02 February 2011 #Employment
As the RMT was forced to call off the rail strike that would have caused chaos to the big 6 nations rugby match between Wales and England in Cardiff, it is worth asking the question, why and when do workers go on strike? In an article this week on the BBC News Magazine site, "Working out if strikes are worth it?", an interesting look is taken at the cases of individual workers who have taken strike action and whether they thought going on strike had been worth it.
There is the example of Royal Mail worker, Mr Joy. Although the strike he took part in back in 2009 led to a 6.9 % pay rise, he calculates that the 16 days pay he lost amounts to up to £1,200. Mr Joy doubts whether the action he took was worthwhile for him in financial terms plus he is disappointed at how the overall settlement has led to management gaining the upper hand and "just telling the union take it or leave it..they`ve brought changes in that they wanted anyway, irrespective of whether we went on strike or not."
Mr Joy says that he joined the strike because he believes that a union member "should go with the ballot" whether he agrees with it or not. The BBC article also cites the example of local authority IT worker, Ms Clayton. She also believes that although the strike she took part in was probably not worthwhile in financial terms, she was fighting for a principle. She has now left her job and the union but says she would strike again.
Peter Harwood, chief conciliator at ACAS says that it is not unusual to find complex factors caught up in industrial action and that, "It`s interesting that you will see people taking action when quite small sums of money are involved." He also points to how both management and union may come out of negotiations declaring victory when in fact there may be very different views taken by rank-and-file union members. Of course, settling industrial disputes is often about saving face and company/union politics.
RMT General Secretary, Bob Crow, is blaming "anti-union" strike laws as the reason why they have called off their strike this Friday and threatens to re-ballot his members to get over the procedural defects which appear to have taken place in the balloting process. The Government is considering tightening those laws still further to ensure that strikes do not happen through a lack of union democracy. However, if the strike had gone ahead, public opinion in Wales may have turned against the RMT for calling a strike to disrupt a Wales v England rugby match. Keeping the general public on side can be very important in these disputes and very difficult to gauge.
Strikes are rarely just the result of poor management or militant unions in the way that is often portrayed. Management and union play a huge part but ultimately strikes only happen because of the collective will of the workforce, remembering of course that those involved are likely to be angry and confused. The reasons for taking part in a strike can be very complex and, importantly, emotive. Resolving industrial disputes in the longer term can therefore involve a lot of emotional intelligence and energy.