Are British strikers being unreasonable?

“The notion of “union baron”, boogeymen/women rallying workers to the picket line at a click of their finger, is wide of the mark by a country mile. When a strike happens, it is because any semblance of good industrial relations between workers and employers has failed. Legal strikes require a vote, a high turnout, and a notice period which come after negotiations have broken down. Then the ballot papers land on door-mats and the dynamic changes. A race against time to reach a deal. Things have clearly got to be bad if it’s got to this stage.”

This is a quote from an insightful blog posting by Simon Sapper, someone I worked with as a trade union colleague and who remains a good friend. He explains how strikers have no other power if the real value of their wages is falling fast in the face of very high inflation and unreasonable demands are being made to change working practices.

Most people accept that a legal right to strike has to be one component of a genuine democracy. But too many think that strikes are only acceptable if they do not inconvenience people. Yet strikes are of no use unless they cause inconvenience.

And strikes do not just inconvenience customers or service users. They massively inconvenience the strikers themselves with serious loss of pay, hard times on the picket line or march (currently in bitterly cold conditions), and an onslaught of abuse from Government ministers and the tabloid press.

On every measure, our unequal society has become more and more unequal. All the current strikers are trying to do is minimise a further ratcheting of this inequality with an effort to maintain something like an acceptable standard of living in the face of double-digit inflation and particularly dramatic increases in the costs of the basics of life.


Most people have no idea how complex the law is in Britain in circumscribing the holding of industrial action. The formal advice on the subject runs to 25 pages.

Among many other requirements:

A ballot for action has to be conducted by an approved independent body.

All industrial action ballots mist be fully postal.

More than 50% of voters have to support a strike.

In the case of “important public services” (such as teachers, firefighters, health staff, transport workers), the ballot is only valid if at least 40% of the relevant workforce has voted to support the action.

Where there is more than one workplace, these 50% and 40% thresholds apply to each workplace (think how many workplaces there are in national industries or services).

The employer has to be given at least two weeks’ notice of industrial action.

The validity of the ballot expires after six months.


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