Could Britain be facing a general strike this winter?

Workers from the health, transport, education and postal sectors have voted for industrial action, but coordination is legally restricted

Nurses and ambulance workers, railway staff, bus drivers and postal workers have already voted yes to strike action, while civil servants and teachers are waiting for the results of ballots. Many are public sector workers, while others provide important services such as transporting cash or conducting driving exams.

Most of the strike dates announced are for December, with action peaking in the two weeks before Christmas. The last general strike in Britain was in 1926, when 1.5 million private sector workers withheld their labour. Unions have seen their freedom to take such action curbed by parliament over the last century. Nonetheless, some union leaders say they are coordinating action for maximum impact, and nearly 100 years after the last general strike, 1.5 million workers could again be on picket lines by Christmas.

What is a general strike?

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents most UK unions, was once able to coordinate a strike among a few powerful unions without the need for ballots. There was the potential for millions of workers to simply walk off the job in support of action determined in the TUC headquarters to confront the government of the day.

What happened in 1926?

The General Strike, the only one to take place in Britain, was called on 3 May 1926. It lasted nine days. About 1.5 million workers were involved, about as many as are expected to go on strike in December.

After the ravages of the first world war and lost decades of investment, much of the industrial landscape in terms of machinery and technology was in poor condition. Employers reacted by driving down wages. Back then, there were 17 million private sector workers and only 1.5 million in the public sector, compared with 27 million and 5.7 million respectively today. The TUC chose to limit participation in the strike to railway and transport workers, printers and dock workers as well as those in the iron and steel industry, representing other industries that were also in distress.

Can unions call a general strike today?

Not any more. Trade union laws introduced after the General Strike and tightened in the 1980s restrict disputes to successful ballots at individual workplaces.

A union can coordinate industrial action by workers, as the University College Union has done, holding strikes on particular days of all colleges that have voted for strikes, but strikers are banned from attending each others’ protests, known as secondary picketing.

What does the law say?

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 sets out the legal requirements before industrial action can take place in England, Scotland and Wales. There is separate legislation in Northern Ireland.

In England, Scotland and Wales, ballots for industrial action must attract at least a 50% turnout and the majority must vote yes for action to be lawful. So, if 100 workers are eligible to vote, and only 49 turn out for the vote, workers cannot take action even if all 49 vote in favour.

These rules were amended in 2016 by David Cameron’s government to cover turnouts in public services in England and Scotland.

It means public sector workers in these countries whose role involves the delivery of “important public services” must meet an additional 40% support threshold among all workers eligible to vote, as well as the 50% turnout threshold, for action to be lawful.

This means that if 100 “important” public services workers are eligible to vote, at least 50 must fill in a ballot form, and at least 40 of them must vote in favour.

Records of members must be up to date, and the economic unit of business activity defined, which helps employers with subsidiaries, limiting the scope of any action. Agency workers can be legally employed as strike breakers, as happened recently when Harrods employed an independent security firm to cover a strike by 90 of its own security staff that the GMB union said had suffered a pay cut this year.

Are strikes planned in the private sector?

Businesses that were previously state-owned, such as BT and Royal Mail, have faced months of industrial strife. This week, in a bid to end a protracted and bitter dispute that involved BT’s first national strike action in 35 years, the telecoms group awarded 71,000 staff on £50,000 or less a £1,500 pay rise in addition to a £1,500 pay rise in April.

The impact of the two pay rises means that its 100,000 staff will be between 6% and 16% better off, with a typical employee receiving 9% more pay, according to the Communications Workers Union.

Unite, which represents 1.1 million workers, has secured a series of inflation-busting pay rises this year for refuse workers, tanker drivers and staff in the food industry.

Three days of strike action scheduled for this week involving more than 2,000 bus drivers employed by Metroline were called off on Tuesday after last-minute talks produced an improved pay offer, the union said, though if the offer is rejected by staff, strikes scheduled for 8, 9, 15 and 16 December will go ahead as planned.

Among its highest awards following a ballot for industrial action is the 19% for cask handlers, HGV, forklift and shunter drivers employed by Carntyne Transport.


Phillip Inman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ministers press on with ‘cynical’ plan to let agency staff replace striking workers
Unions and recruiters say move would harm relations and point out UK government condemned P&O for doing same thing

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

23, Jun, 2022 @12:25 PM

Article image
UK facing biggest disruption since 1980s miners’ strike
Nearly 1.7 million mostly public sector workers are being balloted on or have voted for stoppages

Heather Stewart and Phillip Inman

06, Nov, 2022 @3:12 PM

Article image
Nurses to strike again as ministers prepare to introduce ‘spiteful’ bill
Industrial action also set to escalate in other sectors while government gears up anti-strike legislation

Rowena Mason Whitehall editor

15, Jan, 2023 @10:38 PM

Article image
TUC seeks changes to draft law to help seafarers after P&O Ferries scandal
Sacking of nearly 800 crew in favour of low-paid agency workers in March led to calls for loopholes to be closed in seafarers’ wages bill

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

11, Dec, 2022 @3:30 PM

Article image
Ports and unions criticise Shapps’ plan for law on seafarers’ minimum wage
Legislation announced in Queen’s Speech in response to P&O Ferries’ sacking of 800 crew

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

10, May, 2022 @1:59 PM

Article image
Government plans let ‘dodgy umbrella companies off the hook’, warns TUC
Trades Union Congress renews calls for ban on umbrella firms to address labour market abuses

Jasper Jolly

14, Mar, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Hidden cost of umbrella companies in UK ‘may top £4.5bn a year’
Unions and tax experts call for greater regulation as those affected thought to exceed 600,000 workers

Jasper Jolly

16, May, 2021 @11:46 AM

Article image
UK union leaders step up warnings of synchronised strikes this winter
Bosses tell TUC congress they stand ready to coordinate action, although there are no calls for a general strike

Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart

18, Oct, 2022 @9:40 PM

Article image
Delaying new law ‘gives green light to rogue employers’, says TUC
With employment bill unlikely to make Queen’s speech, P&O Ferries-type scandals will happen again, says Frances O’Grady

Jasper Jolly

03, Apr, 2022 @11:01 PM

Article image
Is the UK really facing a second winter of discontent?
Comparisons with 1979 are misleading – strikes over pay now are smaller in scale and focus, and stoked by inflation

Richard Partington

08, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM