Hot Strike Summer: You’re supposed to hate strikes – and that’s why you should support them

Janey Starling, co-director of gender justice group Level Up and hellraiser extraordinaire, unpacks why it’s vital we all support industrial strike action – even if it delays your commute to work.

Hot Strike Summer: You’re supposed to hate strikes – and that’s why you should support them
Header photo:
Sarah Magill

Barristers are striking, rail workers are striking, Post Office workers are striking. What is a strike, why are there suddenly so many, and why should you always support them? Buckle up: this is your primer for hot strike summer.

Strikes are punk as fuck and it takes a lot of courage to take part in one. A strike or walkout is a tactic used by people who are demanding better pay and conditions for the work they do, often from exploitative bosses. This could be any one of us, at any time.

Many of us work in jobs we hate at some point and end up eventually leaving when it becomes unbearable. But what if that wasn’t the only option? What if certain things about your job could be improved, like better pay, overtime, or getting rid of a nasty manager? Chances are, if you’re discontent, your colleagues are too. By joining together collectively, you can transform your workplace. That’s exactly what unions are: groups of workers who join together to solve problems at work, have each other’s back, and make work a much happier place to be.

What’s a trade union, and what do trade unions do?

Trade unions fight to make working conditions better. If it wasn’t for trade unions, we wouldn’t have weekends or the eight-hour working day, two things that most of us take for granted now. Back in the 18th century, it was a utopian dream to have two days off: during the Industrial Revolution, a factory working day would range from 10 to 16 hours and the week ran from Monday to Saturday. The five day, 40-hour working week is one of many good things we owe to trade unions.

The power of unions is simple: there are more workers than bosses. We sell our labour to our employer in exchange for pay, and if what we’re receiving (in terms of salary, benefits and conditions) is not worth what we’re giving, or if our working conditions are harmful or undignified, we need to do something about it. The best way to do this is by coming together because there’s strength in numbers. It’s the best way to get employers to pay attention.

This is what unionising is. When unions actively push an employer to review the pay and terms of workplace contracts or conditions it’s called collective bargaining, and most collective bargaining between unions and employers doesn’t involve any striking at all. Unions put forward their demands to management, and the management will come back with what they’re prepared to offer. If the offer is fair, it’s accepted by the union and everyone’s happy.

Em Foster, vocalist and guitarist of Nervus, took collective action with her colleagues during the pandemic. “There was a situation where nearly everyone wanted to walk out, and we thought: ‘Wait! What if we didn’t need to? What if we got together, decided on what would make our lives easier, and asked for better conditions based on that?’ So we did, and changes were made.

“I think some people get the wrong impression that striking and walkouts are the first point of call in a negotiation, and unfortunately workers are usually more prepared to walk out individually than demand better collectively.”

What’s a strike? How does it work?

A strike (also known as a type of industrial action) is when a group of people, backed by a trade union, refuse to go to work in a last-resort attempt to pressure their boss into improving their pay and/or conditions. If negotiations between a union and employer break down, the union takes a vote from their members (a strike ballot) on whether union members are willing to escalate to a strike. If over 50 per cent of the members say yes, the strike is on. Strikes only happen when unions have given their employers repeated chances to meet their needs, and employers are refusing to treat workers fairly.

As someone who has been a trade union representative myself, I can tell you that people only strike when they are really, truly desperate. This is why we’re seeing so many strikes this summer: due to the huge price rises, the increased cost of living, and the fact that the government and many employers have not given workers a real pay rise in over a decade, whilst profits soar – hard working people simply cannot afford to live. One in six working households in the UK are in poverty, while FTSE 350 top companies profits have gone up 73 per cent since 2019. As bosses hoard extreme wealth, everyday workers are on the breadline, and people have no choice but to strike. It’s also not just about pay: all workers provide a service and role in keeping society running. Better working conditions for all workers result in a more functional and fair country for everyone.

Take the barristers’ strike as an example. A functioning justice system is important for everyone; it’s the backbone to any democratic society. Yet the government haven’t increased legal aid rates in over two decades, so junior criminal barristers typically earn less than £13,000 a year, less than the minimum wage. As a result, barristers are leaving the profession for better-paid work. Right now, there’s a backlog of 60,000 cases waiting to be heard (hundreds of thousands of members of the public, like you, waiting for justice) because there aren’t enough barristers to prosecute and defend these cases, not enough courtrooms and not enough resources in our justice system. Better working conditions for barristers equates to a functioning justice system, which we all benefit from.

Strikes are powerful because, by withdrawing labour, you make work visible so bosses and the public realise how valuable it is. The only reason I’m writing about legal aid and access to justice is because the barristers’ strike has been in the news. It’s only when trains don’t run that we recognise how essential workers are to the running of the service. That’s the whole point. Taking a stand by withdrawing your labour means that you won’t be taken for granted.

Why is public support for strikes important? 

The fact that strikes are so powerful has meant that the government is increasingly making them harder to organise. Ewa Jasiewicz, a veteran union organiser, tells me: “Anti-strike laws in the UK have made it even more important that there is public pressure, protest and additional forms of solidarity to accompany strikes. It can be about six weeks between workers deciding they want to take part in a strike ballot, then actually informing the employer and then going on strike. If you’re an agency worker, the employer can use that time to make plans to replace you, which removes your bargaining power.”

Public solidarity helps pressure ruthless employers into doing the right thing, but it’s also practical. When working people go on strike, they lose pay. Even though the action is done for the greater good in the bigger picture, in an immediate cost of living crisis, losing out on wages is a scary prospect. One of the easiest ways to show solidarity with striking workers is to donate to a strike fund, so workers can stand their ground in their fight against exploitative bosses. Right now, a group of young pub workers at the St James’ Tavern in Brighton, supported by the union UVW, are raising funds for a strike in order to demand an end to zero-hours contracts, poverty wages, harassment and bullying and they need our support. If they succeed, it will set an example across all pubs in the UK.

For agency workers and people on zero-hours contracts, striking can be scary. There can be a fear that if you take industrial action, you won’t be offered any more shifts. Ewa says: “If workers are aware that can happen, but know they will get publicity for their strike, and they will be supported by the public if there is retaliation from the employer, they’ll feel more able to fight for their rights.”

Join a union

The UK is facing a widespread recruitment crisis. A combination of COVID-19 and Brexit has left many public services and companies with huge staffing gaps that they need workers to fill, so right now there’s a lot of power in the hands of working people to create a society where everybody’s labour is valued. Whether we’re on the picket ourselves, donating to strike funds or supporting at protests, we all have a role to play. Last month, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reported a 700% increase in people researching how to join a union. If you’re not in a union, it’s time for you to join one. If there isn’t one in your workplace, it’s time for you to start one.

Hot strike summer is here. It’s time to get organised.

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