By Cyann Fielding
Industrial disputes are showing no sign of stopping. Already collective strikes have occured such as Amazon workers in Coventry making history in the company’s first-ever UK strike.
Royal Mail workers also balloted for strike action to continue, having conducted 17 walkouts in 2022.
The impact of strikes is now becoming a matter of urgency. Nurse, ambulance workers, emergency call handlers, and even emergency hospital staff, have all conducted strikes recently causing slow response times, fear amongst the public, and a stressed NHS.
Looking at what a general strike entails, it usually has a political purpose calling for the government to act, rather than focusing on disputes with the employers of those partaking in industrial action.
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The last general strike was in 1926 when the TUC called its members to strike in defence of 1.2 million miners who were experiencing longer work hours for less money.
Margaret Thatcher brought in legislation which further prevents the TUC from calling a general strike. This does not, however, stop each union from coordinating their strike action to fall on the same day, given they have a legal mandate to strike.
A TUC spokesperson told Naked Politics: “Each strike that takes place must go through the current regulatory requirements in the legal framework for industrial action. It must be an employment dispute between a specific employer and their employees.”
A strike ballot must take place with minimum thresholds for the turnout and majority, along with rules on how strike ballots must be conducted. For example, whilst very archaic, the only legal way a union can conduct a strike ballot is through a postal vote.”
The Ground Is Fertile For A General Strike
Since the pandemic, the UK’s working environment has become a bitter place over growing awareness of poor working conditions and pay.
Other concerns regard gender pay gaps, equality in the workplace, flexibility, and more. Many of the recent concerns have a part to play in why so many different professions are choosing to strike.
From this, it is evident that changes need to be made. Perhaps, then, a general strike is the most impactful action that can happen to kick politicians into gear.
A general strike does more, in my opinion, than speak for those professions currently striking – it has the potential to speak for the entire country, whereby disposable income in the UK is inferior compared to other countries such as France, Belgium and Spain.
With rising costs of living and a predicted impending recession, UK salaries need to address the increased expenses with increased pay. How am I expected to work on the same pay when my bills each month have nearly doubled? It makes no sense.
For professions such as ambulance workers, nurses, doctors, and other medical professions, the risk of continuous strikes outweighs the government’s negligence of negotiating.
They are a key part of our healthcare system, and every day thousands of people rely on them – yet they are some of the most tired people out there. They have tough working conditions and long anti-social hours, all for pay that does reflect the sacrifices they make.
Enough is enough. A general strike needs to occur at least once for workers in the UK to see whether the government will actually act or whether all their promises are just words.
Why Strikes Can Be Unpopular
Having lived through weeks upon weeks of university strikes, I can easily say they are frustrating. With this example, the people that suffer are neither the employee nor the employer – they are the students.
Let’s take my degree as an example: BA English Literature. My contact hours were minimal – I am talking less than a day’s work across a week. Let’s say I had an average of six contact hours per week. And in each term, there are 12 weeks.
So, each term I was having around 72 hours of teaching, meaning across an academic year I was due to experience about 216 hours of teaching. Yikes.
Each year of university costs £9,250 in tuition fees. So, for the sake of this article, let’s say each contact hour was costing me just under £43. Expensive, yes?
In my first year, I experienced around 13 weeks of strikes (some lecturers were on strike some were not). Roughly for me this meant 39 hours of contact time missed – where I was not being taught, and where I had to teach myself.
My second year was dominated by the pesky pandemic, and around another six weeks of strikes occurred in my final year – so that’s around 30 hours missed considering lecturers that did not strike.
Going to university, I was promised an education. I never expected that I would lose 70 hours of face-to-face lectures – which in terms of my tuition fees, equates to around £3,000.
Whilst my lecturers who did strike agreed to take a cut in their pay for the days they were not working, myself and other students were left with no say and made to pay for an education we were not receiving.
With this example, whilst I do sympathise with the reasons my lecturers were striking about, I think I had a right to be annoyed over being deprived of something I was paying for.
If a general strike were to happen, especially at the current moment with the cost-of-living crisis, those who suffer the most will not be the people striking but instead those affected by the strikes.
A cancer patient trying to get the tube to hospital for treatment. A GCSE student due to have a revision session. An undergraduate having to miss a lecture on a crucial topic of importance in a module they are studying. It goes on.
Whilst the impact may be substantial, I think it could only occur once and would still not provoke the government into immediate action. Like all political agendas, there need to be negotiations to establish the best outcome for all – including those not directly involved.
The government won’t simply ‘cave in’.
If that means it takes longer and there are more strikes… Then so be it. Essential services still need to operate to prevent infuriation from the government and public alike.
So, Should A General Strike Happen?
Well, public opinion is undoubtedly mixed. And with Grant Schapps announcing the Tory ‘Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill’ in January, there is the threat of a general strike.
The bill mentioned above sets out that employers will be legally allowed to set ‘minimum’ service levels and issue ‘work notices’ to workers instructing them to attend work during legal strikes.
The bill, which seems to undermine the whole point of striking, risks causing more problems and potentially a greater chance of a general strike. Shock!
Whilst I personally do not think it should get to the extent of a general strike, with inflation seemingly rising exponentially and the UK likely falling into recession, it would not be surprising to see a general strike as the next port of call for unions in a desperate attempt to improve the poor working conditions across the UK.
The UK is in a troublesome place and therefore there does need to be different and impactful action. A way to do this is for groups of professionals in the same sector (ie Health, Education, Transport) to strike on the same day, rather than a general strike.
This would more likely pinpoint to the government what each sector needs rather than a general strike causing anger and chaos.
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