On Wednesday afternoon the industrious silence of the British Library Reading Rooms was interrupted by the familiar scale and pregnant pause of a customer service announcement. The disembodied voice offered an apologetic explanation for today’s one-day strike action. Adopting the rhetoric of the doctor’s surgery and railway waiting room, the announcer reassured the “service users” that, despite the strike, the library would endeavor to open all Reading Rooms as normal, apologising for any potential disruption. Heads were raised, gazes crossed awkwardly, and the tragedy-comedy of the moment was complete.
Today’s coordinated public sector strike – involving a range of workers from firefighters to staff at the British Library – aims to overturn the coalition government’s policy of a 1% public sector pay cap. While the importance and necessity of this strike is unquestionable, the way in which it was undermined by the apologetic and divisive tone of the customer service tannoy certainly is.
Strikes are supposed to be confrontational. They disrupt work and the products and services that this work provides. This is their lever – this is how they effect change. The idea of apologising for the “inconveniences” caused to customers by minor delays in the normal running of the British Library is, to say the least, ironic. Even a lonely cheer of solidarity from the crowd of academics (a profession known for its left-wing credentials) was too much to ask. Instead, a pathetic and awkward silence followed – the audience (one hopes) embarrassed that receiving the apology confirmed their own complicity in the tragic episode.
It is moments like this that make people think strikes are ‘un-English’ – that we are not hot-blooded enough to do them properly. And perhaps our famous reserve, politesse and manners do play a role (though probably less of a role than thirty years of anti-union rhetoric). In any case, if we want to challenge the effects of austerity over the coming years, we will have to learn how to be confrontational. Not apologising for going on strike and showing solidarity against a divisive customer/provider distinction would be a good start.
Thanks to Jac and Gabriel – two earnest British Library Readers who wrote this