Growing discontent | Staff could soon strike in every business sector, expert warns

Staff could soon strike in every business sector, expert warns

Strike action could take place in almost every job sector in the coming months, as more workers demand action from their workplace to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, a leading academic has warned.

The Manchester Evening News reported that Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, has warned the current situation of rising inflation, rocketing household bills and stagnant wages could lead to the most widespread industrial action in decades, possibly even worse than the national discontent of the 1970s.

“I think the time is slightly different to the 1970s because there are so many adverse factors at play here," said Prof. Cooper.

"When we had the strikes before it was partly about inflation and bad industrial relations between unions and management.

"This time it's much more complicated. Complicated by Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the impact on energy prices. It's the cost of living, and I also think general instability in leadership at the moment is a very important psychological factor.

"People are thinking they have to take care themselves and their families and they feel they will have to take action. If we look at the percentage of people voting to take strike action in some cases it is extremely high. It was never this high in the 1970s. We get the manifestation of the 1970s but I think it's a lot worse now and people are probably more prepared to strike."

Strike action grips the nation

A growing list of workers across the UK are staging walk-outs in recent weeks. In June, workers at one of Coca-Cola’s UK sites threatened to down tools amid a pay row and accusations of bully tactics from bosses.

Approximately 60 workers at the soft drink giant’s bottling plant in Wakefield, Yorkshire, unanimously rejected the company’s latest pay offer, and subsequently prepared to stage an industrial action ballot, the Unite union said.

That same month, thousands of railway workers launched the biggest rail strikes the country has seen in decades, bringing many parts of the country to a standstill. The RMT union, which represents rail workers, said the first general strike since 1989 is being held in response to below-inflation pay rise offers and the threat of compulsory redundancies – which the union warns would create safety risks on Britain’s railways.

Elsewhere, pay and working conditions also saw barristers across England & Wales stage pickets outside courthouses across the country.

Barristers voted for action earlier this month with more than 80% of its 2,055 members backing walkouts, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said.

The lawyers say real earnings have collapsed, dropping 28% since 2006, with junior barristers earning a median income of only £12,200 in their first three years, forcing many to give up their career.

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What does the law say about industrial action?

On its website, workers union Unison explained that, in addition to strikes, industrial action can include ‘go-slows’ or ‘working to rule’.

Although there is no positive legal right to strike in the UK, strike action organised by a trade union is legal provided some tough conditions are met.

For example:

  • The union must have conducted a lawful ballot of all the members it believes will be called upon to take part.

  • The action must be over a trade dispute between workers and their employer over an issue like terms or conditions of employment and as defined in s.244 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

  • The general secretary or someone else authorised by the union’s rules, must authorise any industrial action.

  • The person named on the ballot paper must make a call for action before industrial action can take place.

There are very strict rules about the ballot and the notice that must be given to the employer about the action.

Unison also said it is “automatically unfair” to dismiss someone who’s taken part in any lawful industrial action within 12 weeks of the action. Employers can deduct pay for striking workers, but this can be no more than one fifth of weekly pay for a day’s strike action.

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Could industrial action hit your firm?

The current strikes across a number of industries are unlikely to be the last in the coming weeks and months. It appears that the recent media coverage of walk-outs, coupled with the growing cost-of-living crisis, had led to more employees calling for more financial support from their employers.

In fact, analysis of Google search data reveals that UK searches for ‘join union’ exploded 184% in the days after the RMT announced its strike action. The research, which was conducted by Workello, also found that searches for ‘how to strike’ rose by 135% in the same period.

A Spokesperson from Workello commented: “The British public have been faced with trains up and down the country coming to a standstill as a result of these strikes by RMT, leading to difficulties getting to work, attending events and appointments.

“However, the strikes have also encouraged a surge of online interest in joining a trade union, indicating the massive impact that strikers are having across the country. With more strikes across other sectors rumoured to take place in the future, it will be interesting to see whether these searches continue to rise, especially if strikers achieve their desired outcome.”

As working conditions and the economy become more volatile, the prospect of being supported by a union could well become more attractive to workers. Unionised or not, all bosses currently face the prospect of workers being able to vote with their feet. Not only are many employees seeking more financial compensation from employers to compensate for the cost-of-living crisis, but they also want more flexible ways of working – and they’re able to move on to another, more lucrative, employment if they don’t receive this, because of the tight labour market in which employers are competing for talent.

HR leaders would therefore do well to listen carefully to their workforce’s concerns.

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