Following several months of sporadic strikes in the United Kingdom, this week saw large-scale action from branches of the public sector which included members of teaching and nursing unions, rail workers, Border Force and civil servants. The strikes all involved disputes over pay and conditions and not only caused massive disruption all over the country but also a large degree of controversy, with many members of the public not subject to the generous pensions and perks of public sector employees, unhappy at the idea of their hard-earned taxes being used to increase public sector pay and benefits even more whilst their own salaries have remained static due to inflation.
It’s worth considering the principle of workers’ right to strike, its reasons and results.
From the onset of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth century Britain, working men and women began withholding their labour as a means of bargaining for better pay and conditions. This gained momentum during the peak of the Chartist movement in the 1830s, when the populace demanded the right to vote and parliament was eventually forced to concede to the principle of universal franchise. This in turn led to a wave of strikes in 1842, viewed as the first time that a large body of workers organised themselves in a politically-motivated action to win concessions. Official statistics on strikes weren't collected until 1891 and the first recorded major strike in the UK occurred in 1898 when the colliers of South Wales downed tools in a dispute over the introduction of a sliding pay scale. In spite of the strike the scale remained in place, although the miners were granted a 5% pay advance. As a result the Miners’ Federation of South Wales was formed. In 1912 there was a national miners’ strike which lasted for 47 days, leading to government intervention to bring it to a close, passing the Coal Mines Minimum Wages Act.
The right to strike – the principle of the worker being able to withdraw their labour as a form of employee-employer bargaining - had thus been officially recognised, as had the concept of solidarity and the power of collective bargaining
In those times the mining industry held huge sway and it is easy to see how such a national strike would have crippled the country – no coal for heating homes, the primary heat source back then, none to fuel the steam trains which carried passengers, mail and freight all over the country and none too for the nascent electric supply, all of which used coal to power the national grid. Also back then, striking workers were not entitled to any pay or benefits and a strike was therefore not entered into lightly; yet such was the public support for men in what was accepted as a dirty, dangerous yet vital line of work, people happily contributed to strike funds with charitable donations of money, food and clothing to the miners and their families so they could hold out in their demands.
Although there is no right to strike enshrined in UK law, industrial action is legal and protected if it follows the rules laid down in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Those include requiring the balloting of trade union members before action, and the reasonable notification of both the ballot and industrial action to employers. However, certain sections are prevented by law from taking any form of industrial action, these being all branches of the armed forces as well as police officers, for reasons of national security and public safety. In fact in some instances, such as the series of strikes in 1979, referred to as ‘The winter of discontent’ when fire-fighters also went on strike, the army is often conscripted to assist, their dark green fire engines becoming a common sight in British towns and cities at that time and affectionately referred to as ‘Green Goddesses’!
But now, many are calling for other professions to also be precluded from strike action. In recent weeks, not only nurses have taken strike action but also doctors, paramedics and ambulance drivers and there is widespread consensus that workers in all branches of medicine should be banned from striking, human lives clearly being at stake. Furthermore, the profession is largely regarded as a vocation, rather than a job, something you enter because you have been ‘called’ to help humanity, not to get rich quick. Similarly, there are also calls to extend the ban to teachers, education being regarded as a basic right for children, such bans already existing in several European countries such as Germany. This week’s industrial action by teaching staff, for example, caused huge upheaval in many households where both parents were working and had to make emergency provisions for their children who were now going to be at home for the day and requiring of adult supervision.
In 1973, British band The Strawbs, brought out a bitingly satirical song called ‘Part of the Union’, which acidly characterised the strength of union solidarity and strength against management and even law enforcement. I make no apology for including the lyrics here in full so you can share in the brilliantly accurate message, each verse being followed by this chorus:
Oh, you don't get me, I'm part of the union
You don't get me, I'm part of the union
You don't get me, I'm part of the union
Until the day I die, until the day I die
Now I'm a union man
Amazed at what I am
I say what I think, that the company stinks
Yes I'm a union man
When we meet in the local hall
I'll be voting with them all
With a hell of a shout, it's "Out brothers, out!"
And the rise of the factory's fall
As a union man I'm wise
To the lies of the company spies
And I don't get fooled by the factory rules
'Cause I always read between the lines
And I always get my way
If I strike for higher pay
When I show my card to the Scotland Yard
And this is what I say
Before the union did appear
My life was half as clear
Now I've got the power to the working hour
And every other day of the year
So though I'm a working man
I can ruin the government's plan
And though I'm not hard, the sight of my card
Makes me some kind of superman
As an amateur wordsmith, I couldn’t have put it better myself, and they made it rhyme and scan!
Just as the worker is always worthy of his (or her) wage, so they should retain the right to down tools if other forms of negotiation have failed; but by the same token, employers should have the right not to pay for work not done. As in times of conflict, the words of Winston Churchill are equally valid when he said ‘Jaw, jaw is always better than war, war’ and as in all the quoted instances here, if the public is not behind you, there can never be an outright winner. Strike while the iron’s hot but if public opinion goes cold, beware!