What Actually is a General Strike and is the UK Going to Have One?

Up to half a million workers will take industrial action on Wednesday.

by Polly Smythe

31 January 2023

CWU workers on strike. Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)No Use Germany
CWU workers on strike. Vuk Valcic/Reuters

As the UK’s strike wave continues, with teachers and firefighters becoming the latest to join in on the action, there’s been considerable talk – and substantial confusion – around the idea of a general strike.

1 February, the TUC’s ‘protect the right to strike’ day, will see up to half a million workers walk out together, with civil servants, teachers, university staff and train drivers all taking action. While far from a general strike, the day of action is a definite step up in the current wave of disputes.

The coordinating function of the TUC has been neglected over the past 30 years. However, a motion was passed last October at the TUC conference that recognised “the need for unions to focus on collective action” and called on the TUC to “actively encourage, facilitate, organise, support industrial coordination and a united campaign of coordinated industrial action between unions.”

As Tony Kearns, the senior deputy general secretary of the CWU, said in an interview on Monday: “The TUC is the sum of its parts, so that’s up to the general secretaries, including my own, Dave Ward [to push for that].”

So, almost 100 years on from the last general strike, are we moving towards another?

General strikes in history.

The only general strike to have taken place in Britain was in May 1926. The TUC called the strike in support of miners, who were fighting a dispute against mine owners who demanded they work longer hours for less pay. After nine days, the TUC ended the strike, while the miners continued to fight alone, and returned to work in November, defeated.

In 1972, Britain came close to another general strike after dockers who came to be known as the Pentonville Five were arrested after they ignored a court injunction to stop picketing. Their arrests prompted a national wave of solidarity strikes, a mass walkout of dockers, and a threat from the TUC of a one-day general strike unless the five were freed.

Legal barriers.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power determined to crush the power of organised labour.

Norman Tebbitt’s 1982 Employment Act substituted the meaning of trade dispute as occurring “between employers and workers” to “between workers and their employer.” In doing so, the act rendered secondary action, also known as sympathy strikes, unlawful. Prior to the act, trade union members could take industrial action against their own employer in support of union members engaged in industrial action against a different employer.

Additionally, the legislation narrowly defined trade disputes as relating to problems like pay, conditions, and discipline. This definition of a trade dispute excludes the possibility of a strike for political reasons.

Unusually in the UK, there’s no singular right to strike. Instead, workers and unions are afforded various protections if their industrial action is deemed lawful.

If strike action is found to be unlawful, an injunction could be sought against the union. If the union refused to obey the injunction, it could be found in contempt of court, and its funds could be sequestered. Alternatively, the union could be sued for damages. In July, the Tory government increased the maximum level of damages a union can face. The upper limit for damages has risen from £250,000 to £1m.

As the general secretary of Unison Christina McAnea said on Sky News: “If I was to say I’m calling a general strike, my union’s funds would be sequestered, any members that took part in what’s called a ‘political strike’ would lose any protection from dismissal. They’d just be sacked.”

What can unions do?

Technically, there’s no legal mechanism to allow unions to declare a general strike. However, according to John Hendy KC, Labour peer and leading labour lawyer, “there’s nothing to restrict coordinated action between workers who are pursuing their own disputes. They could coordinate all the strikes on the railways with all the strikes in the NHS, if they wanted to.”

In practice, this would mean the TUC’s 48 member unions simultaneously launching ballots for strike action. If each union successfully secured a mandate to strike, then they could coordinate their days of action. The TUC could coordinate this process.

There’s already been limited coordination between unions during the current strike wave, particularly between the TSSA, RMT, and ASLEF on the railways.

What other obstacles are there to a general strike?

There’s also the question of how big a general strike would actually be. In 1979, union membership was at its peak, with 13.2 million workers in trade unions. In 2021, having grown for four consecutive years, union membership fell by 62,000 to 6.4 million in 2021.

“Workers who are not organised in trade unions don’t go on strike,” Hendy said. “Of course, there are exceptions to that, where workers walk out in absolute anger and frustration without being union members. But it’s very rare.

“If you call a general strike of all 31 million workers in this country, given that only six and a half million of them are going to be in trade unions, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get many of the remaining 25 million to join the strike. This means that it’s not going to be terribly effective.”

Anti-trade union laws aren’t the only things blocking coordination – there’s also politics. Some trade unions aren’t particularly militant, or are hesitant to escalate their disputes beyond winning pay rises for their members. The non-TUC affiliated Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has clearly stated the union will not join coordinated action with different unions.

Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the RCN, said: “Our dispute is about the nursing profession and doing a deal for nursing is my only priority […] Our days of action and future planning is based only on what is best for nursing.”

Other unions have reported concerns that their disputes will get lost amidst the focus on coordinated action, or that mass disruption could damage public support for their ongoing strikes.

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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