Nobody takes the decision to strike lightly. Strikes are very expensive – the cost to the unions of 30 November, including ballots, will be millions of pounds. Union members will sacriﬁce up to £100 million in pay altogether.
The unions are taking action because other options have been blocked by the government. It effectively froze negotiations. It is only the threat of strikes that has led to any change in the government’s position.
When the unions do eventually decide they have to resort to strikes, they discuss with employers to organise emergency cover and ensure that no one is in danger and vulnerable people are not harmed.
Home care for the elderly, urgent operations and accident and emergency departments all continue to function. Unions agree with employers that enough people are exempt from the strike to make sure this is the case.
Public sector workers are less motivated by their own pay and conditions than by a strong public service ethos. 53 per cent of NHS staff regularly work additional unpaid hours over and above their contract (Annual NHS Staff Survey). The most common reason for working unpaid hours was ‘because I want to provide the best care I can’.
Public sector unions play a key social justice role, campaigning for decent public services for all. They would like to be striking to this end, but that is illegal. They are only allowed to take action over their own pay and conditions.
But good conditions are part of ensuring quality public services – after all, services will be better if the workers providing them are secure about their futures, rather than anxious.
Unions can hardly be accused of representing ‘sectional interests’ when they do so much campaigning on wider issues such as anti-racism and freedom for Palestine.
The unions are constantly renewing themselves. Many trade unions are in fact growing as they reach out to new groups. For example, Unison signed up 160,000 new members last year – 27,000 of them aged under 30. Unions are also on the rise internationally as more of the world is industrialised and workers start to ﬁght for their rights.
Deindustrialisation and legal attacks have reduced the number in unions in the UK since the 1970s. But with nearly seven million members (National Statistics), trade unions are still the largest voluntary organisations in the country.
And another estimated 3.3 million non-union workers are covered by collective agreements negotiated by a union.
Government-commissioned research shows that unions bring an identiﬁable range of beneﬁts to the economy, and the taxpayer, worth up to £1.1 billion every year (‘Workplace representatives: a review of their facilities and facility time’, BERR). This is through their contribution to dispute resolution, reductions in workplace injuries and work-related illnesses, and improved take-up of training.
There are also productivity gains worth up to £12 billion (‘The Facts About Facility Time’, TUC) thanks to improved morale and employee engagement, among other factors.
Even the International Monetary Fund has published research (‘Inequality, Leverage and Crises’, IMF) suggesting that union bargaining helps maintain economic stability, by keeping a lid on inequalities and putting a brake on runaway expansions of household debt.
Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman says: ‘If we want a society of broadly shared prosperity … we need to restore the bargaining power that labour has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages.’
The government talks a lot about how ‘unfair’ unions are for private sector workers – but workers in the private sector won’t beneﬁt one jot from an attack on the public sector.
The public sector’s conditions are better because unions have fought to maintain standards in the face of a race to the bottom. Union members’ hourly earnings are around 17 per cent higher than those of non-union members.
Unions face enormous challenges recruiting and organising in the private sector because of the nature of much employment. But millions of private sector workers are in unions – and millions more who are not in a union would like to join one. Unions want to level up, not race to the bottom.
According to the British Workplace Representation and Participation Survey, 46 per cent of employees in non-unionised workplaces say they would become members if unions were enabled to recruit and organise there. That alone would easily take total union membership above 50 per cent nationally.
In fact, unions have been working continually to address inequalities and secure greater participation and representation of women, black and ethnic minorities, disabled and young people ever since the social movements of the 1970s transformed understandings of inequality and work.
Unison, for example, has over a million women members – more than two thirds of the union. Women’s representation is growing across the unions, and many now actively encourage women to get involved and become reps.
It’s taken time and struggle, and there’s still a lot to be done, but unions score higher than most institutions on diversity and equalities – including not just businesses but also political parties. Young people today are far more likely to join a union than a political party.
The very role of a trade union is to provide democratic representation of its members in the workplace. The right to form and join trade unions is generally considered to be a fundamental part of any democratic society, and is speciﬁcally mentioned in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 23).
Unions spread a culture of democracy. Research suggests high levels of union membership are linked to democratic participation more generally, such as voting in elections and campaigning in the community (‘The Everyday Democracy Index’, Demos).
Union leaders are elected democratically by a ballot of every member. Policy is made through the unions’ democratic structures, such as annual delegate conferences. As with any democratic institution there are ﬂaws, and improvements must be fought for, but in few organisations are the leaders as accountable as they are in the unions.
No strike can take place without the support of at least 50 per cent of those voting by postal ballot. Two out of every three MPs didn’t get 50 per cent of the vote at the last general election.
Trade unions’ portrayal in the media could make you think that they are universally despised. But surveys show that this is far from the case.
Even at the height of the attack on the unions, when MORI opinion polls found a majority of people agreeing that unions were ‘run by militants’, 73 per cent still agreed that unions are essential to protect workers’ interests’. Today 76 per cent say they are essential.
A ComRes opinion poll at the time of the smaller pensions strikes in June this year found that a majority of the public thought ‘public sector workers are right to take strike action’. With up to three million set to strike on 30 November, these arguments are ones we can win.
If you want to see more articles like this, please support us by becoming a Friend of Red Pepper.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace