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Last week’s rail strikes look set to be just the start of many months of industrial action across a range of sectors. Criminal barristers have started a series of staggered walkouts today. Teachers and NHS staff are threatening strike action later this year. How can concepts of fairness help us to understand the arguments for and against industrial action?
Chief Executive Fairness Foundation
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Striking while the iron is hot
“Richard, you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle sometimes,” said Mick Lynch memorably on Good Morning Britain last week. The general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) was responding to his interviewer, Richard Madeley, asking Lynch if he was a Marxist who was “into revolution and bringing down capitalism”.
Lynch went on: “No, I’m not a Marxist. I am an elected official of the RMT. I’m a working-class bloke leading a trade union dispute about jobs, pay and conditions of service. This has nothing to do with Marxism.”
The exchange highlighted the extent to which some people - overly represented in sections of the media - apparently see the very existence of trade unions as antithetical to the national interest, equated (somehow) with the untrammelled operation of free markets.
And yet public support for the rail strikes is stronger than expected. Ipsos polling found an even split between those for and against, but then found that support increased by six percentage points after the reasons for the action (and the relatively limited scale of disruption) were explained to respondents. Even taxi drivers voiced their support (GB News was forced to cut a live interview short after a cabbie unexpectedly came out in defence of the strikes).
Let’s think about the main reasons why people support or oppose industrial action. Support tends to be driven by sympathy with the workers on strike. Opposition usually focuses on the impact on people’s lives, jobs, and the broader economy. So there’s a fairness dimension here. Some people dislike strikes because they feel that they offend a core principle of equal treatment. Why should one group of people hold everyone else to ransom in pursuit of their own interests?
To advise us on where this reasoning falls short, let us turn to that celebrated observer of industrial action in the ancient world, Aristotle. His view of equality was that “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally”. In other words, individuals should be treated the same, unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation in which they are involved.
It’s hard to argue that we live in a society of equals, when the richest 10% of households own 45% of all wealth in the UK (and this is an underestimate). So the starting point is unequal, and the trajectory from here on is also uneven: pay growth in the public sector is 1.5%, compared with 8% in the private sector (including bonuses).
Fair treatment (as opposed to equal treatment) is, in Aristotle’s words, about treating people differently if they find themselves in different circumstances. This, in effect, is treatment according to need.
Three other principles of fairness come into play when we think about how the strikes are justified:
- Fair essentials. Everyone should have their basic needs met so that no one lives in poverty, and everyone can play a constructive role in society. People who are unable to meet their basic needs because of inadequate wages are entitled to take coordinated action to defend this principle. The accelerating cost of living, and the disproportionate impact this has on low-income families, means that many people are facing huge real-terms pay cuts.
- Fair opportunities. Everyone should have a decent chance to succeed in life, so we should remove the key barriers that prevent people from having equal opportunities. Unreasonably low wages and poor working conditions deny people, and their families, the opportunities to maximise their potential.
- Fair rewards. Everyone’s hard work should be rewarded on the basis of their contribution to our society and economy. Why should railway staff not be fairly rewarded for the vital work that they do? COVID showed us how much we rely on key workers. Railway companies made £500 million in profits from public subsidies received during the pandemic. The CEO of Network Rail earns £593,000, compared to an average of £33,310 for a train guard or station staff member, so where is the press coverage of the ‘railway barons’?
We also need to think about the wider context, and about the millions of workers who are unable to take industrial action. Trade union membership in Britain has more than halved since 1979, with millions now working in insecure work rather than in secure, unionised jobs. Union membership has declined in parallel with the reduction in size of many traditional industries that were highly unionised, such as steel, coal, printing, and the docks. However, the right to unionisation has also been eroded in various ways by successive governments, through for example the dismantling of sectoral collective bargaining, the introduction of employment tribunal fees and the 2016 Trade Union Act that introduced a 50% turnout requirement for strike ballots, further restraints on picketing, and a requirement that union members’ contributions to political funds can only be made on an ‘opt-in’ basis.
The ‘summer of discontent’ looks likely to be with us well beyond the first leaf fall this autumn. We need to find a new and more nuanced way to think and talk about the problems behind the strikes that have already taken place and those that are yet to come, and how to resolve them.
Poll of the week
How much do you support the rail strikes?
Unfortunately the poll doesn’t allow you to share the reasoning behind your level of support, but if you’d like to share it with us, contact us!
Last week we asked about the best arguments that you have seen for reducing inequality. Some key themes emerging were about making the moral case, designing a fair and effective tax system to deliver reductions in inequality, and debating how to provide a global minimum wage.
Reads of the week
“Through the lottery of birth, children are born into different socio-economic circumstances and grow up in environments that are remarkably different from each other… by the time children enter school, their levels of cognitive, socioemotional and physical development are already vastly unequal.” Sarah Cattan et al write about early childhood inequalities for the Deaton Review of Inequalities, run by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
“We want to get at the reasons why social mobility happens, when it happens, and why some people buck the trend.” Katharine Birbalsingh introduces the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2022 report, which includes a new index that aims to monitor actual mobility for the first time by comparing someone’s circumstances at birth with their outcomes in their thirties and fifties.
“Workers in some key sectors such as education, who are mostly women, are seeing the biggest falls in pay… Women have felt the disproportionate impact of [the] erosion of benefits… As the shock absorbers of poverty, women also bear the brunt of the physical and mental toll of debt and of struggling to make ends meet.” The Women’s Budget Group look at the disproportionate impact of the cost-of-living crisis on women.
“People shouldn’t have to pay more for life’s essentials because they are on a low income. Industry, government and regulators need to come together to make sure everyone can access the products and services they need at a price that is fair.” Fair by Design publish new research showing that the ‘poverty premium’ affects one in eight households and costs the economy £2.8 billion every year, with the highest proportion of affected households in the North East.
Fairness Foundation updates
Can we use fairness as a design principle for policies, processes, projects, products and services? A new page on our website talks about using fairness as a framework both for public policy and for organisations. Take a look and get in touch if you’d like to discuss this in more detail.
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