Tempting as it is to believe in political fairy tales where heroic leaders fight on the frontline for decent jobs, the realities of work point to a different story. This is particularly evident to the people working in healthcare, where a Swiss-like neutrality about the politics of work is a comfort we can no longer afford.
It’s possibly a bit concrete, but I believe everything worth saying has been said by Public Enemy. In Harder Than You Think is a phrase I use pretty much every day.
If you don’t stand for something you fall for anything.
Say it out loud. Better in a Long Island accent.
With the best electorally-registered-will in the world, the problem of politics at work can’t be delegated to the professional politician. The nature of politics is fundamentally personal.
Politics is not a super-science, it’s the everyday, messy, frustrating and deeply humane developmental process that allows us to walk the thin line between being right and slipping into the warm bath of self-righteousness. This everyday politics is in complete contrast to a magical version of politics that rests on the belief that being right is enough.
I’ve spent most of my working life as an educator and organiser, over the last five years focussing on the health sector. From Thai activists in the industrial zones of Bangkok to the glorious Nepalese women working in German pharmaceuticals factories, I had the luxury of a political education from the people around me such that what I believe has become part of my daily functioning. Somewhere between my heart, mind and gut. This organising work over time re-oriented my entire relationship with the outside world and with my internal one. Moving from left-wing-religiosity where I had the answer comrade, to seeing politics as a developmental and collective process, one which I couldn’t do alone.
Over the last five years it has felt that anyone working in health is slowly morphing into Che Guevara, for some of us minus the beard. This is because the situation in healthcare has become so obviously unfair to both staff and patients, we are all being forced to take a position. This is not primarily ideological, it is about social justice. Easy to pretend this is a left/right split but the reality is that from the full range of patient and provider perspectives, something very unfair has been introduced into the system.
Still within our culture there’s nothing quite like an injustice to get people onto the streets for another national demonstration. Fairness really matters to us. As someone who regularly goes to campaign meetings and events, I am pretty divided about the experience of campaigning around the NHS. One of the reasons for this is that we lost the last battle when the Health and Social Care Bill was passed, pretty much killing off the institutions of public health. The battles over the NHS teach us that when you lose a major legal challenge to protecting public services you never ever get them back. This massive defeat, according to the people who drove the opposition through the unions and professional bodies, happened because of the self-interest of the people involved and the fragmentation of the rest of us.
We did not actually stick together when it mattered.
Many organisers who have been active in the battle for the NHS are of a certain age and filled with a mixture of both love and loathing for this ‘new’ movement that is forming around social issues such as health and precarious work.
Part of this ambivalence is a result of the bitter experience of what it actually takes to protect jobs and public services. We know from experience how hard it is to maintain public support in the long term and to get sufficient gains to keep people in decent jobs. The more precarious the worker the more likely they can be bought or threatened off the picket line. If they lose their jobs in the process they provide a cautionary tale to anyone with a collective glint in their eye.
In the workplace, the reality is that sticking together means sticking with people who you may not see as taking the same political position as you but who you need. As a result, solidarity involves an emotional job of work of remaining open to people on the people you work with, even when they don’t follow the same voting pattern.
Under pressure not to tip the radical balance in the promotional literature for Surviving Work I describe this process of everyday politics using the LAUGH framework. Bit slippery of me, but necessary in these marketized times. Tried and tested organising methods can be re-described as:
Stage 1: Starting where you are by Listening and Assessing what is going on at work and taking a position on that
Stage 2: Understanding your environment and identifying resources that you individually and collectively have
Stage 3: Getting Help from the people around you and working out how to have better relationships at work
Despite the strangely excluding and sectarian ways of some political groups, these methods are actually available to all of us to use in our workplaces. Ideological posturing, like beards, are not compulsory and I find that if you can skip the initial ten minute monologue about neoliberalism generally you can have a genuine conversation with most people motivated to improve healthcare. Activism, at its very best, is just knowing how to form relationships with people that are strong enough to collectively respond to what is going wrong at work. I guarantee that you do not need to go on a correspondence course on Marxist dialectics or spend a decade in psychoanalysis to do this. It is as simple as talking to each other.
This drive to collectivise, although beaten up in the toilets of the NHS, is inherent in us and the vast majority of health workers are naturally really good at it. For us it involves going back to our clinical roots. To start realistically, to talk, and stand up to the internal and external voices that say we cannot bring about positive change. To contain the anxieties that are flooding our consulting rooms, and take some time to think about how we work. I am always humbled by the care and concern healthcare workers show to their patients. We now need to see that how we treat each other is a matter of equal political and professional concern.
Surviving Work in Healthcare: Helpful stuff for people on the frontline has been published by Routledge. Click here quoting code SUR230 to buy a copy for £17.50.
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