So how employers react is vital for them: not just to make sure they don’t lose out on manpower, but also to make sure they don't lose their customers, or get on the wrong side of the government.
They need to get customers on side
Businesses will sometimes try and put themselves on the side of their customers – when French air traffic controllers went on strike, disrupting more than a thousand flights, Ryanair and Easyjet were pretty quick to speak out blaming the strikers for passengers' disruption.
But that can backfire. Southern Rail, a privately operated section of the UK rail network, has been badly affected by strikes as it tries to cut the number of staff on trains. It tried to get passengers on its side and blamed the Union and the strikers for service disruption.
The problem was, commuters were already so pissed off with Southern Rail and its poor service that a good old social media backlash kicked in, and #southernfail was born – including calls to get the rail line taken away from Southern Rail and back under government control.
“An immediate response by a named senior official, promising an internal investigation and immediate remedy, would have done much to repair the brand’s reputation.
“Unfortunately, an unnamed spokesperson simply said there were inaccuracies in the report, but declined to comment further. This defensive response and lack of information only served to validate the findings in the eyes of the public.”
And make sure they're on the right side of the law
In the US, the UK (and lots of other places) employees have a ‘basic right’ to form unions and go on strike. That means that although you may be breaking your contract by not turning up to work, your employer normally can’t fire you for it. You might not be paid for the hours you don’t work, but you can’t lose your job.
Of course, that line is pretty blurred, and there are lots of cases where bosses have fired staff. In 2016, a judge ruled that Walmart had unfairly dismissed 16 workers who protested at the company’s head offices during a strike.
In UK law, unions and strikers have to stick to some pretty strict rules over how the strike is organized, and breaking them means you could be open to punishment.
There’s also a big question over how it affects your future job prospects. In the US-based fight for $15 movement, striking McDonald’s workers take part in a huge day of protests each year in order to raise attention for their cause. In 2014, hundreds of them were arrested.
In the US, if you get arrested and charged you go onto a FBI database which employers can see. In that situation you’re likely to get charged with a summary (or relatively minor) offence, and employers would find it hard to defend not hiring you based on that (in some states they can’t see your arrest record) but if they do see it, then it could be a red flag.
“It’s risking arrests. It’s risking losing your job,” an employment lawyer told the Guardian. “But there comes a point where you don’t have anything to lose any more. Even if arrests were to have an effect on their future job prospects, it says lot that they are willing to take the step anyway.”
This week, in the UK, Chukka Umunna, a Labour MP, said that some Trade Unionists had been ‘blacklisted’ for jobs on the UK’s biggest infrastructure program (and the largest construction program in Europe) – Crossrail.
Umunna was arguing that Crossrail employees who had taken part in a “peaceful” demonstration were put under surveillance. Two of those employees have since tried to get more jobs on Crossrail and failed. It’s definitely illegal, and Crossrail denied it goes on, but the business minister – who incidentally is a member of the Conservative Party which is traditionally a bit less amenable to unions – said in response, “I was shocked by what I heard and share his view, and that of other members, that blacklisting of trade union members and activists is completely unacceptable.”
But ultimately it's just a big power game
Strikes and unions exist to hand workers back a bit of power from employers.
Striking workers can force bosses to listen by shutting down whole businesses, train lines, and even hospitals; they can appeal to customers who can make their voices heard by siding with the strikers (as in the case of southern rail) or the bosses. If workers shout loud enough, or the rights abuses are bad enough, the government could get involved (like at Sports Direct).
But there’s a problem – when huge employers (like Walmart) come across as being anti-union, it feeds into people’s fear of being fired – which swings the power balance back again.
It’s not just about what you do, it’s where you do it. Workplaces can create and cut jobs, borrow money and interact with the financial market, and buy and sell products from other workplaces, affecting their financial situations. There’s also the question of whether our workplaces should be taking care of us, or whether that’s the government’s job…