Last week saw a 24 hour strike by London Underground staff, with commuters and tourists left to make their own way across the city. The dispute centred around a new, much-heralded night-time service, which unions claim would impose changes to the working conditions of Underground staff without proper consultation. Union members voted overwhelmingly for strike action, with concerns about safety on the Underground voiced.
Watching people’s responses to the Tube strike is an exercise in forced deja-vu, with the same arguments repeated across the web: ‘plenty of people work harder for more hours and less pay’, ‘if they don’t like it they’re free to find another line of work’ and the classic ‘they should suck it up and work harder like the rest of us’. The common denominator being that because the striking workers already have better pay and conditions than many of the city’s commuters they aren’t justified to take action to stop these conditions changing without their consent.
There is actually already a term for this: ‘crab mentality’ (although I happen to think ‘crab logic’ is a bit snappier).
Imagine a bunch of crabs in a pot full of boiling water. If they worked together they could easily escape their delicious demise, but instead if any crab gets close to escaping the lid of the pot the others pull it back down, out of misplaced competition. Resigned to their fate, the crabs already boiling feel threatened by the ones that still have a chance to escape.
For the understandably frustrated commuters, a certain cognitive dissonance must be applied to resolve the contradiction that those with already better working conditions are capable of defending and improving their lot together. The affair brings to the surface the inevitable mental gymnastics required to simultaneously be aware of your own exploitation, while being told your whole life that it’s ‘just the way the world is’. The way around this incongruity is to belittle the strikers, claim they are greedy for wanting their ‘work-life balance’ and gleefully repeat the rhetoric of demonisation already saturating the media.
It shows how utterly entrenched that Thatcherite belief in success through individual superiority has become in the nation’s collective consciousness. The perceived competition between frustrated commuters and equally frustrated tube staff is a useful lie that conceals the true identities of the culprits for our shared inconveniences: the management of Transport for London, the bosses of the commuter’s workplaces, and the very structure of our society that leads our employers to have such a degree of unchallengeable power over us. To be fully aware of this is to accept that we are largely powerless in their hands — no wonder there is such a preference for a comforting lie over a terrifying truth.
With another strike now scheduled for August, it’s vital to remember that the struggle happening beneath London’s streets is the very same one happening above them, around the rest of the country and, indeed, across the world. The tube strikes draw attention to a rather inconvenient truth, that the London Underground is that now rare example in Britain of a workforce with a consistent history of collective bargaining, and one which shows that trade unions are rather helpful for their members.
Afterall, a cat-poster Tumblr adage it may be, but ‘saying you can’t be sad because others have it worse is like saying you can’t be happy because others have it better’. To ‘suck it up’ and get on with life is to accept your lot, even revel in it. Much scarier to work together with your peers to improve everyone’s lot together.