Ministers are planning steps to ensure a minimum transport service during strikes and are reportedly thinking about tougher measures for the emergency services. While there is no formal ‘right to strike’ in the UK, industrial action is legal if it complies with the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, introduced by John Major’s government in 1992. After three decades of relative consensus, significant new restrictions on the freedom to withhold one’s labour come as a shock.
However, as a wave of public sector and transport strikes washes over the country during the next few weeks, it is likely that sympathies will start to wane, as the disputes begin to have potentially serious real-world effects. Most people will probably recognise that, while the cost of living has made things tough for ordinary people, employers are also struggling to deal with rising costs and, in many cases, lower revenue. Some may feel that, in a fairly fluid job market, people could simply find another job if unhappy with their existing one.
Unions need to remember the events of the last “Winter of Discontent” when mass strikes brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979. By over-playing their hand, they helped put Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street and create lasting anti-union sentiment among the public.
So, when dealing with disputes, union leaders need to take a broader view than just their members’ concerns, one that includes the public’s reaction to industrial action. Ultimately, in a democracy, the voters are in charge. If people are enraged by continual strikes, they are likely to back politicians who promise to get tough.
What this means is that unions need to be reasonable in their demands or the public, then ultimately the government, will turn against them. The Conservatives’ plans may seem over the top to many now, but that could change if the strikes escalate.
However, Draconian measures are hardly in the government’s interests either. If staff are over-worked and demoralised, telling them they are not allowed to strike in protest could be the last straw. The NHS, for example, already has a recruitment crisis. And anti-strike legislation will only make that worse.