How we talk about industrial action

There’s a problem with the way we talk about working people who take industrial action. The problem is we don’t talk about them at all.

Check out the framing of industrial action on the front page of Radio NZ – hardly NZ’s equivalent of Fox News – a couple of weeks ago.

rnz strike

“Auckland hit by bus strike” – as though a strike is a natural weather event which comes out of nowhere, and definitely isn’t about people taking action. Where are the people? “Auckland commuters left stranded” – there they are. Stranded! Because this strike came out of nowhere, and definitely didn’t involve any warning or notice. Much like a tornado.

There’s another interesting conversation to have about flexible working arrangements and how for many people working from home isn’t an option – usually people in lower-paid jobs, doing service work, providing “essential services” which aren’t compensated as such. But that’s not really what we’re saying when we talk about “commuters left stranded”, is it?

The blurb does get around to mentioning the people taking action – “bus drivers walked off the job.” As though a strike is just about a bunch of layabouts getting bored and wandering away, for no good reason at all!

It’s fair to point out that this is just the headline, and that the article behind it may well go into more detail – about the fact that the people who take responsibility for operating large, complex machines which transport hundreds of other human beings are overworked, underpaid, and being bullied when they dare to stand together in union.

But … it’s also the headline. This is the side of the story which gets the attention. Not the very real concerns faced by the people who drive buses full of other people and who are asking for totally unreasonable things like not driving for 5.5 hours straight without a break.

And so it is reinforced that strikes are random and unfair, that people who take strike action are doing it for no good reason, and that the real victims here are the white-collar workers who got inconvenienced on the way to work.

Which might be how we end up in situations like this:

Because we’ve lost sight of the people in the story and let the conversation about public transport, like so many other vital public services, become about money.

Speaking of which, here’s how yesterday’s announced industrial action was reported:

auckland dhb strike

loki sigh

There are real issues here. Our health system is missing at least $1.7 billion thanks to eight years of penny-pinching public-service-eroding National government. People who do absolutely vital work like managing pharmacies, providing occupational therapy and mental health support, and much less vital work like administering anaesthesia during surgery have been expected to keep on keeping on while their wages and work conditions have been eroded and outright cut.

The government has chosen to starve our health system, and DHBs have chosen – perhaps with little choice given their squeezed finances, but some nevertheless – to put pay and conditions for staff last on the list of priorities (except possibly for their chief executives.)

They’re not storming off in a huff because Daddy won’t buy them another pony. They are people being pushed to the limits who see no other way to get the message through.

Let’s remember that next time we see headlines about Cyclone Industrial Action Strikes Innocent Commuters as Faceless Robots Walk Off The Job.

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