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Britain’s Coronavirus Wildcat Strikes

On May Day, we explore the wave of wildcat strikes across Britain during the coronavirus pandemic – where workers fed up with their bosses' negligence have downed tools and walked out.

In industrial relations, some disputes are known as ‘perishable’ disputes. This means that unless workers take action immediately against the grievance, it – and the anger around it – will dissipate. If that happens, the chance of taking action over the grievance in order to try to resolve it also dissipates. 

This situation arises because without workers challenging management over the issue, the issue becomes fixed and permanent. In other words, a precedent is set so that a new ‘custom and practice’ is established. Perishable disputes occur over issues like victimisation of union reps, changes to work practices or breaches of health and safety.

The coronavirus crisis has given rise to the starkest form of perishable workplace disputes in living memory. These are not so much about whether workers are furloughed into the government job retention scheme or whether employers will pay the extra 20% of wages to ensure no overall loss of income.  

Rather, they are about the enforcing of social distancing measures, the availability of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and the ability to self-isolate without loss of pay. Of course, the sharpest issue here is that without social distancing at work, the chances of catching the virus from fellow workers are massively increased and the chances of dying as a result of catching the virus are high. Sixteen per cent of those confirmed to have the virus in Britain have died. This means it is no great exaggeration to say these issues are matters of life and death.

It is these aspects of how employers are negligently responding to the management and control of the virus in workplaces that explains why there have been 50 walkouts – or wildcat strikes – in Britain so far since the virus really took hold in early March with the first deaths recorded. 

Workers in Royal Mail, in meat processing plants, on construction sites, at distribution hubs and in fulfilment centres (warehouses) along with refuse workers, council library workers and local government workers have gone on strike unofficially. No postal ballots were conducted and no notice given to employers. These workers have done so to protect themselves from the effects of the conditions they are being forced to work under as well as to gain the work practices and protective equipment they need in order to stay safe at work.

The latest example of one of these walkouts was particularly poignant because it happened on Tuesday April 28th, the annual International Worker’s Memorial Day when the workers’ movement recalls Mother Jones’ injunction to “remember the dead and fight like hell for the living.” 

Employed by outsourcing firm, OCS, and forced to clean empty offices at the Ministry of Justice in central London, workers downed tools following the death of a colleague from a suspected case of Covid-19. The cleaners believed they were being forced to go into work because they could not survive on statutory sick pay (SSP) if they take time off. But when they were at work, they did not have proper protective workwear.

The walkout was organised by members of the United Voices of the World (UVW) union. Through their union, they have demanded that they are provided with full sick pay, to ensure workers are able to take leave should they feel ill, and for the majority of the workforce to be furloughed.

Across Britain, most walkouts have taken place in workplaces where union organisation is strong and where striking has an immediate impact upon an employer’s operations. For example, about a quarter of the walkouts have taken place in Royal Mail where the Communication Workers Union represents members. Strong union organisation and workers’ collective confidence are necessary to allow workers to say to their employers ‘put people before profit’. 

These disputes are also perishable in another sense. Current balloting rules on industrial action require that employers must be given seven days’ notice of a ballot, the ballot takes around two weeks to conduct and then the employer must be given fourteen days’ notice of the action to be taken. When faced with a serious and imminent danger such as the coronavirus in the workplace, workers do not have the luxury of waiting that long. Even if ballots were conducted electronically, this would still be the case.

Right now some of the government designated organisations which organise the industrial action ballots have informed unions they no longer feel able to confidently perform this function while guaranteeing their own workers’ safety. This means that strikes across the board in Britain are effectively illegal at this moment in time, because they can’t meet the statutory conditions necessary to validate them.

It’s not surprising then that, since the coronavirus crisis began, there’s hardly been a case of an official strike over any issue. April is the traditional month for settling annual pay rises. Strikes normally happen in the run up to this and shortly afterwards. Not this year though. Which raises the question: how will these disputes over pay and conditions be resolved in the era of coronavirus?

Whether other workers will join the walkouts in the coming days and weeks will depend on a number of factors. The first is the willingness of workers’ unions to encourage and support their members to do so. The CWU, RMT, UNISON and UNITE unions have issued such advice and guidance.

Coupled with this are the second and third. On the one hand, whether unions can negotiate agreements on health and safety that do meet workers’ demands. And, on the other hand, whether workers do not feel cowed into accepting unsafe working conditions for fear of being sacked or made redundant during the current jobs massacre. The fourth is whether employers see that they face the prospect of such walkouts and change their behaviour accordingly. Some workers have recorded success in getting what they want by simply making the threat.

These four factors will become all the more important as many employers begin to push for a return to ‘normal’ working in order to get their businesses back on their feet. This crisis has been a test of whether they valued their workers or their profits more highly and, as the profit squeeze continues into another month, the answer to this is likely to be pretty definitive.

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About the Author

Gregor Gall is an Affiliate Research Associate at the University of Glasgow and a Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds. He is author and editor of over twenty books on unions, politics and Scotland.