OPINION: Strikes – Vehicles for Social Change and Justice

Posted on: 20 January 2023

On Monday 16th January 2023, the National Education Union, the largest education union in England and Wales, announced that they will be going on strike across February and March. 

On February 1st, 23,400 schools will be impacted by the strikes joining 77 colleges, staff at which balloted to strike last term. Teachers are the latest public sector workers to announce strike action this winter. Across the country, they join Royal Mail workers, Rail workers, Nurses, and Ambulance workers who have already taken strike action to date. Other public sector workers such as junior doctors and firefighters are also currently balloting to strike.

Chances are you’ve been impacted by these strikes in one way or another over the past eight months. National media coverage has been problematic at best, with conversation focused on the harm these strikes are having on the people of the country as opposed to sharing an understanding of why these strikes are happening. What this coverage forgets is that the people of the country are the people choosing to strike and that strike action is a meaningful and important part of social justice, as well as an expression of British democracy.

At Student Hubs, we wanted to write this opinion blog as part of our recent work in local Hubs speaking to students about UCU strikes which have impacted students across the past few years. We wanted to provide a fuller contextual piece on strikes to support our social issues learning for students on how strikes impact them and their lives. 

Understanding Strike Action

So what is a strike? When a worker goes on strike they are withdrawing their labour for the day – essentially saying that they refuse to work under their current conditions, and are willing to give up a day’s wages in protest. An important part of strike action is that in order to be successful it needs to be undertaken by a group of workers together. Alone a worker striking can be ignored and reprimanded, but together they have the power to make their voices heard and to begin meaningful change. Since the advent of the industrial revolution, strike action has been an important means for citizens to enact social change, being responsible for many rights we take for granted today. Trade Unions are membership bodies made up of workers who work together to take action.

Strike action over the past 200 years has laid the foundation for rights such as having a two day weekend, limits on working hours, and even paid annual leave to start. Almost all the expectations we have of our workplaces, including basic health and safety guidelines, were bought into law after extensive strike action. This form of collective action is a valuable form of social action and campaigning for change, and shows that engaging actively in the issues around us can build and lead to significant improvements and impact. 

When you work in the public sector, your dispute is with the government and therefore their relationship with the trade-union movement is tentative at best. This is something that came to a head during 1979’s ‘winter of discontent’, when the working class clashed with the Labour government, which resulted in the Conservative Thatcherite government taking power. The situation continued to worsen over their many planned changes to the British economy, not least of all the general movement towards privatising public services – turning them into for-profit businesses rather than the community resources they were initially designed to be. Ultimately Thatcher was largely successful in disrupting the trade-union movement, and this was accomplished by dividing the working class in order to conquer them, favouring some concerns over others to undermine the vital working-class solidarity which gave the movement its power. In addition, because the strikes impacted services to the public the media was able to present the conflict as being between workers who simply wanted more money, and the public that would have to suffer to pay for it; rather than between the public and workers who believed in the value of the service, and the government that wanted it to be a source of profit for private businesses.

The Current Landscape

Since the recession of 2007 and the following election of the Conservative Party in 2010 the government began a policy agenda of cutting funding to public services in order to reduce government debt, but this has come at the cost of putting an enormous amount of strain on public services which has only increased since. 

This has led to a resurgence in the trade-union movement, following a recognition that the government is uninterested in acting based on the knowledge and expertise of the people who deliver these services. Over the past year, the added weight of the cost of living crisis and the government’s slow action to support the people of the country has led workers to take strike action as a last resort to make their voices heard. This increase in social action has laid a profound challenge to the government, so much so that Sunak’s government is proposing legislation to further limit the right to strike rather than address the demands of the public sector, despite the fact that the UK has some of the most restrictive labour laws in the EU.

Specifically, Sunak has proposed a minimum-service law which would require that unions make provision for a minimum level of service to be delivered on strike days. Not only could this law be used to make it functionally impossible for some workers to exercise their right to strike owing to the vagueness of what constitutes minimum service, but the irony is that many unions have been advocating for minimum service laws for years. The difference being that unions have specified the minimum service laws ought to be accompanied with minimum staffing requirements, so that the emphasis is placed on the employer’s responsibility to ensure there is enough staff to ensure that a service can fulfil its function, rather than punishing workers by shifting the blame for a lack of service on their right to strike rather than the consequences of consistent under-funding.

Teachers, Lecturers and Students Deserve Better

Teachers are striking for a pay increase in line with inflation, this is a necessary step in addressing the current recruitment and retention crisis in education. Teaching is a job with long hours of unpaid overtime, and high levels of stress, and in real terms teachers have seen pay cuts whilst shortages of staff have caused workload to increase. Many teachers are choosing to leave the profession because they can find jobs which are better paying and less disruptive to their personal lives and families. Graduates are turning to other jobs for the same reasons, further increasing the shortages of teaching staff. Additionally, teachers are striking for this pay rise to be fully funded by the government instead of coming out of existing budgets, as this would put an even greater strain on schools which would further exacerbate the situation.

The strikes are being undertaken for the benefit of students as much as teachers. If teachers didn’t care about the students they would be leaving their jobs instead of fighting for them to improve. The understaffing of schools means that teachers are responsible for greater numbers of students, which means that the care and attention they can give is having to be spread even thinner. The disruption caused by strikes pales in comparison to the long-term disruption caused by teacher absences due to stress related illness, and the cover that is required as a consequence which dramatically reduces the quality of contact hours with students. For students to have a high quality, meaningful school experience, well supported teachers are vital in making this happen. 

The impact of this is felt worst in areas with relative deprivation, as schools in underreached communities are already working in difficult conditions which have been made worse by the above problems. At Student Hubs we are no stranger to the educational inequality in place, with our flagship programme Schools Plus tackling it through student volunteers supporting young people in the classroom. Our programmes also support a lot of students who are keen to enter the education sector and these issues are perpetuating barriers preventing them from doing so. 

UCU strikes are also planned to take place over February and March, challenging pay, working conditions, and attacks on pensions for staff in 150 universities across the UK. University staff suffer from the same long hours, unpaid and insecure work, and are being stretched to the point of compromising quality. 

So what can you do to help?

  • One of the most impactful things you can do is to be vocal about your support of the strike actions and seek to combat the narrative that suggests that strikers are only interested in themselves and not the quality of the service they want to provide
  • Organise events in your student unions to show solidarity with the striking workers
  • You can write to or phone your MP, letting them know that you are opposed to the proposed minimum service legislation and support the demands of the unions.
  • Register to vote – as young people you represent an increasingly large part of the voter base and so can exert a lot of influence over politics.

If you are interested in learning more about Trade Unions, we recommend; 

Simran and David Dhanjal-Field

Sim Dhanjal-Field is Student Hubs’ CEO, leading on strategy, governance, finance, fundraising and external relations. David Dhanjal-Field is a Philosophy Sixth Form Teacher and Union Representative for the National Education Union (NEU). Both are alumni of Southampton Hub.

Tags: Alumni, Community, Opinion, Social Action

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