NHS workers on the picket line during the national strike on 13 October 2014.
Why we need the right to strike
The government’s Trade Union Bill looks set to undermine the right to strike, and attacks the role trade unions play in day-to-day life.
These reforms are spiteful and unnecessary.They are deliberately intended to make it impossible for trade unions to undertake legal strike action, and to transfer yet more power to employers.
For me, being a member of a trade union means standing in solidarity with my work colleagues and using our collective power to organise and negotiate for fairer pay and working conditions. If I wasn’t being paid a fair wage for the work that I did, and if I asked my boss for a pay rise by myself, I would likely get nowhere.
If however I got together with all of my colleagues and we asked for a pay rise collectively, we would be taken more seriously because there would be more of us.We would be harder to ignore and we would have increased bargaining power.
Contrary to some public perceptions of trade unions, strikes are only ever called as a last resort. Trade unions would always much rather negotiate with employers in order to reach agreement and when ballots take place for strike action this will only occur after all other forms of negotiation and mediation have broken down.
When I went on strike in 2013 it was not for fun – I was docked wages that I could not afford to lose. I stood on a picket line with my colleagues in the cold and wet. People largely ignored us as they walked past. We voted for strike action because Higher Education sector workers had received below inflation pay rises for five years, effectively resulting in a net pay cut of 13%.
The cost of transport, food and household bills kept increasing but wages were not – we simply could not afford to live on our salaries. You might say that I could not have afforded to go on strike either, but it is precisely because workers cannot afford to lose a day’s pay that we must go on strike, to defend our right to be paid a fair wage for the work that we do.
Going on strike is never a union’s first choice of action; I do not want to inconvenience the people that I work for and I imagine most other trade unionists feel that way. Nonetheless I have stood with my colleagues on the picket line because I believed it was the only option available to us.
If the members of my trade union and I feel that we are not being taken seriously by our employer, we know that together we have the final option of going on strike. Our employer knows that we have this too, and this gives them a strong incentive to work together with us to address our concerns, as they would usually prefer to avoid the inconvenience, cost and bad press that strike action brings.
The ability to strike is a vital tool for people like me. If we are to have any sort of collective strength when it comes to negotiating with employers we need to protect this right.