We’ve already seen the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) strike for three days over June, while the UK train drivers’ union Aslef have voted for their own strike this week. Criminal barristers are now on their third week of strikes, BT staff have voted for their first in 35 years, and the National Education Union (NEU), the largest teachers’ union, is threatening one later this year.
It’s been dubbed the summer of strikes, and has prompted discussions of a general strike (also called a national strike), which would involve most working people around the country collectively deciding to down tools. A pretty bold move, but not an unprecedented one – one of the largest strikes in history happened in India just two years ago, where an estimated 250 million people downed tools. In 2011, Portugal reportedly held its biggest general strike in 20 years.
So what would happen if the UK went on strike? Melanie Simms, a professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow, points out that, “taking the legal definition of a strike in the UK, it’s impossible for everyone to go on strike”. As in: It isn’t exactly legal. “There is no positive legal right to strike in the UK,” as Unison stresses on their website. “Strike action organised by a trade union is legal provided some tough conditions are met.”
That means that those participating in a general strike outside those terms might be liable to be sued or sacked. “If you're a trade union and you're bringing a business to a close for a day – quite a lot of money is lost,” Simms explains. “The business could potentially sue for damages.”
The legislation governing strike action came into play around the early 80s, with the Trade Union Act 1984 limiting the ability of miners to strike by removing their entitlement to state benefits. It’s also why unions must follow a specific process for organising one, like holding a secret postal ballot and giving their employer enough notice. But hey, sometimes rules get broken: Government officials decided to party in lockdown, after all. And are businesses really going to go around suing and sacking their entire workforce?
If the UK does stage a national strike, Simms adds, you’d have to be “striking against something”. It’s a fair point: What would our collective goal be? Increasing the living wage so it’s genuinely liveable? Hiking taxes on billionaires and corporations? “Typically strikes are about pay or annual redundancies,” Gregor Gall, a visiting industrial relations professor at the University of Glasgow, suggests.
Either way, a general strike would have a huge effect on the country. “It could paralyse not just the economy, but much of day to day life,” says Dr Gregoris Ioannou, a lecturer in employment relations and human resource management at the University of Sheffield, adding that “some sort of minimum service” would be agreed upon so that services like emergency and essential health care could still be accessed.
“We would see factories cease output pretty quickly because they operate on a ‘just in time’ system – they don’t have warehouses full of parts that they can assemble into the finished product,” Gall adds. “And of course, if delivery drivers strike, that disrupts a lot of industries and businesses.”
Similar knock-on effects happened during the RMT strikes: People couldn’t get to offices, so cafes and other shops near those offices closed for the day. Stores inside train stations would also have been heavily impacted. Simms offers another example: “When teachers strike, it can often have an impact on their parents going to work.”
To coordinate a strike that would involve a majority of the workforce, “unions would be absolutely essential – as they are in France,” Gall says. “There aren't any other independent organisations that could do this job.”
More disruption doesn’t necessarily mean more chance of success, though. History tells us as much: The first – and only – general strike in the UK occurred in 1926, and it was, basically, a flop. The action was an attempt to force the British government to prevent wage reductions and improve working conditions for miners.
Almost two million people went on strike across nine days, but they gave up on day nine after the Trades Union Congress failed to negotiate an agreement with the government. “That general strike set the union movements back quite a few years,” Gall says. “They didn't really start to revive until the run up to the Second World War.”
Back then, there were “five to six million union members, which was a higher proportion of the workforce than today,” he adds. This made a general strike more likely, but if a general strike did take place today and win, it would “likely increase sentiment for people to join unions,” he says. And, most obviously, success would mean positive action for the strikers on pay, redundancies or whatever it is they were striking over.
Ioannou points out something pretty important for measuring the overall impact of everyone striking: “When we move from a strike to a general strike, there's a leap from the economic to the political,” he says. In other words, a regular strike is usually about pay – a general strike, like the ones that took place in India and Portugal, are more of an attack against the government or the political system itself.
There’s a few layers to this. One being, sure, strikers win and they get paid more – then great, but those in power can also change legislation to make striking more difficult, as the British government did after the general strike of 1926. There’s also no guarantee that it would shift the country’s politic compass left. General strikes can “destabilise the economy, the political sphere, and ideological dynamics as well,” says Ioannou.
While it’s hard to guarantee which way politics might fall, Gall does feel that a general strike has the power to topple the government. “If the government said ‘no’ to the strikers, and that it’s standing behind the employer, the government – I think – is likely to fall,” Gall says. “There might be a caretaker government between then and a general election, perhaps.” (Caveat: He mentioned all of this before everyone and their dog resigned from government.)
In other words, big risks entail even bigger rewards. It would take a lot of effort to stage a general strike in terms of the collective unionising required – but some might just think it’s worth it. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, why not join your union?