'HOW CAN you support the strikes for more pay by London tube workers when they are already on £30,000 a year?' That question was posed by someone at a Marxist forum in London last week. It reflects a wider debate, fanned by bitterly hostile coverage of the tube strikes in much of the media.
Papers like the Daily Mail and London's Evening Standard have led the way, claiming that well paid tube workers are being greedy, and that if they get more money it will mean less for low paid workers like many nurses. Tony Blair echoed the media attacks last week too, when he weighed in against the tube workers.
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee tried to give another twist to the same argument, attacking firefighters for demanding £30,000 a year. She slammed them as 'macho' and said their battle would undermine the claims of low paid women health workers. Leave aside the fact that well heeled pundits like Toynbee wouldn't get out of bed, still less do any real work, for £30,000 a year.
Leave aside also the insult to the women firefighters or tube workers who are playing a central role in their respective struggles, or the many low paid male health workers who need more. The argument that supporting relatively better off and better organised workers undermines the struggle of lower paid and less well organised groups is fundamentally wrong.
The figures bandied around by the media about what tube workers or firefighters get paid vastly exaggerate the reality. Most tube workers are not train drivers and get as little as £17,500 a year, living and working in London and doing long, anti-social hours. Firefighters can start on just £19,500 a year and even a fully qualified firefighter gets £21,500.
The argument goes much deeper than figures though. The history of working class struggle contains two clear lessons. If better organised and stronger groups of workers are beaten in struggle, all workers suffer as a result. And if stronger groups win then all workers gain. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's Tory government took on and beat some of the strongest and best paid groups of workers in Britain.
First she defeated the miners, then the print workers, then the dockers. At the time, her government and the press often used the same arguments we hear today about better paid groups of workers. Lower paid workers did not gain from these defeats - they suffered. Thatcher's victories allowed her and the bosses to go on the offensive against the whole working class.
The effects went far wider than pay and jobs. The defeats helped create a climate in which right wing ideas, and ideas that divide workers like racism, could gain a wider hearing.
In an earlier period the opposite lesson was proved. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the miners were at the forefront of major strikes and won big victories over pay. The result was to make miners probably the best paid group of workers in Britain. Far from undermining other workers, the miners' battles helped wider pay fights.
They inspired major battles that won better pay by health workers, low paid civil servants and the like. And workers' victories also created a climate of confidence that extended to wider social and political issues too.
The class struggle is like a battle along on an extended front. If your strongest units break the opposing line it throws the enemy into disarray and allows advances all along the front. But if your strongest units are thrown back, it leads to disarray and retreat all along the line. This is what is at stake in today's strikes.
The government, and the media, want to undermine support for groups like the tube workers to isolate and hopefully defeat their fight for more pay.
Their pretence that this is somehow motivated by concern for lower paid workers is deeply hypocritical. Their real aim is to make it easier to beat off demands for higher pay by all other groups of workers.
They want to create a climate in which workers say, 'If a well organised and strong group like the tube workers can't win, what chance have we got?' This is precisely the atmosphere Margaret Thatcher created after she defeated the miners in 1984-5. If the tube workers today are beaten it won't just make it harder for other low paid workers to win.
It will also make it easier for Blair to press ahead with his backing for George Bush's war on Iraq. But if the tube workers and others win their battles it will boost the movement to stop that war.
That is why everyone should support all the strikes now taking place or that could soon begin. The old trade union slogan 'An injury to one is an injury to all' is not just empty rhetoric. It sums up a vital truth about workers' struggles and politics that is sharply relevant today.