How is democracy limited by the discourse on worker union strikes?
Today’s blog will discuss the way that Unions and their right to strike have been a key component of the UK’s democracy since the formation of trade unions throughout the mid to late 1800s. As defined by the UK Government website, a Trade Union is ‘an organisation with members who are usually workers or employees’, possessing the rights to challenge employers on matters such as salary, redundancy, and varying other concerns within the workplace. This is a system that allows for a representative democracy (democracy being ‘a system of government by the whole population’ (https://tinyurl.com/24y9pe8u), as it enables members of the general public to make statements to higher bodies and act as agents of change when faced with injustice. Lately, the Conservative government has been working to remove the rights that workers have and the contributions they are able to make to the UK’s democratic systems. This blog post will explore the ways in which this is occurring, and asks the reader how this endangers democracy.
In 1868, trade unionists from all over the UK came together in order to form the ‘Trades Union Congress’; the first notable national act of worker solidarity in this sense. They did so with the intention of deciding upon collective goals for workers across the UK, and to ‘take action in all Parliamentary matters pertaining to the general interests of the working classes’ (https://tinyurl.com/4dvwxys4). A large amount of the success of Trade Unions in the past in terms of achieving their goals can be attributed to the idea of ‘collective bargaining’ (https://tinyurl.com/5c43zxv6). This involves large numbers of workers taking a stance simultaneously in order to increase impact and evoke responses from government and employer bodies. A well-known example of this would be mass strikes, something that can be seen particularly amongst key workers such as those in the healthcare, teaching, transport, and public service industries. This exertion of democratic power has been seen to be successful in many cases, one notable example being the work of the ‘Unite’ trade union, a group that secured a ‘12% pay rise’ for street cleaners and refuse collectors in Rugby, 2022. In wake of the recent cost of living crisis, the ability to increase welfare in this way is crucial and save lives in the face of austerity.
Despite small victories, such as that for Rugby service workers, not all strikes are met with the same willingness to change. In December of 2022 approximately 100,000 nurses participated in a day long strike in pursuit of higher pay. This was in retaliation to the 12% pay cut (when considering inflation) that nurses have faced when comparing figures from 2010/11 to 2020/1, despite pressure on the NHS due to patient numbers, waiting time, and lack of resources increasing exponentially between these times (https://tinyurl.com/39c73dyy). Similar action has recently been seen amongst transport workers, with train drivers striking for higher pay since the end of 2022. These pleas for fair pay have been met with little reception from the current government, and there seems to be little indication towards any sort of permanent increase in wages. Although as of present there is no official ‘right to strike’ in the UK, these examples fall under Article 11 of the EU Convention of Human Rights, stating the lawfulness of ‘freedom of peaceful assembly’ along with ‘the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests’. Despite these peaceful strikes falling under this bracket, the current Conservative government has begun taking steps to limit this exertion of democratic power from working class people.
Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has spoken of introducing legislation that could allow for trade unions to be sued if they collectively withdraw their labour, and even for key workers to be sacked (https://tinyurl.com/342vmstj) . First and foremost, this threatens democracy massively through the silencing of the working class and allowing the continuation of their struggle to provide for their basic needs during this time of economic struggle. This is a group that is already massively underrepresented in Parliament with figures showing that, despite only 7% of the UK population attending private education, 44% of Conservative electives and 38% of Labour were privately educated and of a higher socioeconomic class than the majority of the UK (https://tinyurl.com/4ydvf34c). This lack of representation for working class people in Parliament is problematic in itself, and becomes even more so when considering the movement these wealthy MPs are taking towards further stifling worker groups and excluding them from democratic processes.
The current leader of the UK Labour Party, Keir Starmer, recently voiced his concerns regarding the talk of anti unionist legislation. The Labour Party was built upon the very foundation of protecting workers and their right to negotiate and demand fair and equal treatment in the workplace. Although Labour has been seen in certain aspects to be diverging from their traditional policies and beliefs, Starmer recently came out promising to ‘repeal’ any legislation proposed by the Conservatives attempting to limit the political power of worker’s unions. It was specifically stated by Starmer that the Labour party feels that Sunak’s proposal to dismiss key workers who do not uphold a ‘minimum level’ of service (e.g. boycott work through strikes) would be a failing on the government’s part, and would merely worsen the staff shortages and economic crisis that the UK is currently facing (https://tinyurl.com/3aftea27). Such a heavy opposition to anti-strike legislation is refreshing to see in Parliament, and gives hope for the upholding of democracy and the protection of UK workers.
All in all, whilst trade unions have made up the fabric of democracy regarding workers rights for much of British history, as of 2022-3, they may face exponentially damaging set-back. This would result in key workers in the UK facing severe limitations with regards to their rights and welfare, and democracy being limited as a result. Although we can see that strikes have, at times, been met with positive change in the past, this is not always the case and the Conservative government is working to silence the voice of the working class to an even greater extent than ever.