Writer Reece Greenfield / Photographer Maddie Cottom-Allan & Reece Greenfield
We’re all no doubt feeling a lot of fear and uncertainty over rising energy bills, inflation, and economic uncertainty. We’ve no doubt heard (and likely seen) evidence of the swathes of strike action across the country. Indeed, Birmingham has been no stranger to this due to the RMT’s strike action beginning on the day before the Commonwealth Games held here from 28 July to 8 August and continuing indefinitely.
In the wake of the announcement of rail strikes by the RMT, TSSA, and ASLEF (and a string of media appearances by the charismatic Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey), ASLEF represented train drivers have held pickets and the CWU balloted Royal Mail staff who voted 96.7% in favour of strikes, on a turnout of 77%.
In addition to this, workers at the UK’s largest container port represented by Unite began an eight day strike last weekend, the TUC have launched a campaign to raise the minimum wage to £15, and a ballot is set to run from 15 September until 13 October asking members of the Royal College of Nurses to consider strike action.
In light of these far reaching strikes, I’m sure we’ve also no doubt heard conflicting attitudes towards the industrial action being taken this summer and more generally.
One of the most prevalent narratives is that of selfishness, arguing workers on strike are only looking out for themselves at the expense of everybody else, specifically, other working people. And it’s easy to see how people can arrive at this opinion.
Strikes disrupt our commutes, ruin our holiday plans and halt entire sections of our economy.
However, UK work forces are somewhat driven to these drastic measures because revenue strikes such as those currently being practised in Australia – where services continue but workers do not accept payment from customers – would result in Trade Unions being liable to pay extensive damages to companies in accordance with the Employment Act (1982).
Therefore, the withdrawal of labour is one of few tactics available and what I want to stress is that, when strikers gain benefits through collective bargaining, all of us benefit. It is not just union members who benefit from wage increases, improvements in terms and conditions, and other rights won through collective action.
Furthermore, when one sector strikes and gains this is an encouragement to other sectors, which is one of the reasons why there has been a snowball effect and why the establishment are so determined to smear picketing workers.
I, myself, am a trade union member. Despite working for the local authority since 2014, I have only been a paid-up member of Unite the Union since 2020. Before my time as a union member, I was an agency worker for over a year and a half, during which time I was forced to cross a picket for fear of losing my job.
Along with my own experience, I’m sure I speak for many of us when I think on how younger people working in hospitality have been, and are being, systematically shafted. We’ve all been there for friends lamenting the never-ending string of ‘AFDs’ and the dreaded close/open: Finishing at 3am to then be in at 10am the following day, which is a direct infringement of a worker’s entitlement to 11 hours between shifts.
Often our working friends are so burnt out they barely have time to cook and so are required to get food delivered from Uber Eats or Deliveroo by similarly exploited and underappreciated workers, the responsibility for whose work and pay falls entirely on themselves. Such is the plight of the ‘self-employed’.
Indeed, hospitality workers are some of the most insecure… oh sorry… ‘flexible’ workers in the economy and with ‘service charges’ and other policies rife across establishments, hoovering up tips to the top, our mates are struggling through the month with less money and less time for themselves.
Only approximately 4% of hospitality workers are union members (though this has been steadily rising). I attribute it mostly to the fact we are living in the wake of a political and economic change of climate, where the Thatcher government of 1979 – 1990 defanged unions ending the post-war consensus. As a result, many young working people today (and indeed their parents) are somewhat unaware of the importance of a unionised workforce.
But let’s not be completely dreary, union membership is on the rise and recent polling shows that a majority of Britons see the recent rail strikes as justified in the face of an onslaught from Tory politicians, legacy media pundits, and a lacklustre response from an overly cautious Labour party.
My young Brummie comrades, Trade Union membership obviously costs, and in the current climate people are concerned about an increase in their monthly expenditure. Yet, I urge you to consider it nonetheless, and to think of it as a form of insurance and community in this uncertain and exploitative age.
I urge you to show solidarity with all workers (not just those in your sector/union). We are all in this together and what benefits one, benefits us all.
For a list of/links to all Trade Unions registered in the UK visit www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-list-of-active-trade-unions-official-list-and-schedule/trade-unions-the-current-list-and-schedule