Advice about strikes
2012 sees the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens.
I am just reading his novel Hard Times, set against the backdrop of the friction between the masters and the workers in the fictional industrial conurbation of ‘Coketown’.
November 30 saw friction as nearly two million public sector employees from 26 unions took part in a day of strikes over pensions and pay. They feel they are bearing too much of the burden of government cutbacks necessary in the light of the national financial crisis. Schools, courts, government offices, rubbish collections and other services were brought to a standstill. In hospitals most non-emergency operations were cancelled.
More strikes are planned and cash-strapped Britain seems very divided over the issues. On breakfast TV, one woman who runs her own small company said that the original settlement on public sector pensions was a mistake. It was unaffordable and brought in by the same government which encouraged outrageous bankers’ pay-outs like that to Sir Fred Goodwin (reportedly retired on £340,000 a year). ‘I haven’t got a pension’, she said, ‘nor have many of my employees. They would have to work not just an extra year but an extra 25 years to get a pension anywhere near those of the public sector.’
By contrast, a woman going on strike complained: ‘We can’t be expected to increase contributions and have pensions reduced at the same time’. A young male striker said: ‘Why should the government take our money to pay for their (financial) black hole?’ The unions’ furious reaction to Jeremy Clarkson’s oafish joke on BBC TV’s One Show, saying strikers ‘should be shot’, indicates just how sensitive and divided people are.
Confronted with financial difficulties of historic proportions, the tragedy is that there is no national ‘Dunkirk spirit’ to face it together. As this column has previously pointed out, the only ‘glue’ which keeps a diverse secular society together is joint enjoyment of prosperity. When that is gone, the ‘civil war’ (let’s hope only metaphorically) begins.
Facing the question
Many Christian people will face the question of whether or not to go on strike in coming months. Being from a working class home, my instinct has always been on the side of the strikers. But Christians must act on more than emotions. Our first concern should be not to be swayed by peer pressure from either left or right, but, having ascertained the facts, to do what we honestly believe is right before God. With an open Bible before them, Christians need always to be people who follow their conscience. That is rarely easy, especially if colleagues see things differently. However, a display of backbone is not only required, but often opens up opportunities for witness. Important as they may be, are money and pensions the most significant things in life (Luke 12.15)?
The body of Christ
Those who protested outside St. Paul’s in the autumn may be right. Capitalism is failing us. The end of any game of Monopoly is that one wins and everyone else loses. That seems to be what is happening in the West with the actions of a few rich bankers bringing calamity on the vast majority of the population. What’s the way forward? Many have hardly moved on from the ‘class war’ which Dickens described nearly two centuries ago. Confrontation will get us nowhere. There is now an opportunity for local churches as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12.7), to show how a diverse group of people can respect and look after one another in Christ during hard times, and so point to a better society.