The right to strike, to withdraw peacefully one’s labour, is a fundamental human right. It is the only option workers have to balance capital’s structural power in the economy. And yet, this right is under severe attack in the UK. Anti-trade union legislation by Conservative governments in the 1980s has made it extremely difficult for trade unions to call a strike. They need to run a highly complex and rigorous ballot of their members and they need to give an advance notice of seven days of any strike action to the employer so that the employer can prepare for it and minimise the damage caused. There is a complete ban on solidarity and secondary action.
Recent court decisions in the UK have undermined the right to strike even further. A four-day national rail strike organised for the week after Easter had to be cancelled, after a court ruling granted the employer Network Rail an injunction due to alleged discrepancies in the ballot. The planned strike by British Airways cabin crew over Christmas 2009 was declared illegal on similar grounds even though 92 per cent of the workforce had voted in favour on a turnout of 80 per cent. And the Labour government, assumed to be an ally of trade unions, stands idly by.
The right to strike, of course, was not won through negotiations. It was the outcome of increasing organisation of the labour movement and concrete strike actions, which balanced the power in society between capital and labour. Employers had to grant trade unions the right to strike, because they were forced to do so. They did not give it voluntarily. Will workers decide to become more assertive again and fight for the right to strike in the first place? If so, we may witness an increasing number of ‘unofficial’, so-called wildcat strikes. They could be the only way to re-assert the right to strike in the UK.
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ldzab
15 April, 2010