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Why the Organise network supports striking workers

From posties to nurses, workers across the UK are taking historic strike action to protest low pay and poor working conditions. In response, the government is trying to push forward an “anti-strike bill” for public sector workers.

Roxana Khan-Williams
January 26, 2023

Being able to take action to make working conditions safe and secure is a fundamental workers’ right. Over the last few months, the UK has seen unprecedented strikes across a number of industries, as public sector workers protest unsafe conditions and over a decade’s worth of real terms pay decreases.

Strikes are a last resort taken by workers and trade unions after negotiations with employers fail. Although public sector workers, including rail and NHS workers, are striking for our safety, the government is attempting to introduce a new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.

This bill wants to enforce minimum service levels in the public sector by restricting workers’ ability to strike. Under the new bill, when workers democratically vote to strike, they could be forced to work - and even be sacked if they refuse.

Hundreds of Organise members shared why they’re protecting the right to strike - here’s what they had to say.

Workers deserve a fair wage in line with inflation 💸

One of the key demands from striking workers, regardless of industry, is a decent pay rise that’s in line with inflation. Public sector workers are sick of a 14-year pay crisis that’s left them with a lower wage in real terms than they had back in 2008.

“Striking is the only power that employees have to defend their conditions of work and levels of pay. Historically, it has been the withdrawal or the threat of the withdrawal of labour that has, in the end, protected workers from worsening work conditions. Civilised societies have recognised this but in the UK since the ‘70s, little-by-little pay and conditions have been eroded to such an extent that key workers with families are having to depend on charitable food banks to live. This is shameful.”

Over half of NHS trusts and health boards now provide food banks for staff, or they’re planning to - and for the first time in the history of the NHS, trusts are having to provide funds for workers who are unable to afford basic living costs.

“Everyone should be able to afford to get to work and earn enough money to pay their bills and feed their families.”

Nurses are among the NHS workers struggling in the cost of living crisis, with over 47,000 nursing vacancies at the moment resulting in unmanageable workloads. This is a historic high fuelled by wages that are 20% less in real terms than they were in 2010.

The new bill will erode fundamental workers’ rights ⚖️

At the start of the year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Grant Shapps told Parliament that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) supports minimum service levels in other European countries, like France and Spain. But they misrepresented those countries’ labour laws, which are significantly more lenient than the existing ones here in Britain.

For example, French minimum service laws require 48 hours’ notice before strike action for transport workers and five days for health workers, while the UK’s current notice period is 14 days, on top of a week’s notice before holding a strike ballot, which must take place via post. In total, this can result in a minimum notice period of around four weeks.

“Bringing legislation for minimum service requirements is ludicrous. Minimum service requirements cannot be met in many areas anyway. Restore the beds previously closed over the years, increase pay in the NHS to attract more staff. Stop telling us how many additional nurses have been recruited without giving the numbers that have left.”

In Spain, labour laws explicitly acknowledge that, while minimum service levels are required to keep the public safe during strikes, providing public services as usual reduces the effectiveness of strikes. This means that Spanish minimum service laws are restrictive by design, allowing only for staff cover of necessary services when alternatives aren’t available to the public.

“Workers have a right to withdraw their labour. Strikes are supposed to be disruptive and have already achieved the 50%+1 target in postal ballots. This is a government with no ability or desire to resolve the problems of working people.”

In all of the countries mentioned by Sunak and Shapps, workers do not face any threat of being forced to work, or being fired if they refuse to work - which some experts argue would violate international laws that protect the right to withhold labour.

Fund the public sector instead of punishing striking workers 💚

There’s little evidence to back up the Prime Minister’s assertion that public sector wage increases would drive up inflation - in fact, over the last year, private sector pay increased by 6.8%. This is still well below inflation but nonetheless over double the public sector increase of just 2.9%.

Instead of removing workers’ right to strike, the government should listen to the concerns of those striking. Across the public sector, workers are calling not just for proper pay but for secure contracts and safety at work.

“Fair pay and working conditions is an important human right & without the ability to strike we are in a very frightening condition and people will be forced to work in horrendous conditions. Sort the problem. Listen. These people are telling us something. We need to listen and take note. Make life easier for teachers, fire and rescue, nurses etc we NEED them. We owe our lives to some of them.”

With proper public sector funding, all of the issues highlighted by striking workers could be resolved, resulting in safer and more efficient services for us all. And it’s not like the money isn’t there - over the last ten years, MP wages rose by over £18,000, in stark contrast to just over £3,900 for nurses, who are striking for the first time in the history of the Royal College of Nursing.

“The right to strike is a basic tenet of living in a democracy. The nurses, the rail workers, ambulance staff, care workers, retail staff all kept us going in lockdown. It's no shock some of them are now striking over pay and working conditions. Finally - take a look at the working conditions, benefits and pay MPs get and hang your heads in shame that you deny key workers a wage and working conditions that enable a decent life.”

However, in the face of government hypocrisy and misinformation, it’s important to remember that the majority of the British public support striking public sector workers. As one Organise member put it:

“Stop trying to curb our human rights. You should realise that the majority of the people in our country support the strikers. You are on the wrong side of history.”

You can join over 100,000 people who agree by signing the petition to protect the right to strike.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Roxana Khan-Williams

Roxy dives in to help Organise members start and win their campaigns. She can help you plan your tactics or build your confidence, with her reassuring Yorkshire accent and snappy dress-sense.