Strikes back in fashion?

17 November 2022

Strikes back in fashion?

Paul Branch

Our nurses are on the brink of the unthinkable – a countrywide strike for more pay, before the end of the year and lasting at least until next Spring, is a distinct possibility.  With the NHS already tottering, again, and the ‘flu season yet to start in earnest, we face another calamity unless the unions moderate their demands or the government caves in.  Emergency services are said to be exempt from strike action, but we probably all realise that the knock-on effects from further delays in treatments across the rest of the health service will be inevitable and will hit hardest those least able to protect themselves.  New health secretary Steve Barclay expressed his sadness at the action proposed by the Royal College of Nursing, maintaining that increased pay demands from nurses’ unions at over 17% are neither reasonable nor affordable.  Given the current parlous state of the economy, he probably has a good point, and no doubt many would regard a nurses’ strike as a way of unjustly politicising our health.  Otherwise known as weaponising our wellbeing, to adopt a modern expression.  But as someone also once said, no one stood on their doorsteps and clapped the bankers.  Or indeed the government.

What to do if your take home pay from an employer you’ve served well won’t now pay the rent or mortgage, or feed the children so you have to resort to food banks?  Most of us hopefully will not have faced this dilemma, but in most cases the answer would be to leave in the expectation of finding a better paid post elsewhere, perhaps in the private sector or abroad, or in a new field completely.  It’s not just about the money obviously – the sense of social injustice and lack of appreciation are right up there as reasons for overflowing tensions in the NHS.   Our chancellor Jeremy Hunt will be familiar with these from his own days as health secretary and long-running disagreements with junior doctors in particular, no doubt contributing to our chronic shortage of home-grown medical staff.   We can take some comfort from the numbers who are now working in other countries and giving much needed highly-trained support elsewhere, but less satisfaction from the reduced flow of professional medics in the opposite direction.

Strikes have been a perennial response when things get tough financially and socially, but the degree of perceived success depends on your outlook.  Perhaps the first recorded withdrawal of labour from employers was the workers’ uprising in 1152 BC in Egypt over late wages in the construction of the Royal Necropolis at Deir el-Medina.  The workers went hungry without money to buy food, rose up in protest and eventually downed tools.  They were offered pastries in recompense, but no pay.  Violence was then used to try to force them back on the job, to little avail.  After some considerable time an agreement was reaches on wages, but the relationship had changed between the labourers and those in power whose responsibility it was to look after them.  The Pharaoh had failed in his duty of care, and the common folk realised that from then on they had to look after themselves. 

A little nearer to home and the present day, in Britain the first strikes occurred in the 17th century when groups of skilled workers and then farm workers such as the Tolpuddle martyrs took short sharp periods of industrial action to gain improved pay and working conditions.  The Trade Union Act of 1871 legalised unions and opened the door to actions in the coal mines and weaving mills.  Strikes were permitted but picketing was not, and here the ladies in the village of Ascott-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire shot to prominence in the case of the Ascott martyrs and the infamous riot of Chipping Norton.   Farming was a particularly poorly paid employment with horrendous conditions, which the newly formed Union was trying to improve.  In response to this interfering unionising, the farm workers of Ascott were sacked by the landowner, a Mr Hambridge, who replaced them with men from a neighbouring village.   The good wives of Ascott arranged a demonstration in Mr Hambridge’s fields, and tried to persuade the new shipped-in workers to stop work and join the Union rather than undercut its efforts.  For this, sixteen of the Ascott women were arrested, charged with obstruction and coercion of the new workers, and with inciting them to leave their employment.   Their cases were heard by two magistrates in Chipping Norton, who at first tried to dissuade Mr Hambridge from proceeding with the prosecutions in fear of the possible consequences.   These two gentlemen of the law were right to be fearful – the prosecutions went ahead and the guilty verdicts resulted in sentences of imprisonment with hard labour.  Cue chaos in Chipping Norton – a crowd 1000 strong surrounded the court as violent attempts were made to free the women.  Some hours later police reinforcements arrived and the women were eventually transported to prison in Oxford, two with babies under ten weeks old while other children were cared for by neighbours with the help of the Union. 

Attempts by the local community to get the Ascott women released found their way into the national press.  The plight of the imprisoned women was the subject of questions raised in Parliament; Queen Victoria got involved, and she gave them a royal pardon so they could return home as martyrs to their cause.  In addition the Queen made gifts to each of the women of a petticoat and 5 shillings, bolstered by the National Union of Agricultural Workers with £5 and enough silk for the women to each make a new dress.   As a result of the combined efforts of the women and the Union, farm workers’ wages in Ascott rose by 2 shillings a week, and within two years of the riotous Chipping Norton events the law against picketing was repealed, helping improve workers’ conditions and pay across the country.

Of course we’ve witnessed countless incidents of industrial action in more recent times, starting with the 1920s as employers tried to reduce wages amid the economic and political upheavals after WW1 and the first widespread General Strike.   Strikes actions post WW2 became increasingly common, with several by coal miners in the 1970s.  Harold Wilson’s social contract with the TUC came to nought in the face of raging inflation.  Strikes in the car, docks and railways industries added to the shambles, as did striking municipal workers.  The Winter of Discontent ushered in Thatcherism with the subsequent Arthur Scargill-inspired NUM coal workers strike of 1984-85 ending with the miners being pretty much starved back to work, the rapid decline of union power, and also that of UK industry.  Shame that strikes had to happen, but not a great scoresheet for workers, governments or country.

After a period of sensible stability we seem to be reverting to old habits, led sadly but out of necessity by the nurses where the loss of a good chunk of our nursing staff would bring about the collapse of health care as we know it.    Mr Barclay is therefore right to say we can’t afford it, but in the sense that we can’t afford not to give nurses a decent and just wage which matches the services they offer and our dependence upon them.   They like the 16 Ascott martyrs, and the Tolpuddle martyrs before them, need to be heard and satisfied.

Tile photo: from work by Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash  

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