Santa joins a CWU demonstration during the #PeoplesPost strike. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images
The only connection between winter strikes is employers who won’t negotiate
Following industrial action in Southern Rail, Post Offices and other companies over the last week, the usual suspects have been coming out to denounce strikes. Some Conservative backbenchers have called for new legislation to ban strikes in important industries. Some right wing commentators have been claiming the strikes are a co-ordinated campaign.
These are some serious and deeply felt industrial disputes. But the furore over them is as overblown as it is misguided.
First off, the obvious one: Levels of strike action are historically low. At their peak in 1979, over 29 million working days were lost to strike action. Last year that number was 170,000 (around half a percent as much).
The small cluster of strikes are on unconnected disputes – happening for different reasons with different employers. If there is any connection, it is only the unwillingness of employers to get around the table for proper negotiations to settle the disputes.
The current strikes will cause inconvenience to customers. Trade unions very much regret this and sympathise with those affected – the unions concerned would rather be round the negotiating table, but employers have left them with no option. This regret is felt strongly by those going on strike themselves. Nobody takes the decision to strike lightly, it is always a last resort. And it means losing pay for days on strike, which few can easily afford.
So if workers dislike striking so much, why are they happening? Strikes are only called after a democratic ballot by workers concerned – this is not something that happens on a whim. Strikes happen when an employer repeatedly refuses to listen or negotiate on a problem that’s felt very deeply by the workforce. The strike is a last resort right for working people when power is stacked against them, and the pressure it exerts can bring an employer back to the table to negotiate a fairer compromise and better way going forward. As such it is a crucial right in a democracy.
But regardless of the low level of strike action at the moment, the government would do well to recognise the problems that are affecting growing numbers of workers. We’re already going through the longest wage squeeze in history, and as Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement showed, it’s now expected to be a total of 13 years before wages regain their real terms value from before the crash. The uncertainty we’ll still face as we leave the EU risks hitting living standards even harder.
And for millions the world of work is becoming a less secure place. Zero hours contracts are rising fast year on year, with others forced into casual, part time and temporary forms of work, when they’d rather retain employment that let them plan their lives with more certainty. Risk is being systematically loaded onto employees rather than employers, and it’s shifting the balance of power in the work relationship even further.
It’s an issue felt by agency baggage handlers who haven’t seen pay rise for two years as their living costs have kept going up (luckily talks are now happening again), for cabin crew recruited on new worse conditions than colleagues they work with, or for Argos distribution workers (whose strike is now suspended pending a ballot), owed £700 of unpaid back pay over two years.
Those working in services to the public are demoralised due to cuts that stop them giving the service they care about providing. Whether it’s staff on Southern Rail, concerned for their duty of care to ensure passengers are safe, or Post Office workers who fear closure of many local branches as well as cuts to their pensions.
The government is already due to bring in measures next year that will make it much harder for many workers to use their right to strike as a last resort. The new rules will make strike ballots harder and more costly to conduct, especially in services like transport. Trade union campaigning stopped many of the more draconian and damaging parts of their plans, but the UK’s laws on unions (already restrictive by international comparison) are still set to get even stricter. The idea that ministers would now waste time and effort doing that all over again is not only a threat to an important democratic right, but is total nonsense.
As things get more difficult, the answer for government is to listen to the concerns of the people who make Britain work, and to encourage employers to settle disputes around the negotiating table, rather than bulldozing through bad deals for working people and service users.
UPDATE 6pm: And as if to illustrate our point, ACAS talks between Swissport and Unite have just resulted in the planned baggage handlers’ strike being called off. Members will now be consulted over a new negotiated offer.
UPDATE 23 Dec: And again, now the cabin crew dispute has also been called off, following a last minute new offer from BA.