Following a number of recent strikes, and the mixed responses they received, Aileen McGrath calls the ethics of striking into question.
THE act of striking first emerged throughout the period of the Industrial Revolution. Mass industrialised labour, poor working conditions and the total exploitation of workers were all contributing factors to this and provided an outlet through which the public could be heard. The legitimisation of strikes has played a particularly poignant part in Irish history with the general strike and eventual Irish independence. However, in today’s predominantly just and equal work environment, can the ethics of striking be called into question?
It is important to note that before entering this discussion on the ethics of striking, it will largely rely on the cause of the strike and on which side you stand. Generally speaking, unions exist to set standards private companies must meet. There is no doubt about the value they provide to society as a whole, however harsh economic times call into moral question the scope to which they can enforce their power. Nationwide budget cuts have seen the suffering of the entirety of middle class Ireland, and so begs the question are strikes causing more damage to the very people being appealed to for support?
There have been a seemingly ceaseless string of strikes across the country recently and each and every one has received a wholly different response. The Repeal strike, which took place on International Women’s Day this past March, garnered support from thousands nationwide, particularly amongst third-level students. Those in support of this strike believed they were supporting an ethical cause, and argued that even though many were opposed, it was not a strike which would in any way debilitate the minority.
“Ultimately, it is a lot easier to ethically stand by a picket which has no direct effect on you.”
Another strike on the receiving end of similar public support were the Tesco strikes, which saw employees from sixteen stores across Ireland picket the company. According to the Irish Times, sales fell almost 80 per cent in picketed stores. A dramatic effect indeed but once again, this was not an issue that directly affected the public as a whole. People could shop elsewhere while also standing by a group of people who they deemed were independently being hard done by. Ultimately, it is a lot easier to ethically stand by a picket that has no direct effect on you.
Following the economic crisis and subsequent budget cuts, the Haddington Road Agreement was introduced in 2013 as a result of negotiations between the public service management and unions. At first, its implementation was deemed as temporary in order to accelerate the country landing back on its feet. However the wage cuts encompassed in this agreement have carried on over the years and have only continued to the detriment of endless public sectors.
As a result of this, ongoing strikes amongst teachers and bus and rail drivers have yet to be met with a resolution. Citizens are becoming increasingly angered by this inconvenience and so each consecutive strike has been greeted by a steady decline in public support. These particular strikes are certainly more ethically questionable, particularly in the country’s current economic state. The motivation behind this grey area of strikes is difficult for those also receiving wage cuts to understand. Subsequently, these strikes have been polarising to the aforementioned groups, in turn hindering their effectiveness.
Arguably, the main concern to be had is whether strikes cause more harm to the general public than the government. At first glance the answer could be yes, as they rarely achieve instantaneous results. However, we must consider the surmountable distrust growing between the government and unions resulting from the slow moving and seemingly ineffective previous policies.
Perhaps they are no longer prepared to engage in negotiation talks due to a lack of success in the past. Undoubtedly, strikes can be a successful way of garnering momentum and support for a cause, particularly when arising in response to indifference.
“The main concern is whether strikes cause more harm to the general public than the government themselves.”
An article published by the Huffington Post summarised three main circumstances under which a strike is ethically just. Firstly, one is entitled to strike when they have understood the policy and reached the conclusion it is unjust. Secondly, when the government have remained indifferent to other forms of negotiation and finally, if you are willing to undergo personal inconveniences in the face of achieving justice.
While the reasoning behind a strike may be drowned out for any inconvenience it causes, we must remember the historic importance of legalising strikes and exactly what this symbolises.
Not everyone will agree on the ethical nature of every individual strike but their very existence gives a voice to the overlooked and provides a springboard from which equality may leap. Once regulated, they play an important role in bridging the gap between the government and the public, and encourage open lines of communication and negotiation between the two.