Last week, RMT organiser Gaz Jackson went on the news to explain why his union is demanding better pay and conditions for railway workers. Unfortunately, he had the nerve to be wearing his North Face winter coat at the time. One Twitter user was aggrieved. “Standing there in a £390 coat isn’t helping a cause about striking for pay rises,” said @Kent_Grandad.
Unbothered, the trade unionist responded with a thumbs-up emoji: “Tomorrow I’ll be going on a picket line and I’ll be wearing my winter coat hope that’s okay with everyone.” Probably 95% of replies to the tweets were sarcastic rebuttals. “I’ve been supporting the strikes up till now,” said one, “but if you start taking the piss and wearing gloves that’s it.” But the other 5%? They really need to explain themselves. Why can’t working people have nice things?
There’s a seam of British public opinion that reacts like this every time someone has the nerve to complain about the status quo. Angry about the treatment of FoxConn workers in China? Ah, but you’re tweeting from your iPhone! That’s the joke behind the webcomic meme Mister Gotcha, which ends with a medieval peasant being mocked for wanting to “improve society somewhat”. “Yet you participate in society. Curious!” says Mister Gotcha, popping up from a well. It’s a useless argument, yet it lives on every time an ordinary person dares to suggest that they should have a nicer life, a safer workplace or a few groats more in their pay packet.
Is a £390 North Face coat really such a luxury item anyway? It’s not a Fendi mink jacket (£21,000) or even a Moncler puffer (£1,040). North Face is just an outdoor sports brand that’s been trendified in recent years – you can see their coats on any high street, probably too often. For a full-time, minimum-waged worker in the UK, £390 works out to a little over a week’s wages – but of course Gaz didn’t spend that much on his, because he’s not a chump. (Here’s one for £290; you’ll have heard of eBay.)
So if our piss-boiled tweeter had his way, what should a working class man like Gaz be wearing? A lower-quality jacket from a supermarket brand? Maybe a bundle of rags lashed together with blue twine? You can’t win. The problem is, poor people actually spend more money on everyday items than rich people. Terry Pratchett explained this phenomenon – the “Boots” Theory of Economic Justice – in his novel Night Watch:
“A really good pair of leather boots cost $50. But an affordable pair of boots, which were OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about $10 […] A man who could afford $50 had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent $100 on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”
So Gaz made a smart long-term investment. Not to mention that his particular choice – a fur-hooded parka – is a staple of British working class fashion. Invented by the Nenets people of Siberia, parkas were copied by the US Army for combat in Korea and adopted by British mods – famously fastidious about their suits, shoes and scooters – before being permanently revived in the ‘90s via Liam Gallagher. They’re rarely out of fashion, though you don’t usually see posh people in them, regardless of the price tag.
Wearing visible labels is also a distinctly working class attitude to style, from ‘80s football casuals in Fila to UK garage ravers sporting Versace and Moschino. But working class people can’t win when they wear designer gear – it’s either snobbery from the middle classes, who think logos are vulgar, or exploitation by luxury brands and fashion stylists, who fetishise their style as a shortcut to authentic cool. “Workwear” jackets, gold signet rings, “athleisure” tracksuits – it’s all been appropriated by high-end brands. The results can be bizarre, like the high-vis padded jacket that Balenciaga sent down the runway in 2021. For just £2,890, you too could look like you’re fixing potholes for the council.
There’s a whiff of outdated moralism about the jacket controversy, too. Sociologist Max Weber argued it was the values of Protestantism – frugality, abstinence, hard graft without complaint – that gave us the “spirit of capitalism”. The lower classes “must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious,” said the 18th century agriculturist Arthur Young. We’re haunted by the idea that hard work is good for you and that workers are always grasping for more than they deserve – consider the archetypal “train driver on £50,000 a year” who provokes such venom from LBC callers. It’s a logic of spite: if I’m putting up with stagnant wages, crap conditions, disappearing benefits and increasing precarity, then so should everyone else.
This depressing attitude is called negative solidarity, and it’s absolutely endemic in Britain. When you tell Gaz he shouldn’t be wearing his nice, warm, moderately expensive jacket to the picket line, what you’re really saying is that nothing can improve and everyone must suffer – including and especially those who dare to collectivise their anger and use it to improve their lot. We must resist this stupidity.
Back to the crucial question of what exactly a striking worker is supposed to wear. The answer, as so fabulously demonstrated by the Twitter account Dripped Out Trade Unionists, is obviously a Teamsters bomber jacket decked with custom patches for your branch. British trade unionists are missing a huge trick. Don’t our striking workers deserve to look as happy as these recently unionised cannabis dispensary workers?
Chal Ravens is Novara Media’s head of audio.