We asked economists whether strikes really work

The most important questions seem to be: who’s on side, and how much power do they have?

McDonald’s workers went on strike this week in the latest of a series of strikes by low-wage workers in recent months. It’s a tried and tested method to express your dissatisfaction with the way you’re being treated at work – but is it effective?

We asked Melanie Simms and Alfred Crossman, two professors in the UK who specialise in the economics of work, to explain some of the theories behind strikes, and whether they really pan out.

Why do people go on strike?

“Strikes are always the last resort. Everyone from to HR managers pretty much agrees on that,” says Simms. “You only do it if you’ve tried everything to get the other side to understand, and they either can’t, or they just won’t. Obviously there’s an imbalance of power, so unions are always in a weaker position, and individual employees even more so.”

Often, strikers just feel they’re being expected to do more than they’re being paid for. But recently, says Professor Crossman, it’s been about more than that – people’s pay isn’t rising, but inflation is, and executive salaries are going up too. So people end up feeling like they’re being unfairly treated, and the money they’re earning is buying them less because prices are going up.

Another big issue is flexible working. It’s good for some, but others feel like it’s been imposed on them by big companies making it the norm. Not knowing how many hours work you’ll have means your income stream is unpredictable, and that’s a real problem for people.

“Most of us have regular bills – we know what the outflows of cash from our account are looking like,” Crossman points out. “We want to make sure the inflows match.”

“The basic ‘economics’ idea is that we have the right to decide how we use our labour,” says Simms. “If we didn’t, we’d be slaves, literally. But if we’re freely making the choice to exchange our work for pay, and other benefits, then in principle we have the right to withdraw it, too.”

What makes or breaks a strike?

It depends on a few things: One, how much it’s going to affect the employer’s business in the short term; two, how replaceable the workers are; and three, to what extent the strikers have the public and the government on their side.

“I work at a university,” says Simms. “If I decide not to work today, not much happens to my employer’s business. But if I were a train driver, and I decided not to do my job, it would obviously have an immediate effect.”

If workers can easily be replaced by other workers, their ‘bargaining power’ is pretty low. If there is what economists call ‘surplus labour’ – i.e., people available and willing to do the job in the current conditions – then companies can just fire unhappy staff and call on a bank of new workers. When public sector workers go on strike, there are often private companies happy to do the work instead.

And then there’s . “Advances in technology are really reducing the power of workers to fight their corner,” says Crossman. In low-wage, manufacturing jobs, people can just be replaced by obedient robots, and that’s the end of that.

If the government and the public take a stand against the way workers are being treated – regardless of whether they could be replaced by other workers, or by robots – all this changes. Customers could simply boycott a product or service, and governments could launch official inquiries as to whether people’s rights are being breached. That puts companies in a vulnerable place, which workers can’t do.

Aren’t strikes a bit unfair to customers or service users?

“Trade unions would say customers are secondary,” says Simms. “The workers have decided it’s necessary, because someone isn’t listening to them.”

According to Crossman, it’s a matter of opinion. “If you look at the train strike [in the UK], customers were angry about the fact they couldn’t get to work, but they knew the service was bad before. So they tend to blame government and management, not unions. But there’s only so much they’ll take before they start turning on staff.”

What’s the role of governments in all this?

“Governments have got to try and help the parties reach an agreement – a bit like a marriage counselor,” says Simms. Whether they’ve got an obligation to get involved varies country to country – in the UK, it’s optional, bu in other places, it’s mandatory.

The other option is setting rules to avoid the things that cause strikes to kick off in the first place from happening. But, as Crossman points out, companies tend to find a way around them.”When companies were supposed to regulate how much they could increase executive pay in the 1970s, they just started handing out company cars. It’s like a computer virus: the virus comes after the computer has been created, so you’re always playing catch up.”

Governments can do the opposite, too: make it harder for unions to go on strike, by doing things like requiring a minimum vote among union members to allow industrial action. You can also make votes secret, to avoid any kind of peer pressure.

How else could workers express their dissatisfaction with the way they’re being treated?

Simms suggests some simple things: “Pull a sickie! It’s definitely not legal for your union to ask you to do that, but..”

Another simple act of protest, especially in hospitality, is just getting really grumpy. “There was a smile strike at Disneyland about 20 years ago,” says Simms. “Which at Disneyland is obviously a seriously huge thing”

You can also only agree to do things strictly outlined in your contract - that’s called a Work To Rule, and is often really annoying for employers. Plus, as Crossman pointed out, you still get paid.

But there’s not much you can do. “It feels like these days, the power is just really imbalanced,” says Crossman. “Because no-one in their right mind is going to put their house in jeopardy, or not be able to pay rent, so they’ll ultimately go back, because they need to, economically. Employers suffer financial damage, but evidence suggests it doesn’t take too long to recoup the losses. But once an employee has lost their wage, they can’t get that back without working overtime.”

Is there an ideal set-up anywhere in the world?

“Germany was in a really unusual situation after the Second World War,” Simms says. “They literally had a blank piece of paper to figure out a new system. Everyone else is constrained by their history, but they got to redesign the whole thing. And they designed something really sensible, with lots of checks and balances and responsibility on both sides.”

Crossman votes for the Netherlands. “They’ve got workers councils within organisations. You involve people in decision-making, you let them voice their concerns, rather than leaving them to find out all the big decisions from the comms department. It’s not confrontational, and it tends to work.”

Have you ever been on, or considered going on, strike?

“I went on strike in my first ever week of proper, professional work,” said Simms. “It’s painful - people going on strike end up shouting at the ones who aren’t, it’s tense. People are quite scared to be seen, because you’re obviously not doing your job. You lose money, you lose pay. I’ve been on strike that hasn’t actually offset the cost because of the pay we lost.”

Crossman hasn’t been on strike, but considered it: “It was when we were concerned about our pensions. So we had a ballot, but the turnout was pretty low. People decided not to take part in the ballot, and that’s their right. But I didn’t feel like the union had a mandate, so I couldn’t bring myself to take part. I was criticised quite a lot for it, but the reforms ended up going ahead.”

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