As the cost of living crisis has escalated in recent months, with rising energy costs and the resulting increase in the price of many goods and services pushing inflation to record highs, many workers have taken industrial action in a bid to secure better pay rises.
While the wave of strike action has been caricatured as a return to the 70’s in some quarters, and misleadingly dubbed a ‘summer of discontent’ despite showing no signs of slowing down in the coming autumn and winter, the return of large-scale union activity is a very real trend.
For the last four decades or so industrial action has dropped significantly as union membership has declined at a similar pace, but now an increasing number of workers are calling for better terms and working conditions, including pay.
This uptick in strike action has prompted questions about whether the UK could be about to see a general strike, and even, particularly among a generation largely unfamiliar with industrial action, what a general strike entails.
What is a general strike?
The term ‘general strike’ generally refers to widespread industrial action taken by workers across all or most of the economy, in support of a broad political or economic goal.
This is as opposed to a local or national strike, which both involve workers in a workplace, company or industry all taking action organised by one union over a specific industrial dispute, such as a pay offer.
As the UK has fairly restrictive laws governing trade unions and industrial action, the exact legality of a general strike is not entirely clear, with the RMT’s Mick Lynch remarking that the TUC would be “very worried about the law” when considering calling a general strike.
Why have some people been calling for a general strike?
The majority of strike action taking place this year across has come about due to pay disputes, with workers rejecting below-inflation pay offers and bosses refusing to offer more.
Historically high inflation in the short term, combined with long term wage stagnation since the 2008 financial crisis - in part driven by public sector pay freezes - has resulted in the depression of real-terms wages for workers across the economy.
These economic factors, combined with the lasting impact of Covid in a number of key sectors and, to a lesser extent, changes in leadership in trade unions, has seen strike action rise to a level unseen in recent years.
There have already been large national-scale strikes in the rail sector, among criminal barristers, telecoms and postal workers, and local strikes in private and public sector workplaces all over the country.
There are also ongoing or upcoming ballots for national strike action among NHS staff, civil servants and teachers.
Could there be a general strike now?
The TUC is the only body which could officially call a national strike, based on agreement of its ruling committee.
Even if a number of large national strikes - involving all or most of the workers in one sector or industry, even if they are in different workplaces - took place during the same period, or overlapped, this would not necessarily become a general strike.
Since the introduction of legislation which banned ‘sympathy strikes’ by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, unions have been unable to call workers out on strike in support of workers in another sector or union.
This means that coordinated action can only take place if each union acquires a ballot for strike action - which must meet the legal threshold of 50% turnout in order to be valid.
Two of the UK’s largest unions - Unite and UnisonNISON - have introduced motions ahead of the TUC’s congress next month, calling for greater coordination between unions in organising industrial action and fighting against the cost of living crisis.
Unite’s motion, backed by the RMT and CWU, would call on the TUC to “facilitate and encourage industrial coordination between unions so workers in dispute can most effectively harness their union power to win”.
While there have been some calls for coordinated industrial action and more cooperation between different trade unions, union leaders have generally stopped short of calling for a general strike under the current conditions.
However, amid threats by Conservative leadership hopefuls about ramping up restrictive laws which curtail the rights of workers and trade unions to organise, some have suggested a general strike could be necessary.
Liz Truss has described plans to introduce minimum service levels on major national infrastructure, which would effectively prevent workers across huge swathes of the economy from taking industrial action in defence of their rights at work.
The plans, which would further solidify the UK’s status as one of the most anti-trade union countries in Europe, have been met with condemnation by many.
General Secretary of the RMT Mick Lynch has said he “would be looking for a general strike” in the event that Truss won power and tried to enact these plans, though he noted the decision would be “up to others”.
He said: “Truss is proposing to make effective trade unionism illegal in Britain and to rob working people of a key democratic right.
“If these proposals become law, there will be the biggest resistance mounted by the entire trade union movement, rivalling the General Strike of 1926, the Suffragettes and Chartism.”
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the plans amounted to “a fundamental attack on a fundamental British liberty – that when the boss won’t listen or compromise, workers have the right to withdraw their labour”.
The President of the Welsh Trades Union Congress Brendan Kelly told crowds at the Tolpuddle Martyr’s festival last month that “we may need to consider having a general strike”.
Has there been a general strike before?
The last time there was a general strike in the UK was 1926, when the TUC called for workers to walk out in support of striking miners who were calling for improved pay and conditions.
The dispute began after wealthy mine owners tried to enforce longer working hours on miners in return for less money.
The miners rejected the proposals, which was met with a lockout by bosses which prevented them from working for two days, at which point the TUC called for a general strike.
The strike lasted nine days from 4 May, with between 1.5m and 2m workers taking part, primarily from the railway, transport, printing, docking, iron and steel sectors.
The strike ended in defeat for the TUC on 12 May, although many individual strikes continued until unions could work out conditions with their respective employers to allow workers to return.