As we all become further embroiled in this winter’s strikes, it is worth examining the dynamics of strike action.
It can be argued that the most powerful aspect of strike action is the threat of action rather than the action itself.
The RMT, led by the highly effective Mick Lynch, has broadly had public support on its side for a while. The same can be said of the RCN and the nurses’ strikes. While strikes were just a distant threat, the public could comfortably express public support for the workers at no cost to themselves. That, it could be argued, is the point of maximum leverage for the unions and maximum pressure for ministers and employers.
Now we are in the middle of strike action, the dynamics have changed.
First of all, unity around the strikes themselves is fraying. Some unions have accepted the terms on offer. Some workers have decided that they will not join the strike action. And unions find themselves in the difficult position of either having to provide expensive financial support for striking workers or letting them fend for themselves in the middle of a cost of living crisis.
The public’s attention now also turns from expressing costless support for strike action to having to endure its consequences. Be they cancelled operations, ruined Christmases as people cannot travel reliably, and the prospect of no ambulance turning up when your dad has his heart attack.
The result: support for the nurses’ strike has fallen from 74 [er cent in November to 50 per cent now, while the number of people opposing the strikes has risen from 24 to 34 per cent. As many as 49 per cent of people now think that the RCN’s pay demands are too high. As for the RMT, support for striking rail workers now languishes at 30 per cent
As the strikes gather pace, the papers will be full of the impact of the strikes on people’s everyday lives. We will hear of ruined Christmases, growing waiting lists and unnecessary deaths. All bad news stories that can be sensationalised as fodder for newspaper headlines.
Now we have reached this point, it is not surprising that ministers have decided to continue to take a hard line. As strikes turn from threat to action, their power wanes.
Maybe unions should start to see falling into strike action as a failure rather than a victory.
Success would need to come from more effective negotiation under the threat of strike action rather than from strikes themselves.