Strikes are essential as a means to uphold basic rights and prevent exploitation. They provide workers with real power to protect themselves against unscrupulous employers imposing unfair practices. However, their effectiveness hinges on getting the public on their side, encouraging sympathy while directing anger towards the employer. This means that strikes must only be used as a last resort.
It is worth remembering that sympathy is often in short supply when innocent people are dragged into disputes that do not immediately concern them. No-one likes to be a pawn in a game, but for commuters whose daily lives are impacted by strikes on public transport, to give just one example, this is the harsh reality. Of course, the rationale behind striking is to create disruption and exert pressure on employers. However, when workers are dealing directly with the public, this has to be balanced with a sense of duty to provide a service that people expect, and the tide of public opinion can quickly turn. This volatility risks undermining the perceived legitimacy of the decision to ‘down tools’. For if there is no display of popular support to lend weight to a campaign, an employer is unlikely to come under significant pressure to change its stance on an issue. In the worst case scenario the reputation of striking workers may be tarnished thereby strengthening the hand of employers, and reducing the chances of reaching a settlement.
The impact of strikes is soon to be felt by university students across the UK,including Kent. As a result of a dispute over planned changes to one of the main pension schemes for lecturers and other academic staff, 14 days of strike action spread over 4 weeks has been scheduled later this month. No doubt the decision to strike was not taken lightly, but with the introduction of tuition fees and the attempted marketisation of higher education, this makes the consequences of strike action all the more severe. Clearly, universities have to honour their obligations to students by doing their utmost to ensure that crucial teaching time is not missed. If that is not possible adequate compensation ought to be provided. Having said that, responsibility also rests with staff participating in the strike to minimise the disruption to students. While the National Union of Students has pledged its support for the lecturers, whether this will be reflected in the views of students once the strike action begins is not yet clear.
The success of strikes should be scrutinised. Take the waves of NHS strikes in 2016, which centred around the government’s efforts to introduce a new contract for junior doctors. Despite the unprecedented nature of the strikes, which even extended to emergency care, the contract was eventually imposed and further planned strike action was called off. It’s fair to say that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is not exactly the country’s most popular politician, but the highly charged atmosphere created by the Department of Health and the British Medical Association, representing junior doctors, can hardly have helped relations between the two sides. This highlights another issue with strikes, namely that they can fuel bitterness and resentment, which in the long-term may be damaging to employer-employee relations. Such a toxic environment cannot be conducive to tackling the well-documented challenges facing the NHS.
If all other options have been exhausted strikes have their place because they can certainly bring about positive outcomes. However, unions must first take steps to win the public’s backing, and never take its support for granted. Crucially, there must be some level of protection to ensure those who are not involved in the dispute are not adversely affected. Employers and employees must recognise their responsibility to do everything possible to resolve their differences by coming to the table.