During Hot Strike Summer 2022, postal workers went on strike, transport workers left their cabs, criminal barristers downed their wigs, and dozens of unions contemplated the same escalation. A strike (or mass organised walkout) typically happens when negotiations on a dispute break down. The world’s first recognised strike happened in 1152 BC in Ancient Egypt when tradesmen walked out over unpaid wages and returned with pay rises in hand. Industrial action has been part of the UK’s economic and political landscape since the Trade Union Act of 1871, which legalised labour unions for the first time.
Not A Naughty Word
Contrary to some media depictions, Trade Union is not an X-rated word! You can disregard the echelons of far-left politics coupled with the diplomacy of Alf Garnett when thinking of unions. They are not the red wall’s tool for holding management to ransom over petty grievances. Nor are they a hammer and sickle for government bashing. Trade unions represent workers across the political and economic spectrums. Unions work to maintain or improve the pay, conditions, safety, and rights of their members. Like a political party, members fund the elected leadership and wider organisation through their subs. Trade unions exist to look after the interests of their members first and foremost.
Not all trade unions are the same. White-collar and Craft unions represent professional and skilled workers, respectively. Their members perform similar jobs in different industries. Industrial unions are industry specific, like the National Union of Mineworkers. General unions, such as the GMB, represent all workers across all industries.
Trade Union Trends
According to government statistics, 23% of the working population belonged to a union in 2021, that’s over 6 million people. Union membership peaked in 1979 at over 13 million and has been in gradual decline since. 50% of public sector workers still belong to a union, with that figure dropping to 20% for private sector members. Trade unions and governments have gone toe to toe for 151 years in the boxing ring of industrial action. With some exceptions, strikes are more common in businesses which were, at one stage, state-owned. Some private sector firms avoid the presence of a union by hosting an Employee Consultative Group. ECGs are the equivalent of a union hosted by the employer to give employees a voice. Unions were once feared by employers as much as they feared debt collectors. Over the last century, trade unions have seen their powers clipped by successive governments, while debt collection agencies have been empowered through increased legislation.
Real Cost of Strikes
Employers won’t pay wages for the time spent on strike as this would be counterintuitive. Most unions have a strike pay fund available to members, typically in the region of £25-£75 per day. Strike pay is a high-value bargaining chip at the negotiating table, but only if the fund can sustain members for the duration. Strike pay can affect means-tested benefits such as income support. The decision of one individual to strike impacts their family, community, and the wider economy. With less or no money coming in, rent/mortgage payments still need to be met. Food, heat, and light still need to be paid for. Local businesses dependent on working households take a hit. The token saving in wages is little consolation to the employer who now cannot fulfil orders or pay suppliers as their workforce graces the picket line. Admittedly a lot of the affluent employers will still be paying shareholders dividends regardless of their struggling, striking workforce.
Private sector strikes see unions face off against national and international corporations. Public sector strikes are fought against government departments and, ultimately the Prime Minister. The disruption caused to the public is collateral damage, with those on the lowest incomes hit hardest. Imagine not being able to get to work, get childcare, access medical care, or receive public services. Strikes are political dynamite if handled carelessly.
Bargaining & Striking
When a union and its members identify an issue, they inform the employer and look to negotiate. Unions exist to collectively bargain on their member’s behalf with a pre-defined list of wants, needs and non-negotiables. It is not simply a case of taking it or strike on it. Strikes are the last resort. Prior to going down that route, parties are expected to engage the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which acts as an independent mediator. On either side of ACAS, unions can propose other courses of industrial action to members, such as 1) non-cooperation with workers refusing to adopt new processes or attending meetings. 2) Slowing down production and only doing tasks listed in the employment contract. 3) Preventing access to a workplace through picketing. 4) Refusal to deal with any supplier or employee who does not support the union. Before a strike is called, members must be balloted and the result independently verified. The public is more inclined to support a strike when all avenues have been exhausted. National strikes such as those for rail and mail fight a PR battle in the press, competing for public support where both sides claim the moral high ground.
Going Wild V. Taking Initiative
With a union and verified ballot in place, almost anyone can go on strike. There are a couple of exceptions, namely police officers, MI5, and MI6 agents. Nurses have a caveat they can only strike if it is not to the detriment of patients. Prison officers were banned from going on strike in the 1990s but now have a voluntary no-strike agreement. Unofficial or ‘wildcat’ strikes conducted without union approval can be effective. However, they are risky because employers can legally dismiss those on the picket line.
The School Strike movement began in 2019 with climate activist Greta Thunberg. She skipped classes to protest outside the Swedish parliament and highlight her country’s noncompliance with the Paris Agreement on reducing carbon emissions. The movement has now seen over 4 million school days used for strike action and created a global awareness of climate change, previously unachievable through traditional political means. Successful strikes and protests are dependent on the right cause being communicated in the right way by the right people. Suffering in silence reinforces oppression; proportionate industrial action encourages change, and extremist wildcats blur the truth of the very same injustice they seek to highlight.
The Heat Is On!
Hot Strike Summer 2022 was a busy one for industrial action. Pay disputes between refuse workers and local authorities saw strikes in Edinburgh, Newham, and Windsor. Exam board AQA had 180 workers strike over pay and conditions. Workers at Felixstowe container port walked out because the pay rise offered was less than inflation, and BT Group workers went on strike over a similar issue. Employees of Network Rail and the train companies conducted several strikes over pay, conditions and redundancies. London’s transport network was hit by multiple strikes in a dispute over jobs, pensions, and funding. Staff at bus operator Arriva, coach builder Alexander Dennis, oil field supplier Baker Hughes, and Liverpool dock workers all voted to strike.
Hot Strike Summer certainly lived up to its name. Whilst the incumbent Prime Minister emeritus was seeing out his notice during Parliament’s recess, the frequency of strikes increased. That correlation is more coincidental than intentional. Unions and employers were negotiating months before permanent Chief Mouser Larry got a whiff he might be sharing No. 10 with a feline-friendly PM by autumn. The common denominator for all this year’s industrial action is below inflation pay rises. Public and private sector bosses have donned their poker faces in response to trade union demands. They know agreeing on an inflation-matching pay rise will set a precedent. If strikes are seen to achieve this, more industrial action will follow. If industrial action and strikes do not achieve quick resolutions, we have all the ingredients for another Winter of Discontent.