OPINION - Community action: strikes are key to social progress, but have we forgotten how they work?

Protesters outside Downing Street on Wednesday  (PA)
Protesters outside Downing Street on Wednesday (PA)

Since the industrial revolution, workers have been strategically halting activities as a way to bring about social change. Causes usually include things like better pay and safer conditions. If you work for a living, you owe something to those who have acted in the past. Strikes are the reason that employers no longer expect you to work for sixteen hours a day, six days a week (officially, at least).

Look hard enough and most of the progressive moves made in this country can be traced to somebody putting down a hammer and picking up a placard. Industrial action is intrinsically tied up in our notions of community. When individuals put themselves at risk in pursuit of a higher aspiration, social ties are strengthened. While downing tools is a power play, it also creates solidarity within communities.

But in 2023 the country is in an ecstasy of industrial action. Strikes are crippling transport, health services, and now they are affecting education, too. In February and March, more than 70,000 university staff will go on strike over pay, pensions and conditions and unions representing nursing and ambulance staff have announced further strike dates to take place later this month.

There is a spiralling economic and human cost to the sheer number of essential workers who are downing tools, communities are strained and the government seems reluctant to come to the table. And this is the problem - both sides are putting principles over pragmatism. So welcome to the impasse nation, a place where trains don’t run, roads are overcrowded, hospitals are deadly, the postal service is in dissaray, and parts of education are on pause.

The government has come up with a raft of anti-strike laws to get the country back on track. Under this plan unions get sued if they launch industrial action, and workers get fired if they participate. A move like this isn’t quite as draconian as Russia’s 1993 outright ban on striking, but (perhaps rather shockingly) it isn’t quite as progressive as China’s policy on it. Despite the roll of human rights abuses in the country, there’s no legal prohibition from withholding labour if you want to campaign to make things better.

‘Arguments don’t win’

Both sides need a refresher course where diplomacy is concerned. The differences between arguing and negotiation are subtle, but crucial. Dean Acheson, who was US secretary of state and a policy advisor during the cold war put it well: “Negotiation in the classic diplomatic sense assumes parties are more anxious to agree than to disagree.”

Negotiating is the process of pragmatic horse trading where ground is gained on both sides by concession. Impasse occurs when principles creep in. That is, outrage at what the other side is requesting, or the assumption that for one party to win, another must lose. A successful negotiation involves a trade where everyone involved walks away with something of value. As with any form of community, divisions weaken and disparate groups find a common goal.

The government and unions must come together to focus on what might be gained in the current scenario. While public support for rail workers is waning, people are more generous of the action taken by NHS staff. The image of the Tory government wouldn’t suffer from loosening the purse strings and easing the cost of living crisis for essential workers. This might encourage union leaders to put outrage to one side and accept that it’s better that some (rather than none) of their demands are met.

Arguments don’t make society better, negotiations do and they just might strengthen our communities along the way.