The Ethics of Strikes
Amidst a current round of railway strikes in the UK, and with more industrial action likely to come in the near future, we should consider the ethics of strikes. What follows is some thoughts I had whilst on strike myself, in early 2020, which I have now revised for the current context. These thoughts were previously published on my own website.
An argument for the right to strike
It might seem that there’s a moral case against striking: to strike is to breach a contract, to refuse to do work that you have previously promised to do. And we should generally keep our promises. On the other hand, there is widely considered to be a right to strike. Here’s a simple justification for why workers should have that right.
It would be better for society if workers had better pay and conditions. And strike action is a good tool to achieve better pay and conditions. Better pay and conditions for workers tends to be a cost to employers. An effective way of getting someone to do something that is costly to them is to credibly threaten them with bigger costs for not doing it. Workers refusing to work costs employers (if it didn’t, they would not be employing those workers!). The more workers who refuse to work, the higher the costs to employers. And the higher the costs that workers can credibly threaten, the more they make it good financial sense for their employer to spend on improving their conditions. So if we want to improve working conditions, we need to give workers the tools to credibly threaten their employers with big costs. This means that workers need the right to strike.
Some individual moral duties
This argument begins from what would be good for society, and justifies society giving workers the right to strike. But there is a further question of what it means for individual morality – what ought I to do, if the argument works?
The argument is consequentialist: it claims that where strikes are possible, there will be better outcomes. So we might next naturally ask: what sort of norms should individuals live by, to ensure such outcomes?
Two suggest themselves:
You should join a trade union: a union of workers can threaten bigger costs to an employer than an individual worker, and a bigger union can threaten bigger costs than a smaller one. Provided, that is, that employers know that union members will take strike action whenever the union directs them to. Otherwise the threats of union negotiators are not credible. So you should empower your union to make such threats by voting that you are prepared to take strike action, and also by committing to always following your union’s directions (even if you sometimes disagree with them!).
During an industrial dispute, in your own workplace or another one, you should not do anything that reduces the costs on the employer: this will make it less attractive for them to resolve the dispute by offering improved conditions. The traditional slogan is 'never cross a picket line': don’t do the work of striking workers, and boycott employers that are involved in industrial disputes.
Of course, there will be exceptions to these norms. Perhaps there is a cute puppy trapped in a burning building on the other side of the picket line. But since the credible threat depends on employers expecting workers to consistently respect union directions and picket lines, it is not good strategy to talk up these exceptions. For the same reason, the more people accept these norms, the better.
Norms and the construction of morality
The norms I’ve suggested are hardly new. They have been widespread in organised working-class communities around the world for over a century. But they need to be spread further and renewed with each generation – especially after the waning of worker power over the past forty years.
Some philosophers believe that our moral duties derive from God’s commandments; some that they derive from natural laws; some from very general facts about the human condition, or rationality, or some special properties that things have, independent of what we think of them. These norms about striking – even if they relate to more fundamental moral concepts derived in those ways – were in the first instance fabricated by working-class people themselves. There is no norm against crossing picket lines unless there are people organising picket lines, no requirement to join a union unless there are people organising unions. These norms were generated from and enforced by a collective effort from below, in the interests of the oppressed. People realised that if everyone followed these norms, everyone would be better off, and so they adopted them.
The idea that we can together create our own morals is liberating. It suggests that we can make progress by changing the rules we live by, and also that we need not simply accept the rules we are given by philosophers, lawmakers or priests.
Furthermore, it is a special kind of harm to make people break morals that they or their class co-created. For instance, during the UCU strikes, some of my colleagues demanded that students cross picket lines to sit exams. Working-class students were then faced with a dilemma between doing serious harm to themselves and violating norms that had been established by their culture, in their own interests. The legal ban on ‘secondary industrial action’ does the same. Workers whose jobs are associated with the railways but are not directly involved in the current dispute may want to refuse to cross picket lines in solidarity with the RMT, but they are forbidden from doing so.