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Employment

6 common myths about strike action, from salaries to public support

Do you know how much a train driver earns? Misinformation is rife when it comes to the salaries of workers going on strike, so we’ve got the facts

Hot strike summer was disruptive, but the winter walkouts have taken things to another level. This October saw the most days lost to strike action than any month in the last 11 years, and the situation has only intensified.

With no sign of inflation easing up, strikes are spreading to jobs and industries that haven’t seen industrial action in decades. The Royal College of Nursing, which represents hundreds of thousands of nurses in the UK, announced it will hold the first nationwide strike in its 106-year history.

Paramedics, too, are planning to walk out as part of coordinated action across three unions. And railway workers have unleashed travel chaos by announcing strike dates in mid-December – peak Christmas shopping period – and from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day when maintenance usually takes place. Civil servants, university lecturers, teachers, health workers are all set to down tools this December as well. 

With so much happening so quickly and emotions running high, rumours and misinformation can spread quickly on social media. And these rumours can be promoted by commentators in the right-wing press.

So it’s important to get your facts straight. To help, we’ve cleared up six common questions and misconceptions about workers going on strike.

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1. Workers aren’t paid to go on strike

Employers can deduct pay from their employees’ wages for the time they spend on the picket line. So if someone goes on strike for one week, they can expect to lose a week’s pay.

Most unions have hardship funds to support their members who suffer a particularly large financial hit by participating in industrial action. Some unions offer a small allowance to members who are on strike to help cover their daily costs – sometimes referred to as ‘strike pay’ – sometimes around £70 a day.

But it’s not true that workers are paid when they are on strike.

2. Union leaders are not ‘barons’

Each union is led by a general secretary and president who are elected by members of the union. The Department for Business, Energy Innovation and Skills lays out how unions should elect their executive body, including being subject to independent scrutiny of their elections. 

Tabloids have this year taken to calling union leaders “barons”, which has connotations of nobility. Critics say it’s an attempt to paint leaders as unaccountable and suggest they are in a higher economic class than their members. But they are elected by members of their union.

3. Salaries of workers going on strike are often below the national average

How much does a train driver earn? Misinformation is rife when it comes to the salaries of workers going on strike.

Former transport secretary Grant Shapps and a host of Conservative MPs have all claimed the average rail worker earns £44,000 per year, with fact checkers Full Fact having to step in to debunk it. 

 “It would appear that the median salary of those participating in the current RMT national rail strike action is significantly below the median rail worker salary of £44,000 being referenced by the government”, it said.

Critics of the strikes have then used this figure to suggest it would be unfair for railway workers to be given a pay rise by suggesting they earn more than nurses.

The relatively high salaries of experienced train drivers have been a talking point for those claiming they do not need a pay rise. The RMT union, which is currently involved in two disputes between Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group, represents workers in the transport sector in all pay grades and roles. 

According to the government’s National Careers Service, trainee train drivers start on around £24,000 a year, increasing to as much as £65,000 annually for an experienced driver. However the median salary for those participating in the national rail strikes is significantly below that. 

The RMT says the average salary of its striking members is at least £10,000 less than MPs have said, at £33,000. The Office for National Statistics produced an average of £36,800 in 2021.

And when it comes to other industries engaged in industrial disputes, salaries are below the national average. The average civil servant who is a member of the PCS union earns a salary of £23,000, and the average postal worker is on £23,600.

For comparison, the average Brit made £31,285 in the year ending April 2021.

Although the number one demand from workers on strike is usually about pay, this is rarely the only demand. Striking workers are often also protesting for better safety measures in their workplace or against the threat of job cuts. 

4. A picket cannot stop people going to work

A picket line is essentially a demonstration of workers outside their workplace to tell other people that they are participating in the strike. People on the picket line seek to encourage others to join them, encouraging customers or colleagues not to enter the business or organisation in solidarity. The law protects peaceful protest, but people on picket lines are subject to the same rules around anti-social behaviour as anyone else taking part in a demonstration, which bans intimidation and harassment. 

“In no circumstances does a picket have power, under the law, to require other people to stop, or to compel them to listen or to do what he asks them to do. A person who decides to cross a picket line must be allowed to do so” states the BEIS code of conduct on picketing

The government recently changed the law to allow businesses to hire agency workers to replace striking workers. Unions have branded the move an attack on the right to strike and raised concerns over the safety of bringing in temporary staff to work roles that require high levels of skills and experience. 

It depends on the strike, with different sectors getting more support than others. A July poll from YouGov found that Brits are most likely to support nurses, doctors and firefighters going on strike. For each of these jobs, a majority of those surveyed would be supportive of the choice to strike. 

But in the same poll the sympathy didn’t go as far as barristers, civil servants or lecturers. Three in 10 people would back a strike by university staff, and only 27 per cent would support striking civil servants. 

Despite their desperation for more funding, striking barristers were supported by a mere 19 per cent of Brits. 

The train strikes have been the highest-profile of the year and the public has generally been divided. Around 35 per cent of Brits quizzed by pollsters Ipsos in June said they supported the walkout, while the same percentage said they oppose it. 

A more recent poll from Savanta ComRes suggests that support has grown, with almost half of all UK adults saying they would support rail workers going on strike over pay and conditions, with a third saying they would be opposed. 

6. There won’t be a general strike

A general strike is politically motivated action which would see people across different sectors, and members of different unions, all go on strike at the same time with a shared vision for change.

The last general strike took place in 1926 when up to 1.7 million people refused to go to work to show solidarity with striking miners but legislation introduced in the 1980s banned “sympathy strikes” which take place when a union instructs its members to go on strike in support of another.

This means only a union engaged in an active industrial dispute with an employer which has taken a legal ballot of its members can call a strike among its members. No one union can call a general strike – or sympathy strike – across the UK or across industries. Not even the Trades Unions Congress, the federation of trade unions. 

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Unofficial strike action taken by people without approval of a union is often called a wildcat strike, and offers no protection to workers from being fired. 

But, and this is a big but, multiple union leaders have said in recent weeks that they will seek to coordinate strike action to cause maximum disruption. Mark Serwotka, leader of the PCS union which is currently balloting 150,000 civil servants to strike, has called for a national day of action that would see any union with a legal mandate to strike calling their strike on the same day. 

“If each union stood on its own, some may win but most won’t. If all the unions cooperate and take cleverly planned and thought-out action, and occasionally get everyone out together, I think we can win,” he told the Big Issue.

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