Disputes at work are sadly a matter of when not if. Given how much work dominates our lives, it is inevitable that an occasion will arise when a set of workers disagree with the direction of their company. What do they do? In this atomised world, resigning and moving elsewhere is often the solution. But when there’s a lack of jobs, that’s often not sustainable. Then, unions of workers can unite together, recognising their shared power for achieving better rights at work.
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, which saw the growth of widespread manufacturing and development, workers have come together. How? By withholding their labour as part of collective bargaining. The Chartists movement, which began in the 1830s, saw a culmination of strikes in 1842, where workers organised themselves to win concessions. For many workers, their vote and the ability to join a strike may be the only power they hold.
Strikes are disruptive, frustrating and irritating, yet remain of vital importance
Strike action has now become a familiarity once again. Members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) voted to go on strike throughout June, causing widespread disruption to train journeys. Despite the lockdown meaning workforces could better adapt to working from home, the scale of a disrupted service should not be underestimated. With daily commuting at 80% of its pre-Covid capacity, the strikes clearly sought an immense impact.
Yet this is entirely their point. Strikes are disruptive, frustrating and irritating, yet remain of vital importance. Workers demonstrating the impact of their labour being withheld should act as an important tool for negotiations to progress. Indeed, it is often forgotten just how hard it is to reach the threshold for a legal strike. A union must achieve a 50% turnout of all members, which the RMT managed in May, having a 71% turnout with 89% supporting strike action.
Similarly, a strike is never the first option of a union. Were it so, public support would be far less likely and there would be a perceived unwillingness to compromise. Negotiations always require deep levels of compromise, something a strike can help to incentivise. Workers who go out on strike lose a day’s pay, reliant on money from their union based on their membership. That strikers are willing to forfeit a day’s pay in a cost-of-living crisis demonstrates how dire the situation is.
Desiring good working conditions and adequate pay should not be seen in the realm of the impossible
The government should be willing to come to the table and take part in discussions. If it were up to me, the railways would be renationalised in their entirety for providing greater accountability. Currently, their privatisation means owners enjoy the profits, but workers and commuters still suffer the losses. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has said he believes his presence would not help to solve the negotiation. But given the government are meant to speak on behalf of voters, who are affected by strikes, shouldn’t they be present? Their current absence is telling.
Such has been the disruption from the strikes, with the potential for a further summer of discontent ahead with other professions striking, that there have been calls for strike action to be limited. Both the police and prison officers are already currently unable to strike, seen as important for maintaining social order. Given the government’s cuts to police officers and their widespread absence from the streets, I wonder whether many people would notice the difference.
Yet it would be wrong to extend this ban further. Desiring good working conditions and adequate pay should not be seen in the realm of the impossible, but rather a part of good working conditions. With inflation currently at 11%, any pay rise would, most likely, be a cut in real terms. Currently, RMT staff have been told their pay was frozen. Given paying all public sector workers a 7% rise would cost £14 billion, that might, as a compromise, be worth the government’s time.
The strikes surely demonstrate, if anything, that trade union membership should be encouraged. With national membership having declined from 32.4% in 1995 to 23.1% in 2021, they are a vital form of protection in both strikes, employment disciplinary hearings and ensuring protection at work. The gig economy is often spoken about as a great form of liberation. Yet it can be immensely exploitative too. While trade unions are not always perfect, their existence and power to withhold their labour is one that must not be taken for granted. We should value, rather than decry, their efforts to ensure better work for all.