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The Bristol Cable

How can workers turn strikes into wins?

This Better Work

As the cost of living crisis bites, recent months have seen the return of mass strikes. While the cards are stacked against workers, they have won important victories – how have these been achieved, and how can we build on them?

With the UK gripped by a deadly cost of living crisis, it’s little wonder last year saw an unprecedented return to industrial action. As a UNISON organiser, seeing the trade union movement splutter back to life in a wave of mass strikes has been an exhausting but incredible learning experience.

Mass strikes have long felt like something from a bygone era, with unions in decline. Thatcher’s restrictive anti-union legislation was kept in place when Tony Blair used the 1997 New Labour victory to signal a break from the party’s history. Many unions pivoted to a more service-based offer to attract members: support on individual employment matters alongside literal insurance and discount perks. 

But now, unlike with the relatively small flurry of strikes and demonstrations in response to the coalition government’s austerity programme, strikes are properly back in fashion. 

Across the public and private sectors, workers have stood up, demanded their share, fought, and won. Hundreds of thousands more remain in active disputes. But can they win – and how? 

Demanding more

I expect most readers work for a wage. You sell your ability to work to your employer, who owns the tools and structure you need to do your job, and benefits from your labour, turning a profit or delivering a service.

When conditions don’t keep up with your needs you can accept poverty or demand more. If you simply approach your boss, they can ignore or replace you. 

But your employer has no business without you and your colleagues’ combined efforts. This is why for centuries workers have organised, and – when industrial relations work properly – negotiated settlements collectively, with bosses giving them due respect. 

Of course, talks break down when workers’ demands exceed what employers are prepared to give up. To change their minds we must make them believe the cost of refusal will be greater than that of the resolution. 

Strikes: a battle of prediction and attrition

Before, during, and after industrial action, workers and bosses are engaged in a battle of prediction and attrition. 

Withdrawing labour forms the basis for the power we can wield. If an employer refuses your demands, they have calculated that refusal will cost them less than what impact they think you will have. 

This calculation will be done with consideration of what’s to come – not what they’ve already lost. This is why we see wins like the catering workers at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who dragged their employer Aramark back to the negotiating table with an impressive ballot result. In all, 75% of members took part, voting unanimously for strike action. A strong ‘yes’ vote and high turnout led to a 12% pay rise – without a single day of strike action. 

Both unions and employers often describe strikes as a last resort. This framing can put workers on the back foot, feeling like they shouldn’t be thinking about striking just yet. I prefer to think of it as our greatest weapon – one we’re always building towards deploying.

Employers’ primary weapon is withdrawing capital, restricting striking workers’ ability to survive. A change in the law last year also allows employers to pay agency workers to cover strikers, undermining action.

For workers, long disputes can be demoralising. It can feel like you’re giving up your pay while not achieving anything.

But solidarity from people not directly involved in a dispute can strengthen the union’s hand. This can start with basic things like attending a picket line and telling workers you’re behind them. Effective picketing can make or break a dispute where other workers have been drafted in. 

Before long they’ll likely need something more material. You cannot underestimate the power of donations of cash and food given to striking workers. 

Visiting the Liverpool Dockers strike last year I found a makeshift camp supporting the 24/7, two-week pickets, keeping strikers fed and warm. Days after announcing a fourth round of action the company yielded with an award worth up to 18.5%. It is not a matter of charity, but an act that recognises any one of us could end up in a similar battle – and that a victory is one we all benefit from.

Hoops and barriers

Unfortunately the reality of striking is complicated further by legislative hoops and barriers. There is no positive right to strike in UK law – it’s allowed via a handful of legal immunities applied to us as individuals and unions, and only as long as we follow the rules. Ballot thresholds, notices to employers, limitations on picketing, selective protection from dismissal, no secondary action, postal ballots. The list feels endless and almost exclusively falls in employers’ favour.

These laws have been criticised by the International Labour Organisation as overly restrictive, to the point they are in violation of international conventions and human rights. The new Minimum Service Levels Bill further threatens these rights by completely removing lawful strike protection from individual workers and forcing them to work. 

To defy these laws risks unions being sued by companies and individuals or having their funds sequestered by the regulator. However, if workers wish to keep fighting effectively for their own interests, we cannot accept being governed in this way. We must demand bold leadership from the unions in challenging the law – on the gates, and in the courts. The questions of what might happen as a result have daunting answers but they’re ones we must face if we have any hope of lasting victory. 

Limited wins

It is clear that while local wins are welcome, they will remain limited in what they can achieve. The majority of above-inflation pay settlements in 2022 came from the private sector, where workers can explicitly target profits. 

The current fights in education, healthcare and local government feel more stuck, with the Tories ideologically holding onto the purse strings. These are essential services, yet most of us cannot legally take industrial action in support of workers because of the outlawing of political strikes.

Historically we would have looked to the unions’ political arm to make changes that redistribute power towards workers. But the current Labour Party seems intent on distancing itself from its founders. Starmer has claimed he will repeal the Minimum Service Levels Bill, but it remains to be seen whether this promise will be kept.

Through organisation, coordination, and class solidarity, strikes can win a short and necessary reprieve from the current crisis for many. They remind those in power that we have the strength and will to grind things to a halt if necessary. But to truly win, our demands and actions must extend further, to a transformation of society where we will not have to battle for scraps but instead have everyone fully enjoy the fruits of our labour.


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