Should Those Working in Essential Services Be Denied the Right to Strike?

The recent Tube strike in London has called into question whether those working in transport should be allowed the right to strike. A second 48-hour tube strike was announced, but was fortunately resolved by talks with unions and Transport for London. People could once again get on with their working lives, without disruption, and without the gloom of waiting in a queue for a bus and taking twice as long to get into work, or not getting into work at all.

Of course, no one is saying that unions and those working in transport shouldn’t have their complaints heard. If there is some systemic wrong or hardship that is being suffered, then it should be corrected by unions and the employers. One of these wrongs would include a disproportionately low pay relative to the nature of the work. However, I’m not sure this can be said of tube drivers, who can earn over £50,000 per annum – a pretty impressive salary if you ask me for what is essentially unskilled labour.

While the right to freedom of assembly and to join unions is enshrined in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the right to strike is still subject to certain restrictions. The strike must be prescribed by the law of that country, be necessary and based on one of the following: in the interests of national security or public safety, for the protection against disorder and crime, for the protection of health or morals, and for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. Whether a strike is to be allowed is up to the Member States of the EU. The ECHR itself does not confer this right.

The right to strike is covered by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 in the UK. Under these provisions, strike action will only be protected if there has been a ballot and if it receives majority support. The courts tend to be less favourable towards trade unions due to the fact that a strike is technically a breach of a contract with the employer, who is not involved in the dispute. Immunity is granted, however, due to the right to strike safeguarded in English law. The courts are also unfavourable towards trade unions in the case of strikes because they are deemed to be disruptive and economically damaging.

Some categories of workers are excluded from the right to strike in the UK. These include the armed forces and the police. This can be justified for many reasons. The armed forces exist to protect the interests of national security (supposedly at least), but they can be said to protect public safety in many instances of disaster and emergency (like with the recent and on-going flooding in South West England). The police cannot be allowed to strike because they are needed to protect public safety, to prevent disorder and crime, and to protect the rights and freedoms of others. They have not been allowed to strike since 1919. Section 138 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 makes it illegal for prison workers to go on strike. And rightly so. Prison officers are needed to keep dangerous criminals incarcerated.

But shouldn’t other workers in essential services be exempt from this right to strike? Doctors, nurses, ambulance crews and medical staff working for the NHS, for example, are needed for the protection of health. Indeed, an argument could be made for exempting those in the NHS from taking industrial action, since they are so crucial to saving lives and protecting our health.

However, it is more controversial to argue that Tube staff should be denied the right to strike. Yes, the 48 hour tube strike did cause massive disruptions with people getting to work and meaning that some people couldn’t get to work at all (and might even have had to work from home…how awful!). One the one hand, tube strikes disrupt the smooth functioning of our every day lives and the economy. The travel chaos caused by the strikes were estimated by business leaders to have cost the economy £200m. The London Underground is what allows tourism to be such a booming industry. The strikes may have also made it difficult, for example, for nurses, doctors, prison officers and police officers to carry out their essential duties. Cameron said on his official Twitter feed that the strike was "shameful, bringing misery to millions of Londoners." I think it is probably a bit extreme to describe the strike as brining “misery” to London commuters – although it was a huge inconvenience and cause for frustration.

On the other hand, it is easy to sympathise with the reasons behind the strike. The strike was over proposals for Tube ticket office closures. As the underground becomes more modernised, manned ticket offices are simply becoming unnecessary. These closures would result in the loss of 953 jobs. A very daunting prospect. But we have to remember that modernisation of these services is inevitable. Less and less people are needed to work in supermarkets, for example, due to the rise in self-checkouts. We are likely to see machines dominate unskilled labour more and more as time passes. Therefore, we have to balance the interests and concerns of tube workers with the simple fact of modernisation and the need for society to run efficiently.

Tube staff provide essential services in London. While they do not fight crime or deal with those in critical conditions, they ensure that we can get to work and keep the economic machine operating to its fully capacity. It is perhaps justified to deny certain essential workers the right to strike in certain circumstances, including the armed forces, the police, firefighters and NHS staff. This is for the interest of public safety and health. Cuts in pay and unfair treatment are serious matters and can be considered a violation of the contract between employer and employee. But we must remember that the implications of their strike could be devastating – leading to the loss of many lives and damage to property. A strike at a particularly crucial time can be considered very irresponsible.

The case of the tube strikes is tricky. I do actually think that ticket offices are necessary at the moment. Ticket office staff are needed to deal with queries, complaints and to provide valuable information. I think customer service is still very necessary in the London Underground. Without ticket offices, tourists would find it even more difficult to navigate the Underground. Until intelligent machines can offer the same level of customer service as the Tube staff, I do not believe that these 953 jobs should be lost. The strikes can therefore be seen as entirely justified. Tube staff do provide essential services for London, but because the lack of their services result in inconvenience and economic costs, as opposed to the cost of humans lives and safety, I do not think they should be denied the right to strike.

The police, prison officers, firefighters, ambulance crews and NHS staff – if they sign a contract exempting them from the right to strike – should not be allowed to strike. Of course, if those working in emergency services feel the need to strike - due to pay cuts, pension cuts and job losses - this should be taken very seriously. Those working in essential emergency services have, arguably, the most important jobs in the world. Their line of work is incredibly tough and exhausting and they should receive full workers rights and proportionate payment for their services. We need a situation where the right to strike becomes a non-issue because those in emergency services should never feel the need to strike in the first place. Those in emergency services should be entitled to strike when the government rips them off. It is a sad state of affairs when the government cuts the pensions of firefighters, who risk their lives to save the lives of others.

Every worker should have the right to form unions and to take industrial action where necessary. In certain circumstances, however, I think those in emergency services should not be allowed to strike. Furthermore, policing is such an essential service that I think police officers would have to suffer some shocking widespread abuse of their rights before a strike can even be entertained as an idea. The current ban on striking for police officers is completely justified. Without the police there would be complete chaos. Perhaps this same rule should apply to those working in A&E. There is no good time for people working in A&E to have a strike - they are needed every day, at all times, to treat serious injuries, illnesses and deal with life-threatening emergencies.

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com