By Josh Lynch
Strikes, Strikes, Strikes! I am not an economics student, but surely having so many strikes in such a short timeframe doesn’t bode well for the UK economy? Now now, please do not interpret this as some anti-union rhetoric and me as some old witch prophesising how strikes will doom our economy. Rather, I propose the opposite: strikes are as clear an indication of a rotting economy as we will get. The antibodies fighting the illness.
Despite the universal consensus — that change must be made — many still view these strikes unfavourably. I have to say, I got rather excited seeing this prompt during the latest round of content calls, seeing that my undergraduate dissertation just happens to be on ‘Strike Action and the Public’s Perception (you will all be receiving a link to my survey on Overheard as soon as it’s approved by the research department). One thing I have learned during my research is just how much the mass-media hates unions, with the majority of their coverage centred around how much damage strikes always seem to cause. Often exaggerated, and sometimes grossly misrepresented, headlines typical call to the “selfishness” and “greed” of those striking. A prime example is the 2021-2022 rail strikes. How those striking over unfair pay were “holding the country to ransom” and were earning significantly more than the national average. For instance, The Daily Mail reported train drivers ‘are paid £80,000 as unions demand more money.’ Apart from the egregious insinuation the strikes were solely the result of train drivers demanding more money, as well as the shameless assimilation of the basic rail worker being merged with the top positions, there is clearly a massive misrepresentation about unions permeating within the national discourse.
For those unaware, Trade Unions are organisation responsible for representing the interests of its members, typically consisting of a particular industry profession such as rail workers. Trade unions are purely a reactive and defensive force responding to wider economic, political and social issues. Or, in other words, if strikes allow for workers to stand up for themselves, then unions allow for workers to stand in the first place.
And indeed, strikes are intended to be disruptive. They have to be. For what good is a protest if it can be ignored? There are those who argue that the disruption should be more tightly aimed at the employer, big business or the state. If this happened, they argue, support would go up. A common example critics point to is that of Japan’s bus drivers, whose strikes act more like a black-Friday sale for the public by continuing routes as usual albeit without demanding fares. However, what many do not realise is that such action is illegal in the UK, leaving the only viable options of protest being what we typically see. Unfortunate really, as this unknown fact plays into the discussed media narrative and so it’s easy to see why many are quick to assume economic woes are the result of strikers. Yet despite my apparent bias towards unions, the unique dilemma of healthcare strikes is still one not so clear cut.
We once again see junior doctors going on strike, this time for the longest period of industrial action by NHS workers in its history. However, unlike rail strikes, the controversy is not focused on inconvenience but rather fatal consequence. Understandably so, many worry that the withdrawal of labour in a healthcare setting implies the neglect of patients. The ethics of healthcare striking is nothing new, but certainly the context in which these strikes are taking place is. However, it’s important to dispel the notion that hospitals will be left abandoned during this week, as senior doctors and nurses will remain present. For some, this may still be inexcusable, as knowingly putting greater pressure on an already overwhelmed NHS implies selfishness. And yet, this type of argument ignores the current health of the NHS, and more importantly, its workers.
Chronically underfunded and impossibly overwhelmed, the reality is patients are already neglected regardless of strikes. This is not the consequence of lazy doctors and nurses (I thought we knew this when we were doing our evening claps?). Rather, they are being asked an impossible task. They are not machines. They are humans. If machines break, they can be repaired or replaced. If a human breaks, well — the solution is not so simple.
Image: Roger Blackwell via Wikimedia Commons