What are ‘essential’ workers?

Whenever a group of public sector workers contemplates industrial action, the government always condemns the move, which is unsurprising, but members of the right-wing commentariat begin openly musing about restricting the right to strike. We have seen this recently with the newest round of industrial action called by junior doctors, and although the strike scheduled for next week has been called off, many on the Right are still wished to revoke this right from junior doctors. The objection is based on two premises: strike action may cause avoidable deaths; and essential workers shouldn’t be allowed to go on strike. I have previously argued that making doctors work long hours with more patients will cause more fatalities than industrial action, but the subject of this piece will be challenging the idea of ‘essential workers’.

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Confrontation has prompted some on the Right to call for doctors to lose the right to strike. (PA)
When the issue of the right to strike is brought up opponents most frequently cite the armed forces and the police. A common argument is that transport workers, doctors, workers, nurses, firemen etc. shouldn’t have the right to strike because the police and armed forces do not. I would argue that this points top a misunderstanding of each of these professions.
For instance, a comparison between doctors and the police reveals this difference. What is the purpose of a doctor? It is to heal the sick and look after the well-being of their patients. The following hypothetical situation arises: what if a doctor believes that short term industrial action will prevent patients in the future from being put into a vulnerable situation? If this doctor believes that a successful programme of industrial action would allow them to care for sick more effectively, this professional would make a utilitarian calculation and support a strike. Despite what many are claiming, such a move is not a clear violation of the Hippocratic Oath because we are talking about the aggregation of harm. If strike action causes harm to patients over the period of a week, this is regrettable but the harm caused over a period of years will cause infinitely more harm.
To contrast a doctor with a soldier, I ask the same question: what is the purpose of a soldier? The government may use some cleverly crafted language to pretend that soldiering is about protecting people or serving communities but that is not true. The primary purpose of a soldier, and the armed forces more broadly, is to protect the British state. As pawns of the state, therefore, the government cannot allow these men and women to strike because to do so will leave them unable to coerce the citizenry, and a government without the ability to coerce its citizens has no authority. To once again bring in the idea of an oath, the military swears allegiance to the Queen and her dominions, which is a euphemism for the British government. There is a big difference between government-paid doctors and government-paid soldiers.
However in some cases opponents of strike action do not cit the police or the armed forces, and generally speak about prohibiting ‘essential workers’ from conducting strike action. The problem is that ‘essential’ services are not defined until a group of workers opt for industrial action. For example, one of the trade unions that has not been castrated of its militancy is the RMT. If London Underground staff go on strike, which hasn’t be uncommon in recent years, the Right argues that transport workers are essential and should have their right to strike removed. The reason, many say, is that people rely on transport workers in order to get to work, but this clearly reveals what is meant by essential workers.
According to these people a worker is ‘essential’ if others rely on his or her labour. The nature of national economies means that all workers rely on others in some capacity, so in essence they are saying that no worker should be allowed to go on strike. A union without the ability to take industrial action loses all bargaining power because the prospect of management losing money is off the table.
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All public service workers are essential, but that doesn’t mean they should be banned from strike action. (Getty)
What the right is trying to do is cloak their arguments in what is ‘reasonable’. In essence if a union goes on strike they will inconvenience people that were not involved in the dispute, and this is ‘unreasonable’. Many groups in society may sympathise with that line of argument but the alternative are strikes only being permitted when nobody is inconvenienced. The problem with that is this prohibits all forms of industrial action. ‘Essential worker’ is a label that can be used to strip employees of the right to strike as everyone in the public sector is relied upon to one degree or another.
Any threat to the right to strike is a threat to all workers, but we must adapt to the modern labour market. The solution is not to criminalise industrial action, but for the labour movement to change tack. We need to fight the narrative of the right-wing press by becoming involved in communities in new ways and adopting new strike tactics. In relation to the first we must revive the class consciousness of earlier eras, but also adapt to modernity. Obstinance is not the solution to the current lack of union power, the answer is flexibility. This means that we must seek to reduce the fragmentation of the Left and bring the trade union movement into community services. Putting a human face on the union movement is the key.
In regards to the second point, new industrial tactics are needed to end public hostility. For instance, rather than the transport workers of London withdrawing their labour (which allows the Right to decry the inconvenience for others) I would suggest turning up to work, but waving all fees. If bus drivers refused payment for tickets and all barriers at Tube and train stations were left open commuters would save money and TFL would lose huge amounts of money. New strike tactics shouldn’t be feared, but the right to strike must first be defended.
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