Since December of 2022, employees across a number of different industries have voted to strike through their respective unions. A struggling economy and sharp rises in cost of living has seen more employees seek to improve their terms of employment and pay. This has had considerable impact to key functions around the UK, from transport to healthcare, with strikes continuing to be announced each week.
In the UK, industrial action takes place if the relevant body representing a group of employers or an employer is unable to reach an agreement on certain employment terms with the union. members of a trade union (often employees with the same employer or in a specific industry who have opted to join the union) vote to strike.
In December 202 and January 2023, a series of rail strikes has been the most impactful to those in the UK, particularly those living in or around London. These strikes have seen people severely delayed or prevented from getting into work, with some missing doctor’s appointments or meetings. Businesses in different sectors have reported being impacted by the strikes, with issues such as lower footfall in certain areas and events have to be cancelled or rescheduled.
The NHS also saw strikes in December, with nurses and ambulance staff going on strike over pay, following the challenges posed by COVID-19 and reports of an increasingly strained healthcare service. This led to the army being drafted in to assist with driving ambulances, and being trained to do so in preparation. Many nurses emphasised their reluctance to take action, but highlighted worsening conditions in their industry.
Another area of strikes that saw the army involved were strikes by the UK Border Force across all major UK airports. These strikes across key holiday dates in December once again led to army reserves being trained to act as border staff, with warnings of delays and cancellations for arriving flights. This was preceded by industrial action by baggage handlers, timed with the start of the World Cup.
The government appears to be reluctant to negotiate with unions, highlighting the risk of increasing inflation if public sector wages are increased. Most recently, the government has announced controversial anti-strike legislation, aimed at preventing strikes in areas such as teaching, healthcare and transport.
Companies from different industries have reported that the impact of industrial action has been quite severe, with small businesses being most affected by the reduction of customers for revenue, and employees to keep operations running. While some of the strikes have been in the public sector, there has nevertheless been a toll on businesses.
Businesses have seen revenue drop in December 2022 and January 2023 as a result of industrial action, with the hospitality being significantly affected. Restaurants and other hospitality businesses in London that relied on customers being able to travel to the city centre saw bookings cancelled and considerably reduced walk-ins.
While UK Border Force walkouts haven’t directly affected airport revenue, airlines forced to delay or cancel flights due to longer expected waits at immigration upon arrival will have had to compensate affected customers, or pay for additional accommodation and meals. For those abroad with a delayed or cancelled international flight, the cost of accommodation could have been quite high, depending on the location.
Small businesses across the UK that relied on people travelling by train also suffered, with smaller holiday towns and tourist destinations being affected.
More generally, employees of companies have faced severe transport disruption. Where work from home has been available, employees have been able to continue as usual, though for those for whom this isn’t option, they have been unable to work. Larger businesses may benefit from having multiple locations and being able to draw on other resources, though smaller enterprises have struggled to operate as normal during strikes, with some even being forced to close.
With NHS strikes, employees who may have had scheduled operations and associated recovery times agreed with their employer (in some instances well in advance), may find themselves able to work again, but without a place in the schedule. Businesses who had spent time planning for leave by an employee, may be faced with spending more time doing so as procedures are moved.
There have been wider social impacts to strikes, with society at large being impacted by the industrial action. People from all walks of life and ages have, to some degree, felt the effect. Arguably, this is the intention of strike action – to highlight to the importance of the role to wider society, where union members may feel employers are not agreeing to terms that reflect the value of their position.
Tube and rail strikes have affected the ability of commuters from all sectors getting to work, including those for whom remote working isn’t an option and may have ben obligated to go without being paid for that day. Others (particularly older and vulnerable members of communities) have been unable to attend medical appointments.
Action by nurses and ambulance workers more directly affects healthcare services, with warnings in advance of strikes for the public to only call and ambulance in extremely urgent cases, and to be prepared to make their own way to A&E, if needed. Though some mitigation was made for urgent care in departments such as oncology, the extent of strike action by nurses no doubt had an impact on the ability of hospitals to treat hospitals on the days of industrial action/
National action announced by teachers in Scotland impacts children who have notably seen severe disruption to their education during COVID-19, as well as their parents, who may be unable to arrange childcare at short notice, affecting their ability to work during strike days.
On the other hand, many have been vocal in their support for those taking industrial action, holding the government to account for not being more open to negotiations, as has previously been the case when strikes have been quite so widespread (in the 1980s). Some have expressed empathy with those who have struggled with the cost of living and increasingly challenging working conditions, despite the direct impact on their livelihoods.
The government has announced anti-strike legislation that will see employees face dismissal if minimum standards aren’t met during periods of industrial action. This spans industries including the emergency services, teachers, healthcare and nuclear energy. However, a warning with the bill noted that non-strike action could have a greater impact, such as not working overtime.
During the latest round of strikes, the government appears to be less willing to negotiate with the unions, with repeated announcements that the funds are not available to meet the demands of those in the public sector. The transport secretary has faced criticism for failing to facilitate progress in discussions to reach an agreement with rail and tube workers. As a result, the government’s approach has been met with some controversy.
The Trade Union Act 2016 is the current statute regulating how trade unions must organise industrial action, including notice for employers and an increased portion of votes required for strike action to proceed. It was unpopular at the time of introduction, though it still permits for strike action, where the conditions are met.
Talking points: What are the arguments for and against strike action being further restricted? Should the government be more open to negotiations? Is the right to strike a fundamental one, and is its impact on society justified?
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