Life

Dr Esmond Birnie: The morality of striking

Strikes and various other forms of industrial action regularly make the headlines today but, argues economist Dr Esmond Birnie, there seems to be little consideration of the morality of striking from a religious perspective

The health service has been gripped by strike action, with doctors, nurses and others arguing for better pay and conditions
The health service has been gripped by strike action, with doctors, nurses and others arguing for better pay and conditions The health service has been gripped by strike action, with doctors, nurses and others arguing for better pay and conditions

Over the last year strikes in Northern Ireland and Britain have been at their highest level since 2011. It is therefore curious that whereas in the 1970s and 1980s industrial action stirred up a maelstrom of political argument, this time round there seems little discussion about the rightness or wrongness of strike action.

Are there any philosophical and ultimately religious/Biblical principles which would be useful at this point? Yes... In our economic life as much as other areas of life we should be pursuing the common good. In particular, the New Testament verse, Matthew 7:12 tell us: "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

How does striking measure up to this so-called Golden Rule whereby we should do good to other people and avoid doing them harm? Before answering that question, let's be a little bit more precise about what a strike involves.

A strike differs from the everyday "withdrawal of labour" which happens when individual workers choose to either retire or move to another workplace. Whilst the ordinary withdrawal of labour sometimes creates adjustment problems, a strike is much more likely to impose some harm and that not just on the employer but also on wider society.

There are various reasons why such harm might happen: all the union members stop working at once, there may be a legal requirement that all or most workers in the business/organisation are union members, or perhaps the low level of unemployment will make it hard for the employer to find replacement workers.

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In fact, there is likely to be a strong positive relationship between the likely harm inflicted on the employer and the extent to which the union have bargaining power. In short, it is very hard to disentangle strikes from the doing of harm.

As we think in terms of the common good, it is almost inevitable that the harm caused by strikes will be felt not just by the employer but also by wider society: by those who consume the product or service normally produced by the striking workers. This is hard to reconcile with the Golden Rule.

Now it might be argued that such harm was not intended by the strikers. My response to that would be that Christ's statement seems to be as much about outcomes as intentions. Also, given the way that striking and wage bargaining works it is surely naïve to ignore the reality that the employee's bargaining power to get a higher wage rises according to the size of the harm produced by actual or potential strikes.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union – who has said Easter Rising leader James Connolly is his political hero – has led a long-running campaign of strikes and other industrial action by railway workers in Britain
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union – who has said Easter Rising leader James Connolly is his political hero – has led a long-running campaign of strikes and other industrial action by railway workers in Bri Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union – who has said Easter Rising leader James Connolly is his political hero – has led a long-running campaign of strikes and other industrial action by railway workers in Britain

But some might argue the point of a strike is to change government policy. We hear people saying they are striking in order to 'save the NHS' or to persuade the government to invest more in schools or public transport.

I will take such attempted justifications at face value but there is also a very strong Biblical command to obey the "governing authorities" (Romans 13:1-2). Are you really being "subject to" government when you strike to try to force a change in the behaviour of that government?

We may feel our representative or democratic form of government is imperfect. Nevertheless, the normal system of political debate and elections is probably a better way of deciding on which policies will be adopted.

If strikes or the threat of strikes are allowed to influence government policy-making then this may lead to a situation where policy is biased towards areas of society which are strongly unionised. This is unlikely to promote the common good.

If it is objected that strong trade unions alongside strikes are needed to check the power of big business I would accept that sometimes big corporates act stupidly or greedily.

That said, the old principle of "two wrongs do not make a right" applies. It would be better for government to act to increase the competition within the business sector rather than try to use monopoly trade unions as some sort of counterweight to monopoly businesses.

I concede there have been occasions when government actions are so obviously and grossly immoral that a moral case exists for a mass withdrawal of labour in order to stop or reduce that immoral activity. In February 1941 thousand of workers in Amsterdam striked in an attempt to halt deportations of Jews to the Nazi death camps. More recent examples may include the Solidarity strikes in Communist Poland in 1980 and 1988 or the general strike to protect the Israeli constitution in early 2023.

However, I do not think that debates about, say, how much public money should be put into the NHS or the extent of taxpayer subsidy of trains produce an obvious moral imperative in the same way that "stopping genocide" does.

In the normal course of political life, where we are not dealing with the threat of genocide, there isn't a moral mandate to strike in order to force a change in government policy.

Finally, some might claim a discussion about ethics and morality misses the point. For them, trade unions in general and strikes in particular deliver the goods in terms of higher wages. There is some evidence that trade union members on average are paid more than non members.

Whether trade union activity raises pay for all employees, both union members and non-members, remains much less clear. Some economists argue that to the extent that current inflation in the UK is being driven by global pressures relating to the cost of energy and food then high wage demands associated with strike action will be unable to benefit the entire workforce – perhaps only those who move first and/or have unusually strong bargaining power.

Once again, striking does not seem compatible with the common good.

:: Esmond Birnie has worked as an economist in the university, government and private sectors but is writing here in a personal capacity