Saturday, 8 September 2007

Variations on a theme of ransom

What do you do when an entire city’s transport system is totally disrupted because there is another all-out strike? You stress, you curse, and you wish someone would end this nonsense.

Then you hear about others, baggage handlers at airports, even prison officers, going on strike, causing so many problems for other people. And you think it’s the unions. You don’t see those without a strong unionized workforce going on strike. They just get on with it. Whereas those backed by the power of their unions are quite ready to hold the rest of society to ransom. Meet our demands, they declare, or else there will be unpleasant consequences for you all.

So when the leaders of society stand firm and pronounce such actions irresponsible, if not outright contemptible, people look up and welcome their intervention. At last someone to protect us from those who use their power to secure what they want at our expense. It is outrageous that some people can keep playing the “or else” card to force us to comply with their preferred scheme of things.

But what protection are we getting? Let us take a closer look. When those who are in fact the most economically powerful proclaim that in their scheme of things, they must have an utterly disproportionate share of what they in conjunction with numerous others produce, what happens? Do we hear resounding condemnation of these corporate barons? Do we hear revulsion that they are getting away with establishing a society where they can pay themselves millions, and further year on year increases of 10%, 20%, 30% and more above the rate of inflation, when many ordinary workers find that their pay does not even keep pace with inflation, their jobs are constantly under threat as management might sacrifice them to boost share prices, and whose pension terms are deteriorating when their bosses are getting extra benefits in every conceivable way?

What we do hear is this: “we must accept this, because …” wait for it, “or else”, yes, that’s the crunch point, “or else, they would leave and take their skills elsewhere, and we would all lose out”. In other words, out of fear that these corporate barons would do a walk-out – which of course is precisely what they threaten to do every time someone questions the absurd benefits they award themselves – nobody dares to challenge them.

This is mistaken on two counts. First, it is a myth that people, even the most greed-soaked ones, are only motivated by getting hugely more money all the time to do what they love doing anyway. Look at the top footballers’ contracts. None of them seriously thinks that they could not be bothered to fight hard to win a competition because they are not paid another million pounds on top of the X millions they are getting already. But it does become a problem if a few super elite are getting another million, then they want it too. What’s the driver here? A need to minimize differentials – not to maximize.

Secondly, when the powerful at the top are left unchallenged, vulnerable individuals have no choice but to band together to protect themselves. Unions are to workers as Robin Hood and his followers are to the exploited folks of old Nottingham. And there is a crucial difference between the Sheriff of Nottingham holding wretched peasants to ransom lest they allowed him to grab his grossly unfair share of what the people had produced, and Robin Hood holding the good Sheriff to ransom lest he agreed to let them live a decent life. It can be summed up in one word. Justice.