that makes conversation impossible. There is some rehearsed and random shouting, such as the chant heard on today's pension demo: 'What do we want? Our pensions before we die!' Certainly there are some colourful and often witty banners. But the one thing missing is debate and discussion about the issue behind the picket or demonstration. I have been on many strikes and protests over the last few years and found they are intellectually desultory affairs. There may be a lot of noise at these events, but they are intellectually silent.
On the demonstration about student fees, myself and several academic colleagues from universities in the Midlands offered to run impromptu seminars for the bored students! There was no debate about the issues.
Today's strike was the same. Like the issue of fees, what complex maters like pensions require is seminars, not strikes. Some major unions weren't striking today so debate was clearly needed! Ironically, academics and teachers have the ability to strike out intellectually, and perhaps win their case by debating with their employers and the government. They should do more of that rather than to do what most do and spend their day 'protesting' at home, or at a shopping mall!
Striking out intellectually is what is needed today. I'm not saying that actual strikes can't be the place for this, but a strike is not a strike when it's intellectually silent.
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