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On striking, and the recognition that ethics are a collective affair

Ethics aren't just a question of personal preference.

Picture: Martin O'Neil 

It is worth situating any remarks about the ethics of strike action in the legal context. In Britain, strike action is not civil disobedience, it is legal, and permitted within the framework of employment law. This situation was hard won, by generations of workers who faced terrible working conditions. At the start of the industrial revolution, workers faced day to day working conditions that were often unsanitary and dangerous, no job security, exploitative wages, no paid time off, arbitrary inequalities, and of course, no pensions. In the years following the Industrial Revolution, workers fought for the right to organize, and formed trade unions in order to use collective power to resist unfair treatment by their employers. The overall justification for a framework that allows workers to unionize, and to pursue strike action under some circumstances, is that the possibility of striking provides a safeguard against exploitation, a protection for workers in a situation of power imbalance.

Ethical Issues

1. Preconditions

Obviously, there are various preconditions that must be met for a strike to be ethically justified. First, the question of whether what the employers are doing is unfair or not arises. The pensions issue is incredibly complicated, and I do not pretend to understand all the actuarial details. It seems though, that we have a just cause here, that the offers that have been made are unfair. It is worth pointing out that it is not just a question of how much money there is or will be in the pension fund, there are also ethical questions: a question about how risk should be distributed, and a question about what else the universities are doing with their money. Pensions are a kind of wage, and our wages are not paid out of any particular fund, but out of the universities’ general resources. So we should be wary of accepting frameworks for discussion that attempt to reduce all the issues to financial ones.

Relatedly, if a strike is to be justified, the cause must be realistic. There is no point in striking for something that cannot be obtained. But again, we should be careful here. What counts as unrealistic depends on the values people hold. There was a time when votes for women seemed unrealistic. Twenty years ago, marriage equality might have seemed an unrealistic goal. But some people pursued those goals anyway. If we take for granted that vice chancellors will be paid a fortune and that wages will be linked to student enrolment, perhaps fair wages for lecturers is not realistic. But why would we take those things for granted?

Finally, of course, less disruptive methods of persuasion should be used first. Striking is a last resort, it is only permissible when negotiation has stalled. We start by trying to persuade the employer on the basis of the reasons: that a policy or proposal is unfair, unnecessary, that there are alternatives. It is only if that fails that we should move to strike action.

2. Harm

The primary aim of a strike is to harm the interests of the employer. Public Sector workers, will, inevitably end up harming the public too. In the public sector, the work we do is a public good, and if we withdraw our labour, we hurt the public. How much harm there is depends on what area, and what sort of public good we are talking about – the potential harm from doctors striking is greater than the potential harm we do here. The harm we do to our students in striking is nonetheless significant, and it needs to be defended. I think that the harm here is justified, and I will try to defend that in what follows, but even if you do not agree with me about this case, I aim to provide a way to think clearly about what might justify this sort of harm.

First though, it is worth thinking a bit more about the nature of the harm, and what role it has. We might think of students as innocent bystanders in all this, and we might think that our duty as teachers is to minimize the harm to them. I don’t think that is quite right: students are innocent bystanders in one sense, they are innocent anyway, they are not the ones deciding to cut our pensions. However, harm to students is an essential part of strike action, and we should face that head on.

Here is why. Strike action occurs when negotiation has not worked. If the suggested changes are truly unjust, what should we do? Should we simply accept the injustice? The recent history of Conservative government policy in the UK, starting with Thatcher and continued by Cameron, is to weaken the power of the Unions and weaken the right to strike. Their idea is that the way to deal with unjust working condition is through individual employment tribunals. If I am being badly treated by my employer, I should initiate a tribunal.

But this deprives us of the power of collective action. The whole point of the union is that we are stronger together. We bargain collectively, and so the employers cannot pit us against each other as individuals. Furthermore, we threaten collectively.

Harm to the employer’s interests is a necessary part of what makes collective action effective. It is because a harm is threatened that the employer has reason to change their mind. When the employer is a public body and the work a public good, then harm to the public – the students, in this case – is inevitable.

To put it another way, striking is a form of coercion. We want to make it impossible for them to say ‘no’ to us. The preconditions for a justified strike are that the workers offered the reasons that were directly relevant – the reasons relating to justice, and that failed. So now the workers offer a different sort of reason: coercive practical reasons. As I said, the right to strike is a protection against exploitation. We have the right to move on to threat of harm when our reasonable requests are ignored. Compare this situation: imagine that a student plagiarises an essay. We have both a reasons based system to discourage plagiarism (we make clear that it is wrong and unfair) and a practical reason as back up (if you plagiarize, we will take punitive action). The punitive action is essentially harmful, that’s why it is effective, and of course, that is why it is only justified when all else has failed.

3. Justifying harm

First, as I said above, I think that the pensions deal we have been offered is unfair in its own terms. But our goal here is not simply to get our pensions back. Long term, we are trying to protect the University, just as the junior doctors’ strike in 2016 was partly about the future of the NHS. If the university mistreats its employees, it will not have as good a pool of staff to draw on, and the quality of the institution will suffer. We impose harms on this generation of students, but we hope that future generations of students will be able to take advantage of a strong university system.

More broadly, a strike is usually about more than just the issue at hand. Women factory workers in the early twentieth century went on strike for equal pay. They were not just striking for equal pay as individuals, they were protesting about gender inequity. The strike has an expressive message. Most of your lecturers striking here are doing more than asking for their pensions back: they are sending an expressive message to University management. For many of us, the message is that we want the University to be a public good, a shared asset, a place of learning and teaching, not a business. Our students are not consumers, and market models are not the best way to run universities. In striking, we are referencing a long history of effective strike action, and we are showing that we are willing to fight for the things we value.

This is not to deny that the right to strike could be abused, or could be ineffective. In the end, it is an empirical matter whether the right to strike has done more good than harm, or done more harm than good. It is not an empirical matter that is easy to settle either: labour history is one of the most ideologically polluted areas of human enquiry. On the one hand, there are the supporters of the right to strike, who point out that organization has brought us workers’ rights and tolerable working conditions. On the other hand there are those who argue, with Thatcher,  that striking hurts growth; hurts industry; hurts the economy, and should be stopped.

It may seem like a far fetched comparison, but think of the right to bear arms, as enshrined in the American constitution. That right has the same basic justification as the right to strike, it is there to protect the ordinary person from tyranny and exploitation by more powerful groups. However, the right to bear arms does not actually function like that. It is not a safeguard against tyranny, but rather causes immense harm. We can imagine that this is how Thatcher saw the right to strike: as a right that does not achieve its aims and causes unnecessary harm. But the opposing view is that the legal right to strike is an effective right, it does protect us, and can be, and is usually, used in a judicious way. But as I say, this is an empirical matter, and we should all know more about labour history.

4. Collective Action

Finally, I will close with a couple of thoughts about collective action. As I said, we stand for more than just this issue. That worries some people: they will not march under a banner that they do not fully endorse. Here is an interesting philosophical/sociological thought about that. As I said, the anti-union movement encourages us away from collective action and towards individual action. One of Margaret Thatcher’s major victories was to take away the right to strike in solidarity with other workers who have a different employer. Perhaps it is not coincidental that there is also a cultural movement towards thinking of one’s values as a very individual thing, a personal thing. Philosophically, there is one clear mistake there, and a less clear one. The clear mistake is thinking that values are not universalisable. As Kant points out, it is part of the definition of values that they are universalisable. Values are not personal in the sense that they apply only to the person who holds them.

The less clear point though, and more relevant here, is that integrity does not require that we never sign up for anything we are not fully on board with every detail of. We shouldn’t be too precious about our own values. The mistake here might be characterized as fetishization, or a quest for purity. Think of the voter who says, ‘I can’t vote for X because of something she has done that I don’t agree with, so I will not vote at all’. This is a mistake. We should think of the bigger picture, sometimes be willing to throw our lot in with those we disagree with in pursuit of bigger goals. Solidarity is important, and solidarity requires that we think of our own values as robust enough to bear some minor disagreements. We should value solidarity; we should engage in it. We hugely appreciate the solidarity of our students: thank you.

These remarks were first made at a Teach Out by Philosophy lecturers in support of the strike at Edinburgh University, March 19th, 2018.  

About the author

Elinor Mason is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Edinburgh University.

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