updated on 03 April 2023
Reading time: 12 minutes
This LCN Says is part of LawCareers.Net’s new ‘Wrestle with PESTLE (WWP)’ series, which looks at various business case studies using the PESTLE technique.
Unsure what PESTLE is? Read this WWP explaining the technique.
PESTLE stands for:
This technique involves using these six external factors to analyse the impact on a business and/or industry.
Case study: strikes in the UK
A wave of strike action has swept across industries in the UK since May 2022, including:
NHS staff (eg, doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, physiotherapists and hospital staff);
passport office workers;
rail workers (national and London Tube);
Royal Mail staff; and
university staff and teachers.
Between June and December, 2.472 million working days were disrupted due to strike action, with a large number of these days directly relating to transportation strikes. Workers are striking over a number of reasons including wages, underfunding, pensions, job losses and contractual agreements, with each sector dealing with its own individual complexities. On Wednesday 15 March alone, more than 400,000 workers went on strike, descending upon Trafalgar Square and Downing Street to call for government action. Despite the complexities of each industries’ struggle, what the strikes ultimately come down to is a detachment between the UK government and ordinary working people. The wage stagnation over the past 15 years is “almost completely unprecedented” says think tank Resolution Foundation, with workers estimated to be £11,000 worse off per year because of this. From the cost-of-living crisis to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, strikes relate to a wide array of areas and in ways you may never have thought of, so let’s unpack their impact.
Among the disruption and cries for fair pay, lies the crucial argument that the UK government is failing to support the industries that form the backbone of the UK. Political factors such as covid-19, Brexit, sky rocketing energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis have accumulated, and ordinary working people are now desperately relying on the government to:
fund pay rises;
introduce a minimum wage that reflects current inflation; and
end the war on trade unions.
Between April and September 2022, 320,000 people were forced to turn to Trussell Trust’s foodbanks, a 40% increase compared to previous years. Between 2020 and 2021 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that an estimated 7.2 million people were going without necessities such as food, showers and heating. At current, minimum wage sits £4.58 below the real living wage recommendation of £15 per hour set by the Living Wage Foundation. The government’s handling of the series of crises that have led us here have left thousands of workers feeling as though they have no choice but to strike. One junior doctor told the BBC that she doesn’t want to strike, saying she’s “sorry it’s come to this” and she just “wants the government to listen”.
It’s not only previous government action that’s led to the strikes, but the government also now plays a direct role in ensuring the strikes come to an amicable end as it has the power to dictate the future of numerous industries. The government also has the power to block deals made in an attempt to resolve the strikes – for instance, in December UK ministers blocked a deal offering the RMT union a 10% pay rise over two years, thus prolonging industrial action.
The economy plays a crucial role in understanding the wave of industrial action that’s taken place across the UK. Average real pay, which can be understood as workers’ wages once inflation is taken into account, is now lower than it was in 2008. The UK has witnessed more than a decade of stagnant pay, making it the longest pay squeeze since Napoleonic times according to the Trade Union Congress (TUC). The union estimates that had wages grown in line with pre-2008 trends, workers would be earning £291 a week more than they currently are. To frame this in terms of an annual salary, in 2022 the median annual pay for full-time employees was £33,000 but, according to TUC, it should’ve been £47,259. In effect, this means that inflation has resulted in workers’ pay falling over the years rather than rising. In the past year alone, nurses’ real pay fell by £1,800, and paramedics and midwives’ by £2,400.
It’s worth considering why the government hasn’t done more to combat this wealth inequality, the burning question for many is: if there isn’t money for workers’ wages, where are profits going? Since 2008 shareholder pay-outs have skyrocketed £440 billion above inflation, and while this isn’t a direct government action, the government can reform company laws that prioritise shareholder profits over workers. During a strike at Felixstowe docks in August, Sharon Graham, of Unite, revealed to dockers that its company made £79 million in profits the previous year, of which £42 million was distributed to shareholders. Workers were then further enraged when in February Shell reported “outrageous” profits of $40 billion, while two in five British people are forced to choose between heating or eating. Rishi Sunak is facing copious amounts of pressure to increase windfall tax on companies like Shell; Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: “No company should be making these kind of outrageous profits out of [Vladimir] Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.” Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, called Shell’s profits “an insult to working families”. Nowak stated: “Shell is enjoying a cash bonanza. The time for excuses is over. The government must impose a larger windfall tax on energy companies. Billions are being left on the table.” In the past year, annual gas prices have risen by 129.4%. Speaking to the Guardian, Nowak said: “Instead of holding down the pay of paramedics, teachers, firefighters and millions of other hard-pressed public servants, ministers should be making big oil and gas pay their fair share.”
As reported in our commercial issues of 2023 Feature, the 2023 recession is predicted to be the longest recession in history, described by labour market economist John Philpott as feeling “much worse than the economic impact of the pandemic”. This plethora of strikes is a reflection of the anguish workers are feeling in light of our collapsing economy.
Strikes, by definition, are a social action. For industrial action to take place a group of workers must come together expressing their discontent over their working conditions and form a mutual agreement to enact a mass refusal to work. Planning, compromise and coordination are all key sociological elements of a strike requiring workers to remain united in its initiation, maintenance and termination. By choosing to strike workers across the UK are forming allyships which, to be successful, require excellent levels of communication, leadership and influence.
The success of strikes is dependent on the strength of the alliances workers have formed. If these relationships break down or their goals fail to align, the power workers possess become diminished. An example of this can be seen when considering the barrister strikes; in October criminal barristers accepted a deal from the Criminal Bar Association that left junior barristers feeling excluded and forgotten. A pay rise of 15% on legal aid fees led to 2,605 barristers voting to end the five-month strike action but, when polled just before the vote, 84% of young junior barristers indicated they’d be voting to reject the government’s offer.
Another key sociological factor of the strikes is public support. More recently, there’s been a lot of consideration relating to the public’s opinion of strikes, with suggestions that winning the minds of the public is crucial to their success. However, this framing paints the strikes as simply political protests and ignores the physical reality of workers withholding their labour. Instead, the true determination of success for industrial action is whether the strikes are disruptive enough. It’s essential that workers cause maximum levels of service disruption during industrial action to demonstrate the cruciality of their services. By striking, workers must cause mass levels of inconvenience to their employer and unfortunately this often includes the public as necessary collateral. This is best evidenced through the rail strikes that have caused continuous disruption across the UK inconveniencing thousands of people since June 2022. As a result of this action, they’ve now been offered a deal by Network Rail bosses and have agreed to suspend further strikes.
Sociological factors also incorporate trends and how people interact with the topic of industrial action. The key driver in spreading awareness and educating the public on recent industrial action has been RMT union boss Mick Lynch. In the past year, Mick Lynch has become a national figure. ‘#micklynch’ has received 40.8 million views on TikTok, with other hashtags, including #micklynchforpm, #welovemicklynch and #micklynchissuperman all receiving thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of views across TikTok and Instagram. Lynch has been the face of industrial action across news and media platforms, taking interview after interview to explain the need for trade unions and industrial action and his likeable manner has been incredibly successful. Dazed magazine described the British public as having “Mick mania”, adding that “the enthusiasm for Lynch expresses a longing for a better class of public figure, and across the internet you’ll see hundreds of people asking why politicians can’t be more like him”. Lynch was able to unite workers and educate thousands on the cruciality of trade unions, winning the battle of social media. After a long and difficult campaign, the RMT has now won a pay rise of 14.4% for its lowest paid workers and 9.2% for its highest. Although Lynch doesn’t represent other industries that have elected to take industrial action, he’s become a figurative representative of all workers demanding better pay. Without him, public engagement and media interest in the strikes wouldn’t have been anywhere near as substantial.
Strikes have a direct but often overlooked technological impact on businesses. As mentioned above, 2.474 million working days were lost between June and December 2022 due to strike action, resulting in a lack of data to assess industries. Data taken when assessing businesses and making comparisons between previous years has now been skewed by workers taking time off to strike. For example, one impact of NHS strikes was that a number of appointments were cancelled and thus couldn’t be captured in spending or real-time indicators.
Another example of this could be the change in public spending habits. During rail strikes there was a displacement of card spending towards taxi services and buses as consumers adapted their behaviour to mitigate the impact of strikes. Further, Pret A Manger experienced significantly less in-store transactions at stores located in train stations thus skewing its profit data. It’s worth noting, that a significant portion of recent industrial action was taken during other major factors and events making it increasingly difficult to distinguish the impact of the strikes on various data collections. The Queen’s death, cost-of-living crisis, and FIFA’s first winter World Cup all make it impossible to effectively isolate data changes caused because of strikes.
The key legal factor relating to the strikes is of course the government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. The bill, which passed its second reading in parliament back in February will enforce minimum levels of service are maintained during any industrial action undertaken by ‘essential’ services. The legislation will undermine the very essence of striking, which is disruption; it’ll also mean that workers who’ve voted to strike can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply. TUC general secretary Nowak called the bill “undemocratic, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal”. If enacted, the bill would completely reshape UK trade union law, limiting trade unions’ powers to cause the mass disruptions that are crucial to the success of strikes.
From a legal perspective, several questions have been raised about how the bill would work, particularly because:
it doesn’t define what ‘reasonable steps’ are;
it fails to prevent union leaders from encouraging non-member workers to refuse to cross the picket lines thus failing to address a different way to cause disruption; and
if skilled professionals in public services were fired due to striking, there’s no clear evidence as to how this would help improve public services already experiencing drastic staff shortages.
The environmental implications of industrial action may be less apparent than the political or economic, but they’re still crucial to understanding the impact of strikes. Industrial action led to:
commuters who may normally get the train deciding to drive or take taxis;
people working from home due to transportation interruptions;
a drop in the number of ambulance call outs;
consumers opting for in-person purchases over online orders; and
rubbish covering city streets.
Two perhaps more obvious environmental implications of the strikes were the effects of industrial action taken by transport workers. Disruptions led to commuters having to reassess their normal routes to work, with many instead choosing private car use which in turn contributes to an excess of carbon emissions. On the other hand, since the option was first made available during the 2020 pandemic, several workers worked from home on both days of rail strikes and days when schools were closed, enabling parents to also care for children who had been impacted by teacher strikes. Whether those who chose to work from home outnumbered those who used private cars on the days of the strikes is unclear, however the environmental implications of both are worth considering.
A decline in ambulance call outs is another environmental impact worthy of note. In December, when ambulance workers went on strike the volume of 999 calls fell by one-third. Some ambulance staff suggested the decline in calls was due to citizens only calling ambulances for serious or life-threatening injuries, thus allowing services to respond to those most in need quickly. It’s been suggested people often call ambulances for a number of ailments and illnesses that they don’t need immediate attention for, in effect treating ambulances as “an A&E taxi service”.
Postal strikes also impacted consumer spending, with many people opting for in-person purchases rather than their preferred method of next-day delivery, which is damaging to the planet. As a result of postal strikes, consumers could turn to purchasing from local small businesses that are more likely to stock environmentally friendly local produce, in turn reducing consumers’ carbon footprints.
Finally, refuse worker strikes in Glasgow and Edinburgh meant the city was covered in a mountain of rubbish. Refuse workers are responsible for keeping cities free from disease and vermin that come hand in hand with an accumulation of rubbish. To speak candidly, they’re the force that stands between us and a public health emergency. Their strike incurred an awareness surrounding the amount of unnecessary waste we generate. According to Scottish Environmental Protection Agency figures, Glasgow generated 266,000 tonnes of waste and recycled 79,000 tonnes in 2020.
Strikes are inherently a political issue; however, as this Wrestle with Pestle has demonstrated, UK strikes are a diverse and complex topic. From the intrinsically social nature of industrial action to the government’s anti-strike legislation, there are a multitude of intriguing factors that can help to dissect the causes behind and implications of the UK’s strikes. This is a topic that’ll likely remain relevant for the year to come, so stay up to date with industrial action developments in our commercial news round-up each week and remember if we can apply the PESTLE method to the strikes, so can you.