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As I was saying, healthcare staff went on strike today, and in case I hadn’t been clear, I strongly support their actions and their goals.

I left off somewhere around here a few days ago: In a poll of RCM members, 94% of respondents supported, if not a strike, then taking some form of industrial action regarding their forthcoming real-terms pay-cut. I was a little perturbed by the remaining 6%. In a room full of 16 midwives, statistically one of them thinks they should all keep working without being paid, because to do otherwise would be to cause an unnecessary fuss over the steady decline in remuneration for the work they do get paid for.

This highlights the odd role which “work to rule” plays in the lives of many public sector workers. That continuing to do the job agreed with your employer, and going no further beyond what you’re being compensated for, can constitute a form of protest, is itself slightly bewildering, and notably one-sided. If my bosses regularly paid me to take extra-long lunch-breaks, and only withdrew this privilege when they wanted something from me, then… well, then I don’t know what. But it’d be weird. Though maybe I’d be a bit less down on this whole capitalism thing.

(Maybe I’ve figured out why the Guardian didn’t want to commission me to write about this. Actual journalists need to be able to finish a sentence. Also they’ve kinda got it covered.)

When a serious objection to working conditions needs to be raised, however, it may eventually come time to down-forceps entirely, which might get a little more attention. Even then, they’ll do their best to make sure that nobody will suffer serious harm from want of their services, but whatever measure they take, the backlash is inevitable from certain quarters, castigating and condemning them for the arrogance with which they put the public at risk for their own gain.

Some of our general national wariness over public sector strikes is reasonable and worth considering, notwithstanding the extent to which it’s drummed up and over-hyped by certain self-interested tabloids – and bearing in mind that a stronger majority of everyday folk support the 1% pay rise in contention than have provided a mandate for any government in the last I’d have to do some actual research to find out how many years. Healthcare workers have a unique power over us when we’re at our most vulnerable and in need of help; if they chose to wield this power irresponsibly or selfishly, we could all find ourselves held to ransom by a surgeon who charges extra to sew us back up again, or hostage to a paramedic whose defibrillator doesn’t seem to be working right now but might just power back up and be able to get granddad’s heart beating again with the right amount of “persuasion”.

But although this is theoretically conceivable, back in the real world a far more likely danger of social blackmail is faced by healthcare workers themselves, who are expected by many to continue working constantly and tirelessly, regardless of the conditions of their remuneration, with threats of being held responsible for whatever happens to those who need their services in their absence, if they ever dare let up their efforts for a moment. (I saw someone on Twitter earlier ask what would happen to “the lives that would have been in the hands” of a particular nurse who was on the picket lines today if she’d been working. That’s not the half of it – I hear some of them forego work to sleep and have social lives too, you know. The nerve of it! People could be dying!)

Of course, implicit in any complaints about the terrible peril that we all face if NHS staff stop doing their jobs, even for a few hours with several weeks’ notice, is the acknowledgment that the jobs they’re doing are pretty fucking important – and often urgent and extremely time-sensitive. In certain paranoid fantasies, this means we could all fall foul of the above-imagined surgeon hostage-taker at any moment; in practice, the end result of this aspect of the job is all that unpaid overtime I was so bewildered by earlier.

If you’ve reached the end of your thirteen-hour shift and your colleague who’s supposed to be taking over hasn’t turned up to relieve you, working to rule would imply that you sod off regardless once it’s time for you to clock out, potentially leaving whoever you were caring for without anyone actively attending to them (or dumping responsibility for their care on someone else who’s around but who already has an overflowing case-load of their own). So what often happens is that you just have to keep working, beyond the time you’re getting paid for, and well beyond the point at which my knees would’ve buckled and brought on my third emotional breakdown of the night.

The same thing that makes it hard for them to take industrial action without risking harm to innocent bystanders, also makes it clear why industrial action is such an important option when they go so unappreciated. And yes, I mean they should be appreciated with money. If you expect someone to save your life, and deal with drunk idiots turning up in A&E night after night, and not complain when they’re regularly demonised for objecting to their pay being cut again, and to love what they do so much that they’re not even doing it for the money anyway, then I think not making it even harder for them to get by while they earn a salary in the stratospheric levels of slightly above the country’s median income is the least you can fucking do.

Be glad that nurses and midwives aren’t full-on going Galt. We’d miss them more than if every CEO in the country fucked off to join their money in the Caymans.

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Midwives are going on strike. Sorry babies, back inside you go. I know you’re ready to emerge from the womb and take your first breaths of air marking the start of your lifelong journey in the outside world, but that’s officially a picket line you’re trying to cross. Did you just rupture that amniotic membrane? Scab! Scab!

Yeah, so, that’s kinda obvious and has all been done. But there’s some serious bullshit going on here which has driven tens of thousands of medical professionals to vote massively in favour of industrial action in a recent ballot. It’s clearly something they don’t do lightly, since in the case of the Royal College of Midwives it’s literally never happened before, and the last NHS strike due to issues with their pay was over thirty years ago.

Frankly, I’m a little alarmed by the levels of patience and professionalism that midwives, nurses, paramedics, and others appear to have consistently shown about this. I’ll let the Chief Executive of the RCM explain why something’s finally being done now:

Each year, the independent NHS Pay Review Body (the PRB) takes evidence from the government, employers, trade unions and others about how much staff in the NHS should be paid, and based on all that it makes a recommendation. It takes a range of factors into account, including what’s affordable. This system takes the setting of pay out of the hands of politicians, and places it in the hands of independent experts. Every year since the PRB was founded in the early 80s, its recommendation has been accepted. Some years the government and employers grumbled that the pay rise was too high. Some years the unions grumbled that it was too low. But every year it was accepted by all sides. This year, that fair, independent, long-established way of doing things was ripped up when the government took the unilateral decision, now being implemented by employers in the NHS in England, not to honour the PRB’s recommendation of a 1% across-the-board rise in NHS staff pay.

Midwives’ pay was frozen for a couple of years recently, before rising 1% last year. Due to an obscure economic phenomenon called “inflation”, though, what this actually means is that everybody in this job took a real-terms pay cut, and then another, and then another. This year, they were expecting to take another, and this would have been considered acceptable, because it was the formal recommendation of an independent body.

Which still sounds like magnanimity taken to a frankly foolhardy extent in my book, but apparently the government weren’t happy even with this, and are planning to cut healthcare workers’ wages even more than they were already going to. Because austerity. Times are tough. We’re all in it together.

This is the same government, by the way, which doesn’t seem to be worried about finding the funds for a new high-speed rail line, a 9% pay-hike for its own members (taking their basic salary to £74,000, before expenses), and FUCKING TRIDENT.

But no, efforts to make sure women don’t die while they give birth to children is totally where we should squeeze financially. Some of those midwives start on nearly £25,000 a year, you know.

Way more of the public want to see NHS workers get the 1% pay increase they’re asking for – which, remember, is a real-terms pay cut – than wanted to elect this government that’s trying to slash their pay even further. Way more.

I don’t have time tonight to get into my whole other rant about the weirdness of “working to rule” as a form of industrial action, but I have to highlight the latter half of this statistic from the RCM ballot, quoted by Cathy Warwick in that article I linked to earlier:

82% voted in favour of strike action, with 94% voting in favour of taking action short of a strike (for example, refusing to work overtime unless paid for it).

94% voted in favour of “refusing to work overtime unless paid for it”.

Take a room full of 16 midwives facing a pay cut for the fourth consecutive year. Statistically, one of them wants to keep on working without being paid so as not to cause a fuss.

Not even sure how to start thinking about that one.

Give medical professionals some decent fucking money for saving all your lives all the time.

Thank you.

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The discussion about big corporations paying surprisingly little tax keeps coming back around, and rarely changes in its substance. Every time, a significant part of the discourse is devoted to reminding us that, so long as what they’re doing is legal, companies like Starbucks are simply engaging in good business practice by minimising their tax liabilities.

Regular Joes in the street like you and me, we don’t go paying more tax than we legally have to, after all, and if we had the chance to save a few quid we obviously would. Why would we expect companies earning billions, and with expert accountants on their payroll to find and make use of clever loopholes, to be any different?

In other news which might not seem to be connected at first glance, Education Secretary Michael Gove has called for the docking of teachers’ pay if they engage in industrial action by “working to rule”, and has called the unions organising such action “highly irresponsible”.

Working to rule, if you’re not familiar with the phrase, essentially means doing your job up to the limits of what’s legally required of you, and not going an inch further. If you’re contracted to work until 5pm, you go home at 5pm on the dot. If you’re entitled to an hour’s lunch-break, you drop everything and take not an instant less than three thousand six hundred seconds of leisure in the middle of the day.

The reason that “only doing the work you’re paid for” can, in some cases, constitute significant industrial action – let alone the fact that there’s even a term for it – speaks to how normalised it is for many workers to do more than their job description as part of a regular work-day. If everybody doing no more than the job they’re paid for would do as much damage as Gove would have you believe, you’d think someone might want to look into finding a way of remunerating public sector employees in a way that’s less calamitously broken. Possibly this should even be within the Education Secretary’s remit to look into.

The comparison and contrast, I hope, is clear. Doing the bare minimum legally required of you: When billionaires and global corporations do it to avoid contributing any more to the public purse, they’re savvy investors wisely managing their finances to maximise growth and increase shareholder return. When teachers, nurses, doctors, and other workers contributing their labour for the public good and regularly doing more than they’re paid for do it, they’re irresponsible and should be fined.

It’s a term you only seem to hear from serious politicians when the little guy is fighting back for a change, but “class warfare” doesn’t get much more naked and shameless than that.

It shouldn’t be surprising, of course, because government ministers and people distanced from the level of actual service provision have an innate upper hand. Someone from the National Association of Head Teachers is quoted in that BBC article:

We understand the position of our colleagues in the teaching unions, but our duty to pupils overrides all political or industrial considerations.

And he has a point – obviously the well-being and care of pupils (or those needing medical attention, etc.) should always be kept in mind. But the extent to which we consider these publicly funded jobs vital and necessary means the people doing those jobs can effectively be held to ransom.

If you’re in a union of, say, steelworkers (they still have those, right? We must still use steel, even though it’s the future now?), and you’re not happy with your pay or working conditions, you can go on strike. The company management might not be happy, but that’s kinda the point – and who else is going to care? The public at large isn’t going to give a crap if some steel doesn’t get worked by one particular company. Collective bargaining for the win.

But if you’re directly responsible for providing a public service, then any kind of industrial action risks disrupting that service. A service which could be much needed, even life-saving, and which could be made unavailable to some people in need of it.

The simplest, most headline- and soundbite-friendly way (which, let’s face it, is the way a lot of media outlets are most likely to bother with) to frame any industrial action by public sector workers boils down to: “They’re letting people suffer because they want more money”. Children are going untaught, wounds are going untreated, vital operations are (it’s presumed by extrapolation) going unperformed, because teachers and nurses and doctors are refusing to do the work we pay for with our taxes.

It’s the easiest perspective to take, because the workers are the ones immediately responsible for providing the service – but an instinct to see things this way renders every public sector utterly powerless to preserve their own financial security and their rights as employees, in ways that aren’t similarly threatened for private employees.

If the government made the money-saving decision to abruptly cut the salary of every firefighter in the country by half, those firefighters might not feel inclined to put out many fires until that bullshit was sorted out. The implications could be horrifying – fire is very unhealthy if you eat too much of it, I’ve read – but you’d have to be insane not to support their call for the government to reverse their policy decision, and absolve the firefighters themselves of the bulk of the responsibility for any consequences. What’s the alternative? How far below a living wage would you have to give them, before firefighters stop just being selfish for not doing their job simply because they’re the ones sitting in the truck with the massive hose?

Whether or not public sector workers are driven more by a sense of duty and desire to do good than others, they’re also trying to earn a living, and deserve a chance to do so. If their attempts to fight for that chance are having a negative impact, look a little further up the chain of command before deciding where to place the blame. Look at the cuts to education spending, and the way the NHS is being squeezed and privatised, and think about how much of the blame for disrupted services really lies with individuals trying to support their families and pay their mortgages under increasingly tight and antagonistic conditions.

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Only joking

Jeremy Clarkson annoyed the entire world recently.

And then he went on The One Show and talked about the public sector strike.

Although it’s hardly news for someone like Clarkson to say something contentiously coarse, one particular comment he made last week has caused more of a kerfuffle than most. Public sector workers had been striking over government plans to cut pay and pensions, and Clarkson, when asked his opinion, said this:

Frankly, I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living?

A lot of people involved in the strike or sympathetic to those involved with it weren’t happy with this. It sounds like a deplorably unkind thing to suggest. The trade union Unison suggested that the BBC should sack him. He’s apologised, but thinks it should be clear when taken in context that his remarks weren’t meant seriously. Those calling for recriminations are dismissive of the idea that anything as appalling as a demand for summary executions of teachers and nurses can be made acceptable by declaring it “just a joke”.

The thing is, it was taken out of context. This context here.

Let’s consider some ground rules for a moment. If you’re going to claim that a quote has been taken out of context, it’s up to you to explain why the quote alone does not give an accurate impression of its intended meaning, and how the interpretation was altered by a lack of context. It’s not enough to simply say “you’ve taken that out of context” and excuse yourself from ever being accused of having said something offensive.

But it seems clear that anything could, potentially, be taken out of context, however straight-forwardly offensive and objectionable it might seem. If it turns out that the words, when originally uttered, where preceded by the phrase “Some people might say,” and followed by “…but I would totally disagree with that,” then this is always important to know if you want an accurate understanding of what somebody was saying.

So what was Clarkson’s context? His actual, initial answer to the question about the strikes went like this:

I think they have been fantastic. Absolutely. London today has just been empty. Everybody stayed at home, you can whizz about, restaurants are empty… Airports, people streaming through with no problems at all. And it’s also like being back in the 70s. It makes me feel at home somehow.

This might not seem the noblest motivation for supporting workers’ attempts to defend their rights from employers, but at least he’s nominally on side. Then, a little bit later, and immediately before his homicidal tirade, he adds:

But we have to balance this though, because this is the BBC.

He’s referring to a tendency some have noticed in the BBC’s news reporting to give false balance, and insist on treating two sides of any discussion with scrupulous equality, regardless of either side’s true merits. Whether or not the BBC is actually guilty of this has no bearing on the fact that this was Clarkson’s basis for making his next comment.

His line about executing public sector workers was a joke. But the interesting question isn’t whether or not it’s a joke, but what joke it is that he was telling.

One possibility: although he wouldn’t really shoot them, it’s funny to think about shooting them. He was providing a comedic exaggeration of his genuine feelings, namely that the strikers are deserving of contempt.

Alternatively: he’s got no time for the way the BBC needs to “balance” every debate for the sake of impartiality, and he’s lampooning this idea by offering a contorted, extreme vision of what a “balanced” response might look like in the case of his support for the strike.

In either case, he could rightly claim that his remarks weren’t taken seriously. But in the second instance – which I think is evidently what Clarkson intended – there’s no real grounds to be offended on behalf of the strikers. They’re not the victims of the joke. The BBC are the victims; the utter inanity of making such outrageous statements about the strikers was exactly the point he was making.

The hosts of the show seem not to have been quite sure what to make of his comment, and sought to distance the BBC itself from any such provocative opinions, reminding viewers that these were “only Jeremy’s views”. His own immediate response was: “They’re not.” It’s not hard to see what he was doing.

Apparently, during the same show, Clarkson also made a comment about people committing suicide by jumping in front of trains, which also attracted complaints. The details aren’t in the above transcript, so I can’t be sure of the context, or even what was said. But there’s a good chance it provides a much better reason to maintain your opinion that Clarkson’s an obnoxious twerp than anything he’s said about the public sector lately.

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