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Unionised RMT staff standing at a picket outside Euston station back in October. Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo

Strikes: how do they work?

The UK has seen an autumn of strikes. Workers on the railways, at London Underground and at Royal Mail have been among those taking action. This looks set to continue through the winter, with doctors, nurses, teachers and university staff planning strike action.

Workers who opt into a strike collectively decide to refuse to do their jobs in an attempt to gain concessions from their employer. Industrial action can also include action short of a strike, such as refusing to work overtime.

Strikes are typically conducted by workers organised into a trade union – voluntary, democratic, membership-based organisations that can negotiate with employers on their members’ behalf to defend or improve terms and conditions and enforce or enhance workplace rights.

Unions are a way for workers to address the power imbalance between employers and workers, and they believe that doing this collectively is more effective than on an individual basis. But strikes can happen among non-unionised workers, such as the recent action by Amazon warehouse workers.

Why do people go on strike?

Most disputes are resolved without strike action, but sometimes negotiations between the union and the employer break down. This is why strikes are often referred to as a “last resort”.

Common reasons for disputes between employers and workers include pay, job losses and health and safety issues. Political strikes, when workers might protest a government policy or action unrelated to their workplace, and sympathy strikes, where workers take strike action in support of another group of workers at a different employer, are now both unlawful in the UK due to legislation imposed and maintained by successive governments.

Some employers refuse to recognise unions, but others negotiate with them in a process known as “collective bargaining”. During strike talks, HR departments or senior managers of an employer may be present, as well as representatives of the union from the workplace or union officers.

Sometimes an independent dispute resolution service such as the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) may be used. Unions have various committees who discuss and vote on the dispute process.

Trade-offs may take place, such as an employer granting a pay rise in exchange for employees working more flexible hours. Unions may put a final offer to a vote of members. If workers are still unsatisfied further strikes may be called or if they vote to accept the terms an agreement will be made and striking will cease.

How is a strike called?

Union members will be sent a confidential ballot paper through the post and vote on whether they are willing to strike. The votes are counted by an independent scrutineer.

Strike action in the UK is subject to complex legislation, and for a strike to be considered lawful at least half of the balloted workers must have voted and the majority must vote yes. Unions have to provide notice to the employer of when strike action will take place.

As strikes consist of people not going into work, this can result in workplaces being closed or services not running. Trains may not run during a rail strike, or there may be a build up of refuse when bin collectors strike.

People may also see workers holding picket lines or other events outside their place of work.

What is a picket line?

A picket line is when workers congregate outside their workplace to demonstrate that they are not working and raise awareness of their dispute. People may visit who wish to show support to striking workers. Pickets may try to discourage non-striking employees from going into work as they believe they are undermining the dispute and making the strike less effective by weakening the group’s collective power.

Violent conflict between the pickets and police outside the Orgreave coking plant, 1984
Conflict during the 1984-85 miners strike at the Orgreave Coking plant in Sheffield South Yorkshire. Trevor Smith/Alamy

Strike-breaking – going into the workplace when a strike is taking place – is socially taboo to union members who have voted to strike and can still cause social divisions long after the strike has taken place.

Employers do not have to pay workers who are on strike. Some unions operate what is called a hardship or strike fund, which will issue strikers a small amount of money taken from membership subscriptions to help with their loss of earnings. Additionally, strikers may hold collections on picket lines, and supporters hold fundraising events to help strikers. Most unions also now accept donations through their websites.

Can workers get sacked for going on strike?

While there is no legal “right” to strike in the UK, workers who engage in strike action organised by a trade union through the legal balloting procedure have statutory protection from dismissal.

Recent figures show that UK union members earn 4.8% more than the average worker, and high levels of trade union membership are linked with lower income inequality.

Poverty experts and economists have called for wages to rise in line with inflation to help with the increasing cost of living, and throughout 2022 trade unions have achieved a raft of substantial pay deals for their members.

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