Whatever happened to the British general strike?

Spanish workers showing the Brits how it’s done. Gallowolf, CC BY-NC

Once considered the key issue in industrial relations, strikes appeared to be in a permanent state of decline in western Europe in the two decades before 2008. But the financial crisis and the austerity programmes that have followed have changed all that.

A European Day of Action and Solidarity in November 2012 was the occasion for demonstrations or actions, including general strikes, across much of the EU. Just recently workers in Greece held a further general strike.

But why not in the UK? The tube strike this week will preoccupy much of the London media, but it is hardly on the same scale as actions in Europe or indeed the UK general strike in 1926 when more than 1.5m workers walked out in support of striking miners.

Striking history

General strikes have been most common in those countries that were hit hardest by the crisis and who imposed the most drastic austerity measures, largely at the behest of the “Troika” of the European Central Bank, the EC and the IMF.

In 2012 there were two general strikes in Spain and Portugal and five each in Greece and Italy. However, general strikes are in any case relatively common in these countries, reflecting a history of long-standing employer hostility towards trade unions, greater militancy within key trade union federations and the lack of strong institutions for promoting alternative means of resolving conflicts between government, trade unions and employers.

The surge in general strikes isn’t simply a quirk of post-2008 Europe. As research has shown, although economic strike action has fallen over the past 20 years, the incidence of general strikes was on the increase even before the start of the crisis.

Unlike Greece, Spain and Italy, the UK has not been required by the Troika to implement austerity measures in return for financial assistance. Massive cuts in public spending have been made by choice. Prominent trade union leaders such as Mark Serwotka of the PCS believe that general strike action is required to halt austerity. However, a general strike is unlikely to happen, for a number of reasons.

Risk of going political

It is possible that the government’s claim that Labour’s supposed profligacy made austerity a necessary step has been accepted by a substantial proportion of the UK population, including workers. To that extent, austerity might be unpopular but still regarded as justifiable.

Strike action in countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy was fuelled by the perceived “democratic deficit” and loss of sovereignty implied by the Troika-imposed spending cuts. This clearly does not apply in the UK case (although as austerity was not a manifesto pledge of the parties at the last general election, there is a democratic deficit of a different kind).

More important, however, are the substantial restrictions imposed on UK trade unions under the law. It is a peculiarity of industrial relations in the UK that, rather than having a positive right to strike, unions that call strike action are instead merely granted immunity from prosecution, and only if numerous strict criteria are met.

Some of the criteria, which were introduced by the Conservative governments in the 1980s and 90s, relate to the procedures for calling strike action (for example, provisions relating to strike ballots). Others relate to the types of strike action that can be called. For a strike to be lawful there must be a “trade dispute” between workers and their own employer and the dispute must wholly or mainly relate to specific employment-related issues (pay and conditions, for example).

Secondary strike action and sympathy strikes are therefore unlawful in the UK, as are “political strikes” directed at government policy. Strike action taken in protest against the government’s austerity policies would run a very high risk of being regarded by the courts as “political” strike action, in which case legal action could (and probably would) be taken against those trade unions involved.

Workers involved in unlawful industrial action also lose protection against being dismissed, so political action – a general strike – would leave striking workers extremely exposed. For these reasons some TUC-affiliated unions oppose general strikes and are sceptical of claims made by Unite that such action could be defended on “human rights” grounds. Such differences of opinion means it is unlikely that the Trades Union Congress will be able to do more than to continue to explore possibilities for coordinating separate economic (as opposed to political) strike actions in an attempt to maximise their impact.

The restrictions that UK governments (Labour as well as Conservative and Con-Dem) have placed on strike action have been criticised on a number of occasions by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN body responsible for developing international labour standards.

The ILO’s Committee of Experts has expressed concern about the fact that taking part in strike action is treated as a breach of contract under UK common law (potentially exposing strikers to the threat of dismissal) and the continuations of an effective ban on secondary and sympathy forms of action. The ILO has urged the UK to extend the scope of protection granted to workers and their trade unions.

The Conservative Party, by contrast, has indicated that it will go in the opposite direction by further restricting trade unions’ “immunities” in the event that it wins the 2015 general election. The Conservatives (backed by the CBI) wish to replace the current strike ballot procedure, which requires a simple majority in favour of action for a strike to go ahead, with one that will include a minimum voting threshold. As the late Bob Crow put it, this is a case of politicians attempting to “impose voting thresholds on trade unionists that none of them would dare subject themselves to at the ballot box”.