Just and unjust strikes

Can we use just war theory to understand when a strike is just?

Kieran Oberman
16 March 2018
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Photo: Library of Congress

When is it justified to strike? Within applied ethics, little has been written on striking. Much, however, has been written on war. As an ethicist, just war theorist and, currently, a striker, it seems helpful to me to draw on just war theory to think about striking. As we shall see, some of the principles of just war theory readily apply to striking and in the case of a principle that does not – non-combatant immunity – we still learn something from the comparison. 

I intend my comments to apply to all strikes, but I will take the university strike over pensions as my primary example. Since I am on strike, it is clear where I stand in this current dispute, but if you are hoping for an impassioned defence of the strikers, you will be disappointed. The article will raise ethical concerns that strikers need to confront, including those which we might, in our weaker moments, prefer to skim over.  

But first let me explain – why war and strikes? The comparison should not be taken literally. Strikes are not wars, nor should they be. When picket lines resemble war zones – as some have – something serious has gone wrong. Nevertheless, strikes and wars share this much: they are both forms of human conflict through which people pursue goals by harming others. Since both harm, they both require justification.

In the case of war, the search for a justification has led to a list of just war conditions. The list is long, so let me pick out three: just cause, proportionality and non-combatant immunity.

The just cause condition is perhaps the easiest to grasp. It holds that wars can only be fought for certain reasons. National self-defence is one widely cited example of a just cause; humanitarian intervention another. There is broad agreement, however, that just causes are rare. There are a restricted number of political goals capable of justifying anything as drastic as a resort to war.

Proportionality is the condition that the costs of war should not outweigh the benefits. A simple approach to proportionality would be to sum all the costs and benefits to everyone involved. Costs and benefits of equal size would count equally no matter to whom they accrue. Most just war theorists find this simple approach too simple. In their view, we need to discriminate between different groups. Costs to combatants need not be weighted as much as costs to civilians. Costs to those acting unjustly need not be weighted as much as costs to the morally innocent.

The principle of non-combatant immunity takes discrimination one step further. It rules out the intentional targeting of civilians altogether. Combatants should only target other combatants. ‘Targeting’ here does not mean ‘harming’. Combatants might be permitted to harm civilians as a side-effect to other activity. Combatants might be permitted to shoot at enemy soldiers, for instance, even if some civilians will be caught in crossfire. What they cannot do is shoot at civilians directly.

Do these three conditions apply to strikes? That a strike needs a just cause is, I think, pretty obvious, but what constitutes a just cause is more difficult to discern. Going on strike is typically much less drastic than starting a war so we should expect to be able to justify strikes for a greater variety of causes. One constraint seems clear, however: a strike must pursue a just deal. But what does a just deal involve? When workers are badly off, the question seems mute. In their case, a just deal is a deal that leaves them better off. Whenever Zambian miners or Bangladeshi garment workers demand more, they are almost certain to have justice on their side. After all, in a just world, these workers would not be so poor nor their employers so rich.

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Matters become trickier however when strikers are, like university lecturers, privileged people. Whatever the strengths of our complaints against our employers, we lecturers are part of the global 1% and we shouldn’t forget that. So how can privileged people justify striking in defence of their privileges? Or to paraphrase GA Cohen – if you’re an egalitarian, why are you on strike? Photo: Martin O'Neil

There are a few ways my fellow lecturers might seek to answer this question that I don’t think quite cut it. One is to point to colleagues on lower wages and temporary contracts, including non-lecturing university staff (also out on strike), and claim that the strike is about defending the interests of this less privileged group. There are various problems with this strategy, but one is that it seems disingenuous; lecturers are not merely striking to defend their colleague’s pensions, they are also striking for their own. Another response is to point in a different direction: at the wealth of universities and the greater privileges that some, such as Vice Chancellors, derive from them. On this account, what is at issue is how we distribute goods within the academic sector. (In the case of our pensions, the good in question is security. The universities want to make themselves more secure by making their staff less secure). If workers don’t strike, universities are better off but nothing else changes. Strikers need only worry about how they stand in relation to their employers, not the rest of the planet. 

I think there is something to this second response. An egalitarian lecturer will not better achieve equality by accepting the risk of a miserable pension. Still, there are reasons why we cannot leave matters there. For one thing, the response is worryingly similar to the more general ‘it doesn’t matter whether I do it or not’ response used to excuse injustice around the world. Corrupt officials, for instance, can always reason that if they don’t pocket public funds, their bosses will. If such logic doesn’t excuse corruption, why strikes by the privileged? There is, moreover, the fact that strikes harm third parties (more on that below). Because strikes harm third parties, strikers cannot pretend that their dispute is a private matter between themselves and their employers.

For both these reasons, privileged strikers need to be able to place themselves within a larger story of social and global justice. How can they do that? I have no complete answer, but let me note two mechanisms. First, donation. There is no reason why privileged strikers need to keep all the benefits they win from their employers. If they win a pay rise, they can donate more of their pay. If they maintain their pension, they can donate more as pensioners. Where to donate? Personally, I’m persuaded by the effective altruist movement that we should be giving funds to the most effective charities addressing global poverty. But here’s another option: donate to trade unions fighting for the rights of non-privileged workers.

A second mechanism, in the case of pensions, is divestment. When strikers strike for their pensions, they should take an interest in where their pensions are invested. In the case of university staff, their pensions are, in part, invested in weapons and fossil fuels. There are two things university staff can do about this. They can switch the Investment Builder element of their pension into an ethical fund. (Are you a USS member? Haven’t switched? Go here and do it now! It will only take you five minutes.) They can also demand that the whole of the pension scheme be made more ethical. One way to do this would be to change the default. Why should the default be unethical? If you want your pension invested in weapons and fossil fuels you should, at the very least, be obliged to actively make that choice.

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Whatever mechanisms privileged strikers utilize, they must do something. They cannot justify striking if they confine their activities to the pursuit of their own interests. Privileged strikers must ensure that while fighting for their own rights, they fight for others as well. Photo: Exeter UCU

I have said enough about just cause. What about the other two conditions? Proportionality certainly applies to strikes as much as wars. Workers should not strike if the costs outweigh the benefits. To give one extreme case: it would be wrong for doctors to strike over some trivial grievance if thousands of patients perished as a result. How should strikers carry out a proportionality calculation? As with war, it seems right to discriminate between different groups. Consider three: workers, employers and those third parties (customers, commuters, patients, students etc.) who want to access the goods or services that would be cut off in a strike. Arguably, costs to workers and employers should be awarded less weight within a proportionality calculation. Costs to workers should be weighted less since workers choose to strike. It would seem odd to say that their strike could rendered disproportionate, and therefore unjust, by costs they have voluntarily chosen to bear. Costs to employers should be weighted less for a different reason. If workers have a just cause to strike – and they must do for the strike to be justified – then the employers are the unjust party and costs to unjust parties arguably count for less. Costs to third parties, however, cannot be discounted for either reason. Third parties have not chosen to bear the costs of the strike nor have they acted unjustly. They are the analogues of innocent civilians in the case of war.

Finally, non-combatant immunity. If third parties are the analogues of civilians, must strikers never intentionally harm them? This seems too strong. The harms of strikes are typically less grave than the harms of war. In the current university strike, for instance, students lose fourteen days of classes. This is certainly a cost we should be mindful of, but it would be ridiculous, offensive even, to compare it to what civilians suffer in war. A better analogy might be to the harms caused by a minimal sanctions regime, like a sporting boycott, imposed on repressive states. These boycotts target all athletes and sports fans alike, including the innocent, but they might still be justified. Sometimes innocent people can be justifiably subject to a non-violent harm for the sake of a just cause.

Still, the non-combatant immunity question does bring out an uncomfortable truth. Strikes often work by harming third parties and this seems particularly true of a university strike. When Ford Motors go on strike, the strikers can plausibly argue that they are just targeting their employers and not consumers. After all, the strike will harm their employer’s profits margins, but leave consumers free to buy other brands. The same does not apply to universities. The people running universities do not hold shares in universities; there are no shares to hold. Strikers might hurt university finances but even this is doubtful since strikes allow universities to save on pay. The main way, it seems, that university strikes work is by impacting students. The impact on students puts pressure on the university to resolve the strike. That a university strike should work in this way is an uncomfortable fact. It does not necessarily make the strike wrong or unjust, but it does, I think, heighten the need for justification, especially to the students. In the current strike, the strikers have clearly done a good job at explaining their position. From declarations to occupations, students have been forthcoming in their offers of support. 


These thoughts were first presented at a Teach Out session on The Ethics of Striking outside Edinburgh University on Tuesday 13 March, along with presentations by other members of the Political Theory Research Group

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