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Striking Workers are not the Problem; They are a Symptom of Misguided Priorities

Author: Kamilla Kovacs

Editors: Antara Basu and Hannah Westfallen

Three years ago, during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we called them “essential workers”. Those who delivered our mail ran our hospitals and kept needed services running while the rest of the country was under lockdown. During the pandemic, we realised how crucial these workers are for a well-functioning society. Despite this, we have failed our essential workers.

Since November 2022, the UK has been experiencing a flurry of industrial action, where workers demand that their labour be compensated fairly. The response from the government? Proposing what has been dubbed as “anti-strike legislation”, designed not to solve the problems but stop workers from protesting for better conditions. The proposed legislation comes after a failure to reach an agreement with unions on their demands, outlines “minimum service levels” for essential sectors and allows employers to sue unions and fire workers if these levels are not met. These staffing level mandates have been justified by saying that other European nations have such requirements.

While it is true that there is precedent across Europe for outlining minimum service levels in essential sectors, the methods for that are more complicated. Unlike the proposed UK bill, in other parts of Europe, the minimum service levels were not mandated through parliamentary legislation. Rather it is more common that governments defer the issue to trade unions, such as in Italy or there is a voluntary agreement between sectors and the government, like in the case of France. The proposed UK bill has little resemblance to these, especially because of how punitive the legislation would be. It will give employers the power to sue trade unions and lay off striking workers, thereby reducing workers’ bargaining power to negotiate for better working conditions.

It is indeed true that some essential services are indeed understaffed. However, the enforcement of this law would not solve the underlying cause of the current low staffing levels. It might potentially contribute to the shortage of workers in these key sectors. Firstly, firing qualified workers from these sectors creates staffing shortages which cannot be easily resolved because of the high skills required to work in these essential fields. Nurses, ambulance drivers or train drivers cannot be replaced easily, as there are not many workers qualified for such positions to fill in for those who might be fired. Secondly, such a bill could discourage people from entering these sectors in the first place, further decreasing the supply of workers for these sectors. In line with this, the government drew criticism for focusing on staffing levels exclusively on strike days, when the issue of understaffing goes beyond the days of labour action.

If the goal of this legislation is to ensure the public access to these essential services it is wilfully ignorant of the fact that those are largely a result of deliberate policy decisions and cuts in funding for public services. Furthermore, the law shifts the blame for low staffing levels to striking workers, rather than the government’s policy choices.

Aside from the practical concerns about the legislation, its moral implications are also worth considering. This bill comes at a time of high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, inspiring much of the recent industrial action. The negotiations on pay raises have seen limited success, leading the government to expect more work stoppages. This is likely one of the motivations behind the new bill, as it would likely reduce the magnitude of industrial actions, without having to solve the underlying worries of essential sector labourers.

The option to strike for better conditions is a fundamental right in most modern democracies. It is enshrined in multiple international treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which the UK not only ratified but helped draft. According to Secretary Grant Shapps, the bill does not violate the Convention, however, unions have spoken out against the legislation claiming it is backing away from this promise of allowing workers to voice their discontent with their conditions is not only a cowardly move from the government but an assault on the foundations of democracy. Limiting the power of unions in such a way is a severe transgression of the fundamental right to strike.

The reason for strikes is an economy set up so essential workers feel that their last resort for improving their conditions is to forgo pay and demonstrate instead. This dissatisfaction cannot be legislated away punitively, rather the government has to step up and pay enough for workers to cope with the rising costs of living. The government cannot claim that workers’ labour is compensated fairly if 57% of those experiencing poverty live in a working household, the only way for Britain to reduce the number of work stoppages and sustain a staffing level that meets demand is to pay workers what they are owed.

In the past few years, the pandemic demonstrated how much we rely on the labour of essential workers. Despite this, the UK has failed to ensure that they are compensated fairly and that their living standards are acceptable. This new legislation does little to solve the underlying issues, instead opting to punish those who take action to demand fair pay for their work. Disregarding workers’ needs and penalising them for wanting better compensation is not only illogical but morally bankrupt, especially during this severe cost-of-living crisis.

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